My father was a mechanical engineer. He was also a clear, lucid writer who was fascinated by the English language and rarely at a loss for just the right word. Often, after we’d finished dinner, he’d hoist our enormous dictionary onto the dinner table and teach us—or discover for himself—a new word. And I can still picture him in the before-breakfast wee hours, knocking down the morning crossword. He seldom left it unfinished.
My uncle was a civil engineer. He, too, wrote well. His letters to me in high school often included clever, well-crafted stories (with recurring morals, alerting me to life’s potential dangers). What I most remember now about my uncle’s letters is that he wrote like he spoke. That gave his writing an easy-to-follow, fluid style.
Thanks to these two anomalies, I grew up thinking engineers liked to write.
After college, I went to work in technology as an English major hired to write technical documentation. There I discovered that most engineers and technical professionals didn’t like writing and, as a general rule, weren't particularly good at it.
Writing: It’s Part of the Job
What I didn’t stop to appreciate is that, as part of their jobs, engineers usually have to write, while writers rarely have to engineer. I’ve known many writers, but I’ve never met one who had to calculate the capacity of a bridge or develop an interface between two incompatible software products. But I have known many engineers who’ve had to organize ideas and information and turn them into coherent paragraphs.
Many engineers I meet say they’d like to be better writers, but they’re not sure where to start.
Here’s one idea: If you want to learn to write well, consult the works of great writers. For starters, you could read great novels. That’s an enjoyable and informative way to get close to literate, even inspiring, writing. You could also read how-to-write books by great writers. One caveat: There’s a lot of commercial how-to-write tripe out there by writers who aren’t great. Consult how-to-read advice from great writers only.
Concise Advice From a Couple of Experts
Who are they, these writers you can trust? Of course, there are many, but you don’t have time for that so let me narrow the field to two: Anne Lamott (her book on writing is Bird by Bird) and William Zinsser (his is On Writing Well). Both have a lot to say to business and technical writers, as well as to journalists and aspiring novelists. Their tips won’t make you a great writer but they will make you a better one, and should make the writing process easier for you.
Anne Lamott is a novelist and a writer of nonfiction. She insists you should always write drafts, and, especially, you should be content with terrible ones. Unfortunately, I can’t quote the chapter title here as it appears in her book because it contains a word that’s not welcome in G-rated publications. It’s a six-letter word that starts with “s” and means terrible. Yes, that word. It’s the first word in the chapter title, and it’s followed by “first drafts.”
Ms. Lamott says to plan on writing s----- first drafts. Bang out words and phrases without judging them, and keep banging, and things will begin to improve. Before long, you’ll have something in front of you—a connection of concepts, supporting data, stray details. Then you can start to reshape the draft into something your readers can make sense of.
Revising the draft: very important. Never settle for the s----- version.
Her recommendation is as relevant to engineering writers as it is to would-be novelists. Skipping the draft phase is like skipping the prototype phase. We shouldn’t expect to construct anything—a strategic plan, design documentation, or test cases—that’s clear and well-expressed without drafts and revision. Ever.
Now, on to advice from Mr. Zinsser. He’s been a journalist and nonfiction writer for decades, and his chapter “Simplicity” gets directly to the point: “Clutter is the disease of American writing.” The problem he’s talking about is a tendency towards pompous, convoluted phrases and a preference for long words over short ones. “Our national tendency,” he says, “is to inflate and thereby sound important. The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitation wouldn’t think of saying it may rain. The sentence is too simple—there must be something wrong with it.”
But there’s nothing wrong with it. Short, direct sentences, that use straightforward vocabulary, are always better.
When I taught writing and presentation skills in a graduate engineering program, many of my students had the horrible habit of inflating their writing with erudite words and measuring the worth of a sentence by its length. I became a browbeater, constantly begging them to “just say it” without all the jargon and padding. One young woman finally told me that the habit was hard to break because, back in Thailand where she’d done her undergraduate work, her professors had said insisted that long words and phrases made them “look smart.” And if there’s one thing a grad student wants to look, it’s smart. I did my best to talk her out of this crazy idea. I hope my former students aren’t out there writing “clotted language,” as Mr. Zinsser calls it.
Terrible: Conditions are verging on considerable precipitation.
Better: It’s about to rain.
Terrible: Varying propulsion systems are known to generate thrust in a multitude of measurably different and impactful ways.
Better: Different propulsion systems generate thrust differently.
It’s not only much easier to write this way, it’s also much easier on your readers.
A bit later in his book, Mr. Zinsser says, “Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation.” Engineers are likely to be very comfortable using words in conversation that don’t often crop for others. Words and phrases like “propulsion” and “quadrants” and “saturation levels” belong in conversation and on the page. You’ll use them because you need to. But leave them exposed, not buried in a wad of empty sentence-fillers intended to impress.
As you write, whisper to yourself short sentence. “There is no minimum length for a sentence that is acceptable in the eyes of God,” Mr. Z says.
In a section about punctuation, Mr. Zinsser has one bit of wisdom to offer about periods and short sentences: “There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.” Bottom line: In technical and business writing, breaking a long sentence into two is always a good idea.
In Management of the Absurd (an extraordinary little book on leadership and paradox), thought leader and psychologist Richard Farson points out that people want to improve themselves in ways they’re already good at. Runners want to run faster. Musicians want to master harder pieces. We don’t willingly and naturally dive into new territory when it comes to personal or professional improvement.
So if you’ve come to the end of this article and you’re still uninspired about becoming a better writer, I guess Dr. Farson would say that’s perfectly normal.
But you’ll still have to write, perhaps often. My goal is to make it easier for you and save you some time, and I hope that this has done so, at least to some small extent.
What other kind of help would you like? Let me know.
Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. More about Susan at www.speak-listen-lead.com.