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A word to engineers and scientists

Engineers and scientists who work in the applied sciences must often convey difficult ideas in writing. They express themselves clearly and persuasively best when they write in plain and simple English. Plain writing is the hallmark of clear thinking.
With the help of Catherine Taylor MA and Hubert Murray, an experienced editor and journalist, the papers published here were used over a period of twenty-five years to teach engineers and scientists how to write well. Also, those who applied the principles taught learned to research, organize and write technical specifications, manuals, reports and procedure.
Engineers of every stripe use the language of mathematics with precision. If they did not, bridges would fall - and sometimes do - boilers would burst, and spacecraft would remain earthbound. Sometimes, engineers miscalculate and disaster follows. Yet, in the main, when engineers do a stress analysis, calculate bending moments or transmission line transients their peers understand the logic of their calculations. Scientists used probability analysis persuasively in quantum mechanics to the full understanding of their peers. Mathematics is truly a precise language of communication among men and women of science.
Similarly, written and spoken language is a means by which we communicate with one another. Regrettably, this form of communication is not used with the same precision of mathematics. Yet writers who write technical reports, specifications and manuals have as much need of a precise language of words as engineers and scientists have in mathematics. Good writing is essential in a technological society.
Without clear writing, concise thinking and abstract ideas remain locked in the writer's brain. These papers show how, with thought and planning, those who work in the applied sciences can improve their ability to produce convincing technical copy.
A compelling report, analysis, treatise or account on the most demanding subject is like a good story. It has a beginning a middle and an end. The main difference between non-fiction writing of the kind with which we are concerned here and fiction is that technical writers deal with facts and an interpretation of them. In all other respects, technical writing in themes of applied science require the same degree of inspiration, imagination and intellectual effort that the best author gives to a work of fiction.
We live in an increasingly technological world. The work to be done and choices made depend on the ability of those involved to communicate with precision. Judging by the language of the news media and industrial public relation departments, we are within spitting distance of perfection. This is a deception that stems from the hyperbole by which I mean exaggeration of the language used with its effusive, meaningless phrases.
If from the past we could call such masters of language as Shakespeare, Austen, Orwell, Hemmingway and Fitzgerald and praise them for their 'interpersonal communication skills', they would laugh us to scorn. As it is, they must spin in their graves at every utterance of such inept and mindless phrases.
All writing is technical in the sense that skill to commit words to paper in a form, shape and style convey to the reader what the writer means. This requires a degree of art and knowledge on the part of the writer, and a sound level of intelligence on the part of the reader. Writers often fail to write what they mean so that, in turn, the reader fails to understand what they read. This double failure is caused more by the writer than the lack of skill on the part of the reader.
Technical writing is not the monopoly of scientists and engineers. It applies to anyone who writes. Indeed, every subject treated by the written word including fiction writing has its technical aspects. The principle means by which knowledge and human understanding is conveyed is the written word despite the rise of 'moving pictures' in all its forms, principally film and live theatre. It is therefore a reasonable conclusion that the writer who writes with clarity is more likely to convey information than he or she with a brilliant mind and an imprecise or shoddy writing style.
It is always essential to write clearly, but never more so than when conveying technical ideas and processes such as those to be found in all fields of the applied sciences; theoretical science too, but the emphasis here is on the practical application of science and engineering. The public is frequently mystified when it reads such statements as "Robber caught by alarmed door" or "Three Mile Island seconds from nuclear wasteland." [Examples of loony writing in this text are all taken from newspaper reports.]
How frightened was the door? At what speed was Three Mile Island hurtling through time and space?
Engineers and scientists who write well have the opportunity to inform, sway opinion, turn mistrust into support, to solve problems and influence projected readership to a particular point of view.
These are some of the reasons for men and women of science to write well. The advice that follows in the papers here offered are summarised by three main objectives, what are first, to make the primary aim to inform and secondary aim to stimulate to reader; secondly, to make it easy for readers to make informed decision; and thirdly, confine presentation and explanation to facts. Discussion of abstract concepts first require clear presentation of fact.
In the papers that follow, little is written on English grammar and syntax, which can be confidently left to texts and books that specialize in that branch of language. It does offer what is hoped to be a view of the English language not usually dealt with by books on the subject. Even so, it is not so much with English grammar that technical writers have difficulty as how to organize, research and execute a writing project. Collectively, these papers emphasize preparation, organisation, how to estimate the work content and cost.

June 2007

Continue with these papers:

A choice of words
Weighty words vs words of action

Reviewing the elements of style
How to write and edit
Getting started
Research for technical writing
How to layout a document
How to write procedures
Writing Specifications
How to write a Manual
Letters and memoranda
How to make an oral presentation
A guide to Technical Publishing

Bound copies of these articles, complete with question papers and answers are available for US $30 a copy plus US $6 for mailing.


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