When writing takes a backseat

When writing takes a backseat

I’ve been thinking about writing lately, particularly the skill involved and various writing styles and approaches to writing. It’s been talked about here on Engineer Blogs before. GEARS has talked about writing for labs and his particular preferences for the ritual of writing as well as writing proposals. And I’ve talked about technical writing before.

But I’m thinking today about more basic writing skills. As in natural spelling and grammar spells (which you know of course means I’ve just doomed myself to those sorts of mistakes in this post). How important are those kinds of skills to an engineer? I’ve seen plenty of engineers who lack these basic skills. Their handwritten notes often misspell the same word in several different ways within just a few sentences of one another. Their word documents often include homonyms and disjointed sentence fragments as well as run-on paragraphs.

Beyond these basics there also tends to be disagreement over how to convey an argument. I’ve had engineers argue that the wording of something was too technical and that it needed to be simplified: that even a manager who was formerly a high level engineer supposedly wouldn’t understand it. On the other hand, memos supposedly written by high intelligence individuals can come across as a spasmodic jumble of numbers and analyses rather than a coherent argument.

Getting everyone’s varying writing skills and styles to agree is no easy task. People can get very opinionated at what level of technical detail is appropriate. And criticizing an engineer’s spelling and grammar hardly ever seems relevant. It’s easy to argue that especially thanks to computers these skills are not even important to make one a good engineer. But for me it’s hard to watch them pass into irrelevance and sink below the importance of the technical aspect when good data is worth nothing if you can’t properly describe it and give it some background and significance.

(Photo from jjpacres)



I used to be one of those people who was really picky about grammar and spelling. I now remind myself, however, to look at the idea that is being written. A well organized mind will write well organized sentences, but it may not be able to handle details like grammar and spelling (especially in a situation where there may be dyslexia or another issue). However, when those issues are present in an incoherent mess of writing, I tend to be suspicious of their engineering skills, as well.

You can be a good engineer (eg competent, effective) without being a particularly good writer. However, it seems to me that as professionals, we don’t need to show our work as we did as students. Therefore, concise writing (as in: Giving a lot of information clearly and in a few words; brief but comprehensive) is very important.

One’s boss doesn’t really need to see the data; presumably they trust that one knows what one is doing. What the boss needs is a distillation of the information followed by analysis and recommendations.

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