Great technical writing conveys clear and accurate information. Using my engineering writing style guide, you’ll know what good technical writing is.
Important to realize, you don’t need to be the next Stephen King. But, to write like a great engineer, you need to have a certain level of writing skills. This applies to all types of engineering.
Technical writing helps others understand and implement complex ideas. So, bad writing can lead to costly mistakes and even worse, deaths. This is why engineers with poor writing skills aren’t desired in customer-focused positions. Bad wording of a sentence or two is enough to cause design failure.
Now, many engineers find writing to be a big part of their daily work. The daily tasks include writing the following:
- Calculation summaries
- Technical emails
This writing material is then read by the following groups of people:
- Other engineers
In my engineering writing style guide, I’ll go over 6 important writing pillars. Each pillar should help you become a better technical writer.
Pillar #1: Be clear and concise
Your readers probably don’t know all the engineering concepts you use.
Don’t expect them to know either. So, use a lot of details in your writing.
You don’t want someone to assume something incorrectly. You want your writing to be as clear as possible.
As an example, below is a note I wrote for a contractor for their implementation of my design. The note holds their hand for the work I want done.
As a summary, I wanted the contractor to route a new conduit. The conduit routes from a new service electrical panel to an existing one.
As a result, the existing panel will have many obsolete parts left inside. Because all the utility servicing parts are now in my new panel.
“Route conduit from 250A-3p breaker inside of new Pump Station #1 MCC to Meter/Main Switchboard #1 at Mont Building. After coordination with utility and District, penetrate Meter/Main Switchboard #1 breaker cabinet from the side using an LB condulet.
Land wires as shown on the line side of the existing 600A-3p breaker. Terminate ground from Pump Station #1 to Meter/Main Switchboard #1 ground bus.
Disconnect and remove all equipment from inside of the Meter/Main Switchboard #1 as shown, after coordination with the utility and the District.
Then use appropriate seal box covers for all exposed box openings.
Interconnect time to be limited to 24 hours. Coordinate with the utility and the District to establish the cutover schedule.
After the cutover, the contractor to coordinate with the utility and demolish the existing service.
For greater detail on Meter/Main Switchboard #1, see drawing set dated January 2000, prepared by engineering firm X.”
Keep in mind, this note went along with a series of drawings I had prepared too. The drawings with the text perfectly illustrated what I wanted the contractor to do.
All in all, I’m very detailed in my writing. I want to limit as much confusion and mistakes as possible.
But, an English professor wouldn’t consider my technical writing to be proper. And, this is okay.
The goal of a technical writer
Your goal is to make a reader understand a foreign subject. In other words, to make a complex subject sound simple.
Also, it’s great to have empathy as a technical writer.
What do I mean? A designer will not always have empathy for someone who first views their design. They may think everyone should just “get it” since they themselves get it.
But great technical writers place themselves in the shoes of uninformed readers. As a result, they always produce content all readers can understand.
Important Note: to write clearly, you need to understand the subject you’re writing on. Otherwise, you can’t write anything useful.
Pillar #2: Keep it simple
Engineering includes many difficult concepts. Some of the ideas can even make an engineer’s head spin.
Without question, making difficult subjects easy to read is a skill. Yes, technical writing will include some technical words, as we’re dealing with engineering.
Overall though, your writing should be easy enough for an 8th grader to read.
Thus, you want to keep your writing barebones simple. This includes leaving out your personality. No one cares about your personal writing style.
As well, write using a top-down approach. In other words, start with the basic ideas and then drill into the specifics.
For example, when you read a manual, you find the basic information presented first. Then as you read more, you’ll find the deeper technical information.
In short, great technical writers explain complex ideas in simple words.
Pillar #3: Keep it short
This sounds contradictory to Pillar #1. How can you keep it short yet add a lot of details?
The trick is to add all the details you think are necessary, but not more.
What I mean is, certain things don’t need an explanation. As an engineer, you need to know what needs explaining and what doesn’t.
Let’s go back to my contractor’s note in Pillar #1 as an example.
If you noticed, I assumed the contractor has some level of knowledge. It’s not a far stretch, given contractors need to earn a license to practice.
