Have you heard ever the phrase that someone “writes like an engineer”?
If you have, you’ll know that this is never meant as a compliment. It is used to disparage the writing skills of engineers who supposedly only care about math and science.
While they are usually blown out of proportion, most stereotypes begin with at least some basis in reality. So how did many arrive at the notion that engineers are poor writers? Is there some truth behind this claim?
This issue breaks down into three parts . . . First, who cares if engineers are, in fact, poor writers? Second, how did we get this point where many engineers are poor writer. Finally, what can engineers do to improve?
Who cares . . .
Looking for a job? In many cases, your first interaction with HR or a manager looking to hire a new engineer is your cover letter. You have just a few short paragraphs to win them over and see you as a potential hire. Missing this opportunity can be the difference between getting an interview or having your resume tossed in the trash.
Or perhaps you have submitted a proposal for a project your firm is trying to win. The quality of your engineering work is not being judged at this point and getting your foot in the door will depend on the quality of your writing.
Safety concerns are also a reason why an engineer should care about their writing. How many cases have there been where someone received an incorrect medication because a pharmacist misread a doctor’s handwriting. Yes, that is due to sloppy handwriting, but also a lack of clarity. After all your calculations and designs, you put the safety of your design in peril when you are not clear in your writing.
How did we get here . . .
First and foremost, engineering school just don’t focus on this skill. Unfortunately, writing is viewed by many in the engineering world as a peripheral skill at best and certainly not a core skill. By deeming it a peripheral skill, some may take it as an elective, but they are not forced to take any writing classes. Of note, I actually had a required writing class freshman year, but this is far from the norm in engineering schools.
When you take a history class, the primary focus is obviously history, but there is a secondary skill one learns by writing papers for these classes. Most science and math classes simply do not have this component and, therefore, don’t help you along with this skill.
To add to the problem, many engineers are not given the chance to use this skill in any real depth. Depending on the type of engineering in which one is engaged, the focus of the work can be on the research/calculation side and the amount of time spent on the writing is minimal. With little practice, it is no wonder many engineers are poor writers.
So what can you do to improve?
First and foremost, we can recognize writing as a crucial skill and make this a part of our engineering undergraduate coursework. I am a big fan of engineering students taking non-technical writing classes (personally, I took Creative Writing). I find that writing classes which are disconnected from technical details, you are provided with a higher level of writing instruction. That said, there is benefit to gain from a technical writing class as well if someone plans to focus more of their writing in this area. In short, any writing class is better than no writing class, so just pick one that fits your schedule.
Already out of school? Look into continuing education classes at your local college. I’d even approach your boss about having them reimburse the cost for the class as it is beneficial your work. Depending on your licensure, it is possible that a technical writing course will satisfy some of the continuing education classes you need to take each renewal period.
Here are several action steps you can begin today to improve your writing. Start with one or two and then expand to eventually include more of these tips:
- Find a writing class or meetup. Whether it counts for credit or continuing education is not important. The key here is to have a supportive group that can push you along.
- Find a place to write articles. If your company or engineering department has a newsletter, ask if you can make a submission. You can also always write an article on your LinkedIn account.
- Begin to think about your audience. When you are writing, think about the knowledge and vantage point of your reader. “Tech speak” may be great at portions of the report, but is likely not the best mode when presenting to an investor or CFO.
- Start a journal. Writing 15-20 minutes per day and taking some time to review your writing will help you improve.
- Read daily. Take note of the writer’s style and words with which you were not familiar. Use this as a way to expand your vocabulary and take note of grammar rules.
- Outline your work before writing. Having an outline will set down a path for your article or report to follow. This will give you greater clarity and focus by ensuring that one section flows to the next in a methodical manner.
- Take at least a 2 hours break between writing and editing. I always tell the students I mentor that they “Read what they THOUGHT they wrote”. You know the intentions of the article and it is very easy for your brain to fill in the blanks where your writing was lacking. Taking this break will reset your mode to some degree and allow you to look at the writing with a fresh look.
Next steps . . .
Did this article strike a cord with you? Has someone every told you that you “write like an engineer”?
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