Does the thought of writing a report, presentation, or even an email fill you with dread? Writing is a challenge for many technical professionals, but following a few simple steps and taking the time to practice can make writing easier.
“No matter what field they’re working in, writing is likely to be an important part of an engineers’ daily tasks,” says Richard House, president of the IEEE Professional Communication Society and coauthor of The Engineering Communication Manual.
House, a professor of English at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, in Terre Haute, Ind., has a number of ways for engineers to improve their writing and grow more confident in their abilities.
1. Know Your Audience
Before sitting down to write, consider who’ll be reading your work. Is it another engineer, your manager, a customer, or someone else?
“Analyzing the needs of your audience is a technical process, just like any engineering challenge,” House says. It’s less about reading someone’s mind than understanding how different technical professionals think and what they’ll do with the information you’re giving them. Understanding your audience’s level of tech knowledge, their roles in an organization, and what information they need to get out of what you write are important in shaping how you should write for them.
2. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff at First
Once you understand your audience, start writing. Crafting that first draft can present a lot of questions. Does this sentence need a comma? When should I use a semicolon or colon? Is the verb the right tense? However, don’t let these questions stop you.
“Worrying too much about grammar and the mechanics of writing can distract you from the critical thinking aspect,” says Jessica Livingston, associate professor of English at Rose-Hulman and House’s coauthor of The Engineering Communication Manual.
Don’t worry about getting every word or punctuation mark right the first time around, Livingston advises. Let the writing flow. Start the editing process after you finish your first draft.
3. Take a Fresh Look
Distancing yourself from the piece often provides insight, Livingston says.
“I always recommend that people take some time away from their document,” she says. That can be difficult when the deadline is pressing, but taking a break for even a few hours, she says, allows you to look at the document with fresh eyes. This can help you clarify the points you’re trying to make, pick out and eliminate repetitive ideas, and find errors to fix, she says.
“Reading your work aloud can also help,” House points out. “You hear mistakes that you wouldn’t see on the page.”
Also, you might want to ask colleagues to proofread your work before you turn it in, he suggests. Just as with coding, having someone review your work can reveal areas that need clarity or more detail.
The rewriting process itself, Livingston says, serves as a great learning tool and confidence builder. “I know I’m improving,” she says, “when I’m able to revise my own writing.”
4. Reading is Essential
House and Livingston recommend that engineers read as much and as broadly as possible. House suggests reading newspaper articles, blog posts, and novels to learn different storytelling techniques. This strategy not only broadens your perspective, and vocabulary, but also helps you understand how different authors write for their audiences. You can also review engineering documents to see how others communicate similar ideas.
And, of course, it never hurts to read textbooks and other materials geared toward better writing, like The Engineering Communication Manual and classics such as The Elements of Style.
The IEEE Professional Communication Society has resources for engineers on its website, covering reports, presentations, podcasts, and other communication tasks.
5. Practice Makes Perfect
The formula is simple: The more you write, the better you’ll get. “Writing is a skill you can practice and improve on,” Livingston says.
“It gets better and easier over time,” House adds, and you might even learn to enjoy it. A lot of engineers find that with practice they actually get quite good at writing. And becoming a good writer, he says, is important. Although many engineers may feel writing is not an important part of their job, “it’s key to succeeding in their field,” House says.