Great technical writing is to the point and fact-filled. Using my engineering writing style guide, you’ll improve your technical writing.
In return, you’ll help others understand and implement complex ideas. While avoiding costly mistakes and even worse, death. The following are examples of what you’ll write as an engineer:
- Calculation summaries
- Technical emails
- Drawing notes
This writing material is then read by the following groups of people:
- Other engineers
Great thing is, you don’t need to be the next Stephen King to become an awesome technical writer. Just follow my 6 pillars, no matter the field of engineering you’re in.
Pillar #1: Be clear and concise
Your readers probably aren’t as technically savvy as you. And you can’t expect them to know much. So, fill your writing with clear and concise details. Hold the reader’s hand step by step to prevent confusion.
As an example, below is a note I wrote for a contractor for their implementation of my design. I wanted the contractor to route a conduit between a new and existing panel. The existing panel would receive power from a new electrical service.
“Route conduit from 250A-3p breaker inside of new Pump Station #1 MCC to Meter/Main Switchboard #1 at Mont Building. After coordination with the 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.”
This note went along with a series of design drawings I had prepared. Together, they illustrated what I wanted the contractor to do. As well as to prevent confusion, mistakes, and change orders.
To point out, 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. This is why having empathy as a technical writer is critical.
Because a designer may not always have empathy, for the viewers of their designs. 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 produce amazing content.
Important Note: to write clearly, you need to understand the subject you’re writing on. Otherwise, you can’t break down complex subjects into simple words.
Pillar #2: Keep it simple
Engineering includes many difficult-to-understand hairy concepts. And making difficult subjects easy to read is no easy task. Especially, with all the big words thrown around.
Your goal though is, to make your writing be easy enough for an 8th grader to read. So keep your writing barebones. Even more, leave out your personality. No one cares about your personal writing style and what you like.
Next, write using a top-down approach. Start with your 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 on, you’ll come across deeper technical information. This method pulls readers in, and helps lay the foundation for detailed writing.
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 just enough details to make someone understand, but not more. Because certain things don’t need an explanation. To illustrate, let’s go back to my contractor’s note in Pillar #1.
If you noticed, I assumed the contractor has some level of knowledge. It’s not a far stretch, given contractors hold a license in construction. So 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
If I was directing my writing to an average joe though, I’d include more details. All in all, the intent is not to write a novel. The goal is to communicate your point concisely yet clearly. You as the engineer, need to make the judgment call on what to include based on your audience.
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. This makes your choice of words very important, as readers only want to absorb the following:
- What is the problem?
- How to fix the problem?
- How does it work?
When I read about how something operates, I don’t care about the “getting to know you” conversation. Just tell me how it works.
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, which leads 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 and fun to read, without using big technical words. This is why you’ll find me using a lot of fragment sentences. I find a looser writing style works better for casual readers online.
Now for a college paper, my writing style would be much more proper. With technical writing though, you need to forget what school taught as good writing. Because technical writing should be the following:
- Very specific
- Easy to understand
As a result, some sentences may not be grammatically correct. The end goal though 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 dumb myself down with the technicalities. But, I still make sure I don’t lose the core 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 can get your points across efficiently in simple words.
Of course, you still need to know basic grammar though. Like how to use a comma properly. 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 with a few commas? I know it’s a crazy example, but it conveys my point.
Small grammar mistakes can lead to incorrect implementation of designs. Not surprisingly, 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.
Again, this begins with relearning writing. Strip away the fluff, kick out the formalities, and scale up the details. All the while, keep your writing simple and scannable. This is my engineering writing style guide in a nutshell.
Even more, by adopting this way of writing, you’ll become a better engineer. Possibly a 10x engineer. You can better think through your designs and spot mistakes. After technical writing, I always gain a deeper understanding of a subject. This includes a better theoretical understanding of designs too.
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.