IMPROVING YOUR TECHNICAL WRITING SKILLS
Reading, writing, and 'rithmetic. Engineers know the first and the third basics well, but some have trouble with the second.† Learn how to master this extremely important skill.
By Robert W. Bly
††††††††††† Three obstacles that prevent engineers, managers, and other professionals from turning out good technical prose are a lack of prewriting planning; mastering the writing process; and overcoming procrastination and writer's block. Let's take a look at ways to overcome these hurdles.
††††††††††† Before you begin any kind of writing project, give yourself the TAP test--TAP for, "Do I understand my Topic, my Audience! and my Purpose?''
††††††††††† Effective writing begins with a clear definition of the specific topic you want to write about. The big mistake many engineers make is to tackle a topic that's too broad. For example, the title ''Project Management'' is too all encompassing for a technical paper. You could write a whole book on the subject. But by narrowing the scope, say, with the title " Managing Small Projects on limited Budgets,'' you get a clearer definition and a more manageable topic.
††††††††††† You should also have a clear picture of your audience the people who will read your document. Are you writing for engineers?† Sales reps? Define the audience so that you'll know how much background information to include and how technical you should get.
††††††††††† It's also important to know the purpose of the document. You may say, '' that's easy the purpose is to give technical information.'' But think again. Do you want the reader to buy a product? Change methods of working? Look for the hidden agenda beyond the mere transmission of facts.
††††††††††† OK. You've passed the TAP test. The next step is to do some homework, and to gather information on the topic at hand. †Most engineers I know don't do this. When they're writing a trade-journal article, for example, their attitude is, ''I'm the expert here. So I'll just rely on my own experience and know-how."
††††††††††† And that's a mistake. Even though you're an expert, your knowledge may be limited, your viewpoint lopsided. Gathering information from other sources publications, even your colleagues helps round out your knowledge or, at the very least, verify your own thinking. And there's another benefit:† backing up your claims with facts is a real credibility builder.
††††††††††† Once you've crammed a file folder full of reprints and clippings, take notes on index cards or a word processor. Not only does note taking put the key facts at your fingertips in condensed form, but reprocessing the research information through your fingers and brain puts you in closer touch with your material.
††††††††††† Next, make an outline. While not necessary on shorter pieces such as letters and memos, an outline can be a great help in organizing longer documents It's important to have a basic organizational scheme before you start writing--without a map to guide you, you can't find your way.
††††††††††† Fortunately, there are standard organizational structures for most types of writing. The organizational scheme you select should logically fit your subject matter. An article titled "The Planets of the Solar System," for example, could be organized according to the positions of the planets, starting with Mercury and moving outward from the sun. A booklet on vitamins might be arranged alphabetically, beginning with vitamin A and ending with zinc.
††††††††††† Once you gather facts and decide how organize the piece, the next step is to sit down and write. When you do, keep in mind that the secret to successful writing is rewriting.
††††††††††† You don't have to get it right on the first draft. The pros never do. E.B. White, essayist and co-author of the writer's resource book The Elements of Style, was said to have rewritten every piece nine times.
††††††††††† Maybe you don't need nine drafts, but you probably need more than one. Use a simple three-step procedure that I call SPP--Spit, Prune, and Polish.
††††††††††† When you sit down to write, just spit it out. Don't worry about how it sounds, or whether the grammar's right, or if it fits your outline.† Just let the words flow.† If you make a mistake, leave it. You can always go back and fix it later.† Some engineers find it helpful to talk into a tape recorder; others prefer dictation.† If you can type and have a typewriter or computer, great. Some old-fashioned folks even use pen and paper.
††††††††††† In the next step, pruning, type up your first draft (double- or triple-spaced, for easy editing) and give it major surgery. Take a red pen to the draft and slash out all unnecessary words and phrases. Rewrite any awkward passages to make them smoother, but if you get stuck, leave it and go on; come back to it later.† Use scissors and tape to cut the draft apart and reorganize to fit your outline or to improve on that outline.† Then type a clean draft.† Repeat the pruning step if necessary as many times as you want.
††††††††††† In the final stage polish your manuscript by checking such points as equations, units of measure, references, grammar, spelling, and punctuation.† Again use the red pen and retype it.
††††††††††† Even with this process, some engineers still freeze up when required to produce a report or proposal.† Here are some tips to overcome the dreaded writerís block:
††††††††††† Break the writing into short sections and write one at a time.† Tackling many little writing assignments seeing less formidable a task than taking on a large project all at once.† This also benefits the reader.† Writing is most readable when it deals with one simple idea rather than multiple complex ideas.† Your entire paper canít be simple or restricted to one idea but each section of it can.
††††††††††† Write the easy sections first.† If you canít get a handle on the main argument or idea of your report or paper start with something routine to get started and build momentum.
††††††††††† Write the abstracts, introductions and summaries last.† Although they come first in the final document, it doesnít make sense to try to sum up or abstract a paper that hasnít been written.† Yet many technical authors do just that.
††††††††††† Avoid grammar-book rules and English-class writing habits that inhibit your writing, such as the rule that every paragraph must begin with a topic sentence, a first sentence that states the central idea of the paragraph.† Professional writers don t worry about topic sentences or ending with a preposition--and neither should you.
††††††††††† Sleep on it.† Put your manuscript away and come back to it the next morning--or even several days later.† Refreshed, youíll be able to edit and rewrite effectively and easily.
††††††††††† These tips should help eliminate some of the fear and anxiety you may have about writing, as well as make the whole task easier and more productive.† Finally, keep in mind that success in writing--or any form of communication--is largely a matter of attitude:† if you donít think writing is important enough to take the time to do it right, and you donít really care about improving, you wonít. But if you believe that writing is important and you want to improve you will.
About the Author:
Bob Bly, an independent copywriter and consultant, can be reached at 174 Holland Avenue, New Milford, NJ† 07646† (201) 599-2277