Writing is typically thought to be a discipline that only academics or lawyers or, I guess, bloggers, need to possess. But good written communication skills are actually essential for engineers. Today, it is imperative that engineers write effectively, as the need for engineers to possess a diverse skill set continues to grow.
It’s true – some engineers are far more likely to dirty their hands in an industrial setting than to develop carpal tunnel syndrome because they spent too much time composing pages of detailed test reports, procedures, or engineering specifications. Still, the fact remains that, in a highly litigated world where minute technical details of engineering work are increasingly being scrutinized, all engineers must possess effective written communication skills.
Today’s engineer increasingly must be able to effectively and concisely document important, complex technical details in a written format that is readable and able to be comprehended for future engineering dissection. If the engineer’s written documentation cannot be clearly understood, the work runs the risk of becoming almost useless to future generations of engineers.
An engineer must write as clearly as possible, taking special care to quickly define all variables and nomenclature used in the dissertation. The challenge, of course, lies in doing this efficiently with complex, technical subject matter.
This type of writing is necessary to communicate in a manner that can be understood by a wide range of potential audiences. There are a few practical disciplines that an engineer can use to improve and hone writing skills to achieve a highly effective written communication of technical subject matter.
Read everything everywhere
This is probably the quickest and easiest way for the engineer to beef up his/her vocabulary as well as gain familiarity with sentence construction and a general sense of how ideas are linked together in the articulation of a complete (or complex) thought. Certainly, the engineer need not possess Shakespeare’s vocabulary to communicate engineering principles, but there is still something valuable about reading well-written texts of all genres. There is also significant value to be gained by a daily, thoughtful reading of a few select articles in local newspapers in order to understand how to write informatively.
Certainly, the engineer should pay particular attention to technical writings such as academic papers and/or trade articles. These sorts of publications typically present extremely technical, complex concepts, ideas, and conclusions and ideas in a clear concise manner. By pure osmosis, the engineer imbibes a significant amount of good practices and best writing principles simply by reading.
Brush up on basic grammar
While it certainly isn’t necessary for engineers to wield a complete knowledge of every intricacy of the English language, especially on more obtuse topics, a prerequisite for effective written communication is a firm grip of basic grammar rules such as subject/verb agreement and/or pronoun use (who vs whom). The meticulous, consistent application of proper grammar rules serve to pave the way for the enumeration of complex engineering writing, ensuring that concepts are clearly articulated without ambiguity, leaving nothing open to spurious interpretation.
Additionally, the fact is that poor grammar reflects negatively on the engineer’s technical analysis and subsequent conclusions. If the engineer is unable to master basic grammar and style mores, how can he/she be trusted to accurately peg the complex nuances of technical engineering analysis? The engineer must strive for perfection in both technical areas and non-technical presentation of writing.
In the internet age, there is now no legitimate excuse for ignorance of any subject matter, including style and grammar rules. Websites like GrammarBook.com have a great free resource section packed with numerous sections on style and writing, but probably the most useful tool for everyday casual use is the Grammarly internet browser (and Microsoft Office add-in). The tool functions as a beefed up autocorrect or spellcheck tool and helps the user write more clearly, avoiding common grammar pitfalls, as the tool helps identify grammar and style mistakes as words are typed.
Don’t neglect mundane daily writings
The best way to become better at almost anything is to practice relentlessly, and writing is certainly no exception. Engineers that write frequently find that the discipline comes far easier to them and they are able to write clearly, more effectively in a far more efficient manner than engineers who do not write frequently. Certainly, not all engineers get frequent opportunities to compose lengthy, detailed technical reports, but most engineers engage daily in somewhat trivial written communications, be it simply the composition of an email to a supervisor or even simply recording notes in an engineering log book. It is during this daily discipline that careful attention to grammar details and style should be carefully heeded to ensure that concepts and ideas are clearly presented.
Arguably, written communication is just as important to the engineer as verbal communication, for the simple fact that written documents preserve essential technical bases behind daily engineering decisions. Even in daily, seemingly mundane communications and derivations, the engineer must exercise careful writing disciplines in order to hone the skills required for more detailed technical documentation.
Written communication skills may not come naturally to the typical engineer and, unfortunately, opportunities for effective development of writing skills are certainly not afforded frequently enough. However, this does not excuse the engineer from the development of this skill. There are still numerous opportunities to daily practice disciplines that will polish neglected writing skills and enable the engineer to be ready with the skills to effectively convey difficult engineering concepts.