Learn to Write
by DeWayne B. Sharp
The typical scientist or engineer is expected to spend more time writing these days than ever before. What is more, the further you hope to advance in salary, and executive responsibility, the more you will have to write. Nearly fifty years ago Peter Drucker wrote an article in Fortune Magazine entitled, How to Be an Employee. One paragraph in that article is so appropriate today that I must share it with you.
As soon as you move one step up from the bottom, your effectiveness depends on your ability to reach others through the written or spoken word. And the further away your job is from manual work, the larger the organization of which you are an employee, the more important it will be that you know how to convey your thoughts in writing or speaking. In the very large organization, whether it is the government, the large business corporation, or the Army, this ability to express oneself is perhaps the most important of all the skills a man or woman can possess.
What he wrote in 1952 is even more important today. In a survey of top management in 100 prominent American organizations, the number one obstacle impeding the advancement of engineers today is the failure to communicate their ideas effectively.
If I had to boil down my advice to aspiring technicians and engineers who must write, and give them a single piece of advice, I'd say any good writing (technical or not) must be written from the reader's, not the writer's, point of view. Ask yourself what the reader wants to know, and tell it to him. The writer of a report or technical article must start with the assumption that the reader, although intelligent and well informed, knows nothing about the work described in the paper or report.
In almost every situation, the reader will have two questions in mind. The first is, "What is this all about?" The next question almost inevitably is, "What am I supposed to do about it?" Successful writing answers both questions.
To write to the reader, you must know your audience. The reader's level of technical knowledge will certainly be a factor, but perhaps even more important might be their reason for reading your information. A professor or instructor certainly reads material much differently than a manager or businessman. If you are writing to other engineers or scientists, you may phrase your writing differently than if you are writing to those who lack technical knowledge. Therefore, you must keep your reader's needs in mind at every stage in the writing of a report or technical paper.
Engineers and other technical folks aren't stupid or lazy. Obviously, they were smart enough to learn the technology they practice. Unfortunately, they often tend to be so narrowly focused that anything, which doesn't directly (in their mind) apply to their technological discipline, isn't worth the bother. As a result, many of my contemporaries (and the current generation too) never really learned how to write at all, let alone how to write well. I'm sure you've read about the lamentable state of our schools, and how many entering university freshmen can't read and write well enough to do college level work. What is worse, it doesn't get much better when you look at university graduates.
A few years ago, one of my friends was asked to review some Master's theses at a rather prestigious California University. He was appalled by the quality of writing done by these candidates for a Master's degree. His comment was that, based on these theses, none of these authors could have passed a properly constituted high school English Composition course. I could sympathize with him, and was able to relate to his comments, because I had occasion to judge papers entered in the now defunct ISA Student Paper Competition. I can understand how someone might give short shrift to a quick internal report to management or an interoffice memo. But when a person writes a paper for a competition, with a substantial prize at stake, it seems logical that the writer would at least run a spell check.
Good writing isn't something you can leave to some technical writer. If you, the engineer or technician, can't communicate well enough to be understood, you will never be successful in your technical work. Yes, I realize that writing the documentation is drudgery and that you would rather do real work...to have fun...but as the cartoon I used to have on my office wall of a little boy sitting in an outhouse so aptly said, "The job ain't done 'till the paperwork is completed."
This is obviously a soapbox topic for me, but it is one, which bears repeating periodically. If I can convince you of the need or benefit in learning to write clear and grammatical sentences and of punctuating your writing properly, we will have made a quantum leap forward in our quest for better communication.
If you'd like to talk about this or any other subject, please feel free to communicate with me anytime. My address is 296 Marlene Drive, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405-1024. You can send me an email message to: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can call me at (805) 781-0711 or send a fax to me at (805) 781-0714.