In this Chapter
- Discussion of the importance of writing in engineering
- Discussion of writing as a process with multiple steps aligned to DR PIE
- Benefits of writing for learning and thinking
- Strategies for optimizing the writing process (planning and writing better drafts, getting helpful feedback, and proofreading)
- Strategies for managing the writing process as part of a team
Communication skills have generally been one of the most underrated aspects of an engineer’s education. Many students enter their engineering programs expecting to use calculators and CAD rather than their writing and presentation skills, but writing and other forms of communication are among the most important skills an engineering student will learn.
An engineer’s work, no matter how impressive, is useless unless it is communicated to others. Engineers must be able to document their ideas in industry standard forms, such as project proposals, pitch presentations, lab reports, progress reports, and even daily project communications such as emails and status updates in team meetings.
An engineer’s work, no matter how impressive, is useless unless it is communicated to others.
That is not to say that technical writing or communication is effortless. It is a learned skill and, like any other skill, it must be practiced and honed. Technical writing is different from the style most students have done throughout high school, and if you are not careful in developing your communication skills for the work you will do as an engineer, technical documents can easily become dry and cumbersome and therefore less likely to achieve their purpose.
You have a great opportunity now—at the start of your engineering studies—to think strategically about how to become a better, more effective writer. It all begins with following an effective writing process.
You are likely familiar with the basics of the writing process (pre-write, draft, review, revise) from other writing classes. Those steps still apply to technical communication, but now you should also consider how the writing process aligns with the engineering design process, represented here as
DR PIE (Define, Represent, Plan, Implement, and Evaluate)
Thinking of it in these terms might help you shift your perspective to practice writing as a technical exercise.
Define: Evaluate the requirements and context.
- Read the assignment description (and rubrics) carefully—What is the purpose of the document? Who is the audience? Ask questions to ensure you understand the context for what you are going to be writing.
- Review available resources (templates, guidelines, examples) and keep them handy (download files, bookmark this guide, etc.).
- Research the document genre (lab report, memo, white paper, etc.) to enhance your understanding of the communication type.
Represent & Plan: Visualize and organize.
- Brainstorm, prewrite, and/or outline document sections
- Consider and discuss the voice and writing style for the document (determined by audience and purpose)—see Understanding Your Audience
- Create plan for drafting—What order will you draft the document sections in? If working with a team, who is responsible for which sections? How will you share progress and information? —See Managing Project Communications [Link]
To be successful, you must allow enough time to write in stages—draft, review, revise, and proofread.
To be successful, you must allow enough time to write in stages—draft, review, revise, and proofread. This is especially important when writing as a team. These are complex documents where precision and consistency are key—it is too easy to shift tone and voice, misrepresent data, or miss requirements if the whole team doesn’t take time to carefully contribute to and review the entire document.
Implement & Evaluate: Write—draft, review, revise, repeat.
This is the core part of the writing process, where you turn the information and your understanding of your audience’s needs and expectations into a piece of writing. The steps are shown here as linear, but look at the arrows in the diagram above and think of it as cyclical. You may need to repeat steps, moving back and forth between reviewing and revising multiple times before a document is complete.
Begin drafting (or writing) the document according to your drafting plan, but don’t be afraid to adjust the plan when needed—you might find your initial assumptions or understanding of the requirements have changed once you start writing.
- For the first draft especially, just write. Know it will not be perfect—get all of the information out, even if it’s messy at first.
- Don’t get locked into writing beginning to end—skip around, leave space or notes, highlight text → Having a solid understanding of the document requirements and a working outline of the document makes this much easier.
- Don’t worry about formatting, grammar, or mechanics—document the information and content first, then address writing style and mechanics.
Tips for writing better drafts
No one sits down and writes a perfect document from beginning to end, especially not complex technical documentation. Writing is a necessarily messy process, but many writers still get “stuck” as they’re writing, feeling like they have to get something just right before they move on and this is counterproductive because we often waste time on things that will be much easier to address later on.
Here are some simple strategies to help during the drafting process:
- Add notes/reminders for yourself to come back to using the comment feature or even just in text in brackets: [Need intro here–talk about the connection to the previous week’s findings] or [get updated data]
- Highlight or change text color to remind yourself that something needs further attention and you should come back to it.
- Keep a “junkyard” at the end of the document where you can cut and copy sentences or sections of text that you wrote but aren’t sure you should keep—it can be difficult to delete, so this can allow you to make a needed revision without feeling like you’re “losing” your work.
