FORGET WHAT YOU WERE TAUGHT BEFORE

In my experience, most engineering students have been prepared for persuasive writing in college writing classes, but many of these skills become a negative when writing technical reports. The items listed below are the most common problems that engineers encounter when writing.

 

Writing is the last thing you do. Students have been required to do rough drafts to clarify their thoughts and determine what they want to say. To put it simply, if you don’t know what you will say, then you are not ready to write. When you are ready to write, it should already be clear. An author should not start to write the report until all the data has been collected and analyzed.

 

Don’t find “creative ways to say things”. Many students have been taught that they should not repeat themselves and instead should find multiple ways to say things. When this is done in technical documents, it leads to confusion. Authors should use precise terms (as many times as needed) and avoid trying to generate creative word choices. For example, we could increase confusion by also describing translation as motion, movement, sliding, displacing, etc.

 

Keep it simple. In an attempt to increase the “prestige” of their documents many authors will use ’large’ words. This often leads to confusion and should be avoided. In some cases when authors are unsure they will respond by making their writing style more complex, but most readers recognize this. For example, “Electronic computer based digital readings can provided a highly accurate data source to improve the quality of the ascertained data.” could be replaced with “Computer-based data collection is more accurate.”

 

Clear, concise and to the point. In some courses students may have been required to write reports with a minimum number of words. This requirement may have encouraged students to increase their verbiage. However, readers appreciate shorter documents that get to the point. For example, “Readings of the pressure, as the probe was ascending up the chimney towards the top, were taken.” is better put “Pressure probe readings were taken as the probe was inserted”. Also, it is better to break ideas into smaller pieces.

 

There is no great opening paragraph. Many student authors spent a large amount of time on the opening paragraph to set the tone for the report. In my experience the longer a student tries to write the opening paragraph, the worse it becomes. In most cases their opening paragraph can be deleted entirely from their document without any negative impact. Ironically, the writing of these students often improves once they get beyond the first paragraph, but often they have already lost the interest of their readers.

 

Transitions are not that important. Students are often coached to create clean transitions between sentences and paragraphs. As a result they often add unnecessary sentences and words to make these transitions. Words that are often warning signs are “also” and “then”. Standard technical documents have standard structural forms that provide the major transitions for readers.

 

Don’t need to keep the “good stuff” to the end. Many student authors try to write their reports so that there is a ’climax’. It can be very frustrating for a technical reader to have to read 90% of a report before he or she encounters some discussion of the results. A technical report is not a mystery novel.

 

Saying it more than once is acceptable- Most student authors feel that it is unacceptable to state a fact more than once. In truth, you want to state fact as many times as necessary to make a technical point. In the case of very important details, they will be stated in the abstract, the introduction, the discussion and the conclusion sections.

 

An effective procedure for writing engineering reports is listed below. This procedure leaves writing to one of the last stages, but report writing becomes much easier when done this way.

 

1. Plan and do the work as normal. Regardless of what the report entails, this will often include creating sketches, drawings, graphs/charts of collected data, pictures, etc.

2. Do the analysis (preferably on computer) of the data and results. These should be organized into a logical sequence.

3. Review the results to ensure they make sense and follow a logical flow. If necessary add figures to help clarify. Write figure and table captions that describe the materials that will be included in your report.

4. Review the materials to verify that they make sense without the text.

5. Within the required sections, write in bullet form notes to lay out the document.

6. Write the text for the report from your notes in each section.

7. Verify that the report conforms to guidelines.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]