(some) How Engineers Write: Technical Writing. Abigail Reed

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1 (some) How Engineers Write: Technical Writing Abigail Reed Advanced Composition 1 Mrs. Goransson 9 March 2013

2 Reed 1 (some) How Engineers Write: Technical Writing Engineers are expected to know how to write, but most cannot, despite that ability being a crucial part of expanding the use of technology through written instructions such as manuals and reports. Those manuals are read every day by people putting together a crib or rewiring circuits, and are often crucial to the successful completion of the project. Because technical writing is a large part of what engineers do and what people read, it has guidelines that go with it and allow others to understand it. Technical writing is essential to many occupations besides engineering, and thus everyone should know how to use it correctly ( Technical Writing ). What Technical Writing Is Technical writing includes many processes and types of writing. This type of writing is generally used when engineers need to produce information on a technical subject that has to be read by someone who does not have an in-depth knowledge of the topic at hand. Oftentimes, the audience does not understand technical jargon that would be used by a scientist or engineer, and technical writers need to be able to put the information into terms that the common people will understand ( Major: Technical Writing ). Technical writing is generally used for two basic purposes: 1. To inform 2. To persuade. A tech. report can be used for the physical descriptions of a new machine, the steps in a particular process, or the results of an experiment (Jamal). Writing in this form can be confusing, but there are several points that must be considered to make it less confusing. How to Write Technically Complex subjects are often dealt with when using technical writing, and so there are several guidelines that should be followed to make this type of writing understandable. There are five steps to successful technical writing, according to Gerald Alred, the author of books about

3 Reed 2 technical writing, which are preparation, research, organization, writing, and revision. Before attempting to write technically, the audience that is being written to must be considered, and the writer must plan [his] project before [he] begins drafting (Kelley). The audience being written to changes how the author should compose the paper, as the nature of the audience determines the level of technical detail, the amount of context/background information you provide, and the organization of the document ( Characteristics of Technical Writing ). Every audience requires a different approach to a document, and frequently these technical documents are written towards several audiences, and must be adapted to draw the attention of each. According to Robert Bly, a chemical engineer, writing should be built around the needs, interests, and desires of the reader. The second component of a technical paper accurate information. There is usually little room for opinions because technical and scientific writing is grounded in fact It is important to always report the facts about a particular experiment, even if those facts are not what were expected or desired ( Characteristics of Technical Writing ). The facts make the piece of writing. This also applies to writing instructions for a piece of equipment or the like, because if the author does not correctly report the steps to using the equipment, the purchaser will not be able to use it. The basic structure of writing a technical paper is similar to those of any other type of writing. Technical writers should have clear organization in writing and logical reasoning. They should write clear and concise sentences. They should follow the standard conventions of grammar, punctuation, and other mechanics (Manivannan). Just because it is technical writing does not mean that the usual rules of English can be ignored. In fact, these should be especially

4 Reed 3 paid attention to, because a mistake can lead to misinterpretation of the document. These are the basics, but there are many errors that are commonly made, even by the most experienced writer. Common Errors One of the biggest issues among papers written by engineers who cannot write is dull prose. This makes the document less exciting and harder to read, because it doesn t capture the reader s attention and is often too long. Authors can make their writing less time-consuming for [readers] to read by telling the whole story in the fewest possible words (Bly). These clichéd phrases and fluff take away from the meaning of the paper, and so they should be simplified or removed to make a piece easier to understand. Big words and the technical jargon known as technicalese also seriously detract from a technical document, because the reader is often unable to decipher what the author is trying to say. These terms are often unnecessary. Big words may make a piece of writing sound important, but fancy language frustrates the reader Avoid using jargon just because the words sound impressive (Bly). The author of a paper that uses this overblown diction often thinks that he sounds knowledgeable by using the big words, but it merely detracts from the paper. A glossary is something that not every piece of technical writing needs, but is usually useful, especially when an author is inclined to using big words. An author should not assume that the readers will remember every technical term or acronym the first time it is introduced. Rather than having to explain the same terms several times, create an alphabetical glossary that can be referenced whenever needed (Wood). If a piece of writing is going to involve a lot of technical terms that cannot be avoided, a glossary is a very useful tool for a reader to reference. Along with big words and dull prose come lengthy sentences, which are frequently hard to understand, because the reader has to go back and re-read the sentence to comprehend the