Review the document by assessing your own progress and requesting feedback from a variety of sources.
- Take a step back and look at what you have produced, assessing it against the requirements—Does it meet the requirements? Are there gaps? Do you have any questions?
- Ask reviewers to read the draft and provide feedback, focusing first on the ideas and organization (rather than mechanics and grammar).
- Review and assess the feedback—Do you agree with it? Does it align with your understanding of the goals and requirements of the assignments? Remember, you need to understand and evaluate the feedback, not just apply all “corrections” you are given.
Tips for a better review process
Request reviews and feedback from multiple sources who will provide different types of feedback—“internal reviewers” are those familiar with the project and its requirements, “external reviewers” are those who do not know the specifics of the project, but can still provide valuable feedback on the writing and logic of the document.
You might ask for feedback from:
- Group member
- TA (attend office hours or technical communications sessions, if offered)
- Peer (friends in other sections, people who have taken the class before, or just someone who is a good reader)
- Writing Center tutor
Set them up for success! Give your reviewers any information they need to understand the scope of the assignment and the requirements. Guide their attention to sections or issues that you need particular help with:
“The Introduction seems disjointed to me—please look carefully at that part.”
“I struggled with using the same verb over and over again, so I’d love your help finding different ways to describe that process.”
Re-write and re-organize the draft. “Re-vision” means “re-seeing” and “re-working” the piece of writing. This is not an easy process—it takes practice and time.
- Make significant changes to the writing. Work toward precise and concise sentences, focused and coherent paragraphs, logical transitions. [add links to Writing Style sections]
- Apply feedback from your reviews and go over the writing until all sections are complete and the document is clear and consistent throughout—check that the document is “whole,” has achieved its purpose (referring back to the assignment or request), and makes sense from beginning to end. The final document should be whole and logical.
Finally, proofread/copy edit and format the document—check for correct spelling, tense usage, and punctuation; and consistent fonts, spacing, page numbering, etc.
In many cases, you will be asked to write a document as a member of a team. The temptation might be to simply assign different sections to different team members, write them separately, and then stick them together, but this approach can cause problems with cohesion, completeness, and consistent writing style. Even worse, groups often find themselves in the position of relying on one or two “good writers” to “fix” the document at the last minute, putting undue burden on part of the team and robbing the others of a valuable opportunity to develop their writing skills.
Plan ahead and work to avoid these issues when you are assigned team writing projects. Here are some strategies to ensure that groups produce excellent writing as a team:
- Complete the “Define” step of the writing process as a group. Make sure everyone has a shared understanding of the requirements and involve everyone in the writing process from the first step.
- Use the “Drafting Plan” and the “Review” part of the writing process to make time for the team members to review each other’s writing.
- Identify strengths and weaknesses of the team members’ writing abilities, but do not exclude anyone from the writing process—everyone needs the chance to contribute and learn. Consider these strengths and weaknesses while you’re sharing feedback and helping each other revise.
- Allow adequate time for everyone to proofread the final document (together in person or online in a collaborative environment, like Google Docs), paying particular attention to and revising the following:
- Formatting (line spacing, margins, heading styles, numbered or bulleted lists)—errors in these visual elements are a giveaway that the document was pasted together.
- Paragraph length—if the paragraphs in one section are much longer than the paragraphs in another section, the writing begins to feel uneven.
- Writing style—issues related to Voice and Tone and Grammar and Mechanics should be addressed consistently; check that a consistent vocabulary and level of technicality are present across all sections.
- Transitions—it can be particularly helpful to focus on those points where one section shifts to the next and ensure that it is not abrupt or confusing.
- Cohesion—try to take a step back and read the document as if you are seeing it for the first time, asking if each piece works together and serves the overall purpose of the document.
The key with all of these strategies is to remind yourself that even if you are directly contributing only a part of a document, you still need to be concerned with the “whole.” Successfully writing as a group requires additional awareness, effort, and sometimes negotiation—these are valuable skills that deserve attention.
Establish good habits to support you as you learn and develop your skills in technical communication. Understanding and applying the approach to writing process outlined here are important steps toward developing good habits as a writer that will support your academic and professional progress in the future.
- Assess your strengths, weaknesses, and habits as a writer and develop strategies to improve your process.
- Approach writing projects as a multi-step process, based on the engineering design process.
- Allow ample time to write, evaluate, and revise in stages.
- Familiarize yourself resources that will help you with future writing projects.