Thus, in my note I didn’t explain the following:
- What a conduit is
- What tools to use to penetrate the existing panel
- How to demolish the existing panel
- The safety measures the contractor needs to follow
As I mentioned, the engineer needs to make the judgment call on what to include. You need to know your audience.
If I wasn’t directing my writing to a contractor, I’d include more details. But, since I’m writing to a contractor, I kept it short.
All in all, the intent is not to write a novel. The goal is to communicate your point concisely yet clearly.
Pillar #4: Get rid of fluff talk
Fluff talk is sometimes good. For example, if you’re speaking with business folks, you want to add fluff talk to your writing. Pad your words as they say.
But with pure technical writing, you want to jump straight into your point. Just dish it out.
Be very specific and drive right to the point you want to make. This makes your choice of words very important. Because readers only want to absorb the following:
- How does it fix my problem?
- How does it work?
- What are the problems?
- How do we improve it?
When I read about how something operates, I don’t care about the “getting to know you” conversation. Just tell me how it works.
Funny thing is, this way of writing is a great way to build professional relationships. If you can dish great information to me efficiently, we’ll build an instant bond. Because I know you get it.
Think of the instructions you find in the furniture you buy at IKEA. You’ll find clear short written assembly steps. So yes, technical writing is dry. And this is probably why you hear the following a lot:
- Why is engineering writing so boring to read?
- How come engineers’ writing is only aimed at other engineers?
- Why can’t engineers write using any persuasion?
There’s some truth to these questions. But again, technical writing isn’t meant to entertain you. If you want entertainment, go pick up a novel.
Technical writing serves a different purpose. Plus, any great engineer is flexible with their writing. This leads us to my next pillar.
Pillar #5: Write to your audience
Know your audience!
Depending on who you write to, your writing style will differ. Your content will differ too.
If you’re writing to other engineers, your writing needs to be straight to the point as I discussed.
But, if you’re writing to business people, you’ll use a different writing style. You’ll blend technical writing with formal writing.
Like in this blog, my writing style differs a lot from how I write in my engineering work. Here I try to make my writing scannable. I limit the use of big technical words.
In short, I want my writing to be fun to read. This is why you’ll find a lot of fragment sentences here. I find a looser writing style works better for casual readers online.
Now for a college paper, my writing style would be even more different. My writing would be much more proper.
With technical writing though, you need to forget what you learned in school. I’m talking about what schools classify as “good writing”. Because technical writing is:
- Very specific
- Easy to understand
As a result, some sentences may not be grammatically correct. The end goal is to only communicate your point efficiently. If this means using improper grammar, then so be it.
All in all, you need to adapt your writing style to your readers. I often find myself writing to people who could care less about technical details.
So, I need to dumb myself down without getting too technical. But also, make sure I don’t lose the important technical points I want to get across.
Pillar #6: Use good grammar
In the grand scheme, perfect Shakespearean grammar isn’t super important. Especially if you’re able to get your points across efficiently in simple words.
Of course, you still need to know basic grammar. Like how to use a comma properly. This is a given. For example, the following is an example of poor grammar gone wrong:
Poor grammar: The contractor shall have drilling people and foundation skills.
Good grammar: The contractor shall have drilling, people, and foundation skills.
Do you see how the meaning of the entire sentence changed because of a few commas? I know it’s a crazy example, but you get the point.
Small grammar mistakes can lead to incorrect implementation of designs. I’ve seen it.
This further drives my point home. Technical writing will suffer from poor grammar.
“How to write like an engineer?” wrap up
Writing like a great engineer isn’t easy. In fact, you can be the greatest engineer on the planet. But if no one understands you, you’ll quickly lose a lot of your effectiveness. So, you need to be able to mix technical concepts with good writing skills.
And I know, school taught us to write a certain way. But with engineering writing, you need to shuffle what you’ve learned. In other words, strip away a lot of the fluff writing. Then kick out the formalities and scale up the details. All the while, keep your writing simple and readable. This is my engineering writing style guide in a nutshell.
Even more, by adopting this way of writing you’ll become a better engineer too. It’ll help you think through your designs and spot mistakes. After doing technical writing, I always gain a deeper understanding of subjects. This includes a better theoretical understanding of designs I even did myself.
What’s your favorite pillar from my engineering writing style guide? What do you find most important in technical writing?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.