5 Reed 4 meaning. These too-long sentences tire the reader and make your writing hard to read. A survey by Harvard professor D.H. Menzel indicates that in technical papers, the sentences become difficult to understand when they exceed 34 words in length (Bly). These sentences become confusing in the span of a few extra words. Long sentences can usually be broken up into shorter, easier to understand sentences, and should be. However, a piece of writing without these errors can be very effective and useful. Example In this example, the author is talking about the use of wind turbines in a residential setting, and avoids many of the common errors. As the wind passes through the blades of the turbine, the energy in the wind is converted to rotational motion by the blades. The rotor blades then turn the shaft, which transfers the motion through the components of the nacelle. Through the connection between the shaft and the generator, the rotation in the shaft is converted into electricity by the generator. The electricity is then sent through the cables down the shaft, and then through underground wires to a second utility meter on the outside of the home. There is no need to change the wiring of a residence, as the residential turbines are easily adapted to work with any home electrical system. In most applications, the home is connected both to its wind turbine and to a local utility. (Benedict) This piece of technical writing is the type that details a process, in this case how wind is converted into electrical energy. His sentences are of decent length, he uses correct English mechanics, and he tells the reader how exactly the process occurs. There is just one term that would not be common knowledge: nacelle. This word means the part of the machine that

6 Reed 5 houses the engine, and would need to either be edited out or put into a glossary at the end of the article. The methods he uses are usually not taught well enough in school because they often don t teach anything beyond the basics that apply to any types of writing. Technical Writing in Schools At West Springfield High School, technical writing is not taught in depth, but the basics of writing are taught in standard English classes (Harmeyer). These basic skills are important for students to learn for any type of writing, but especially for technical writing, because a mess up can mean misunderstood directions. Language skills are a big part of English classes, because teachers can t get away with spelling errors and grammatical mistakes writers can t either (Hannah). This is the core of any writing and this is equally important in technical writing, because an oversight can mean misunderstood instructions. Especially when dealing with electronics, one wrong direction can mean a catastrophic failure of the machine being constructed, even an explosion from a plug placed in the wrong slot. Due dates are essential when writing for a class. A student s grade depends upon them writing their paper well and getting it in on time, and technical writers usually have definite due dates for their work. However, work can be overwhelming, and high school level classes teach students that it s important to learn what things absolutely can t be neglected, not even slightly. It s also important to learn what things can be delayed, and for how long (Hannah). Balancing the work load is essential to not becoming overworked, and will help keep a technical writer effective and writing well. Many high school classes make students complete outlines of papers before they write them, as well as multiple rough drafts. This teaches them the importance of planning before you write, rather than winging it as you complete the paper. Projects that are completed throughout

7 Reed 6 the year are very good for this, because they involve a lot of work that builds up over time. Students need to know where [they re] going with [their] immediate task, but the long-term goal is equally essential (Hannah). One of the most important things that is taught in English classes is confidence, which is important in technical writing because an author is dealing with solid facts, and if he is not sure about them or the methods he is using, the writing can be compromised by the doubt. This could lead to false instructions or the reader not trusting what is written. Confidence is crucial, but if [a writer] can pretend at first that [he is] totally in charge and know[s] what s going on, [he] should be able to stay on top of things for long enough to develop actual confidence (Hannah). It is important that schools teach at least the basics of technical writing, which most do. Technical writing helps students be more productive in their writing, and they will be able to incorporate the method and style of technical writing into other class s writing assignments, like lab reports and presentations (Zuidema). Beyond high school, technical writing is used by almost every profession, and helps businesses and careers become more productive and profitable when they have people who know how to write technically ( Technical Writing ). It is used in so many professions and will likely be a part of any student s future, so students should be taught technical writing early. Technical writing is used everywhere, and usually details how something works or how to use something. Everyone reads it, and so it has to be user friendly writing, but many writers get caught up in big fancy phrases that detract from the message. Technical writing can be extremely useful, but it takes time to master. It is a skill worth knowing, however, because it can be used in almost any environment and is used by nearly everyone, every day, though they may not know it as they write.

8 Reed 7 Works Cited Alred, Gerald J., Charles T. Brusaw, and Valter E. Oliu. Handbook of Technical Writing. N.p.: Bedford/St. Martins, Print. Benedict, Tristan. "Residential Wind Turbines: A Description." N.d. Scribd. Web. 26 Feb Bly, Robert W. "Avoid These Technical Writing Mistakes." Chemical Engineering Progress: n. pag. Web. 21 Feb "Characteristics of Technical Writing." Georgia Tech. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb Hannah, Fraser. "Everything I Need to Know as a Technical Writer I Learned in High School." Tech Whirl. N.p., 10 Aug Web. 27 Feb Harmeyer, Megan. Interview by Abigail Reed. 12 Mar Jamal, Haseeb. "Functions of Technical Writing." AboutCivil.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb Kelley, Nicole. "Sentence Structure of Technical Writing." Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lecture. "Major: Technical Writing." The Princeton Review. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb Manivannan, G. "Technical Writing & Communication: What & Why?" UsingEnglish.com. N.p., Web. 1 Feb Reed, Jena M. Personal interview. 21 Feb "Technical Writing." De Anza College. N.p., May Web. 21 Feb Wood, Kristin. "Four Common Mistakes for Technical Writers." Suite 101. N.p., 21 Apr Web. 21 Feb Zuidema, Leah A. Technical Writing: An Overview. N.p.: n.p., Print.

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