Back to the Basics: Technical Writing Tips for Engineers
I’ve teamed up with Skylar Wooden, a Technical Writer, and Katie Butler, a CPA, the ladies behind Pare and Flourish to bring you some technical writing tips for engineers.
Engineers are incredibly knowledgeable people. You understand how to design and build the most complex of structures. You analyze and evaluate intricate data. But, many engineers miss one of the most important aspects of any profession—explaining your work to others. Whether it’s to tell someone how to perform a task, or report on a project to a superior, relaying information is just as critical as knowing the information.
As an engineer, you can offer your expertise in two ways: verbal or written communication. You likely deal with the verbal aspect of this on a daily basis when you answer questions, explain a process, or even talk about your job with your friends. So, how often are you writing?
No matter your skill level, if you’re not writing consistently, you’re bound to lose some of your technical writing knowledge. That one class in college would really come in handy when you need to write a report, huh? Few of us want to retake courses. So, instead, let’s cover the basics:
Stay on Task
People go on tangents while they talk because humans do not think in a straight line. We think and then connect. Unfortunately, what we connect to doesn’t always help us support our main point. The same goes for writing.
A good way to practice this is to make an outline. You’ve heard this in every English class since elementary school. You may be tired of that suggestion, but it works. The next paper you write, note the headers on a separate document and list the main points you need to mention.
The visual representation of your train of thought will help you refer back to your main point without floating away from your message.
Use Concise Wording
Any writer will tell you that not every word you write is a gem. Even the most trained technical writers use unnecessary words and awkward phrases at times. The best way to avoid using long, wordy sentences is to write everything you can, and delete. If it’s a report, for example, write an entire section before going back with a colored ink pen to strike out any words that are not directly necessary.
Example: “I observed that the bridge was constructed in the center of the park so as to prevent crowding. The bridge is able to withstand 75 miles-per-hour winds in the event that a tornado occurs.”
Fix: “I observed that the bridge was constructed in the
center of the park park’s center so as to prevent crowding. The bridge is able to can withstand 75 miles-per-hour winds in the event that a tornado occurs.”
See how we took every opportunity to replace multiple words with one? Or how we took out whole phrases that are implied? The more concisely you write, the more quickly a reader will understand.
Second to your wording, formatting is the most important element of technical writing. Your readers will be able to quickly follow your document if you do the following:
- Use short paragraphs (no more than four sentences).
- Use headers and subheaders to signify big ideas from elements of an idea.
- Use no more than two font types (if you choose two, use a sans serif for your headers and serif for your body text, explanation below).
- If you are printing a document, it is common practice to use two font types: sans serif and serif. The sans serif font is used as a header and the serif is used for body text. This style increases your document’s readability and makes it easier for the reader to skim.
- If your document is meant to be read digitally, it is common practice to use sans serif font. This style increases readability for text to be read on screens.
- Use bullets for lists. If the list is sequential, use numbered bullets.
Short paragraphs increase the readability of your document. People are less likely to read a long paragraph because they think it will be boring. When you break it up by smaller ideas, you’re allowing your reader to quickly skim.
You want your readers to easily identify your main points. For example, this article’s main points are Stay on Task, Use Concise Wording, Format Matters, and Always Edit. This is easily signified by the bold section headers. There are numerous ways to signify different levels of information, it’s up to your discretion which to use.
A few ways to signify different levels of information are:
- Bullet points or numbered lists;
- Bold font; and
- Headers with larger font (2pts. larger).
This sounds like a given; however, many people do not edit their work. In spite of paying attention to every word you wrote, there are still errors. Promise. If there aren’t, that’s great, but you’ll be able to see the document through the reader’s eyes. You may see that you need to add a header or that the list you wrote needs numbered bullets.
You should especially edit after you delete your unnecessary wording. You may find that you’ve deleted a word you don’t need and then realize that the sentence no longer makes sense without it.
The best editing advice is to read your writing out loud to yourself. Once you spend hours on a document, it will seem correct because you know what you meant. Reading aloud is the easiest way to catch those errors.
Even if you don’t like to write, following these tips will make your documents look as professional as if you’d hired a writer. When you spend much of your time focused on your technical work, some communication skills may fall by the wayside. Improving your writing skills will make you an even more effective engineer.
Like what you read? You can check out more professional development insights from Skylar and Katie at PareandFlourish.com!