Clarity Begins at Home
Engineering writing is a unique professional skill that educators must own and champion.
Opinion By Brad Henderson
When I tell people I teach engineering writing at UC Davis, the conversation often goes like this:
“Oh, so you teach technical writing.”
“Not exactly,” I answer. “My classes prepare students for careers as engineers, not technical writers.”
Then comes a puzzled look, or sometimes an eye roll and dismissive dig: “Good for you. Engineers definitely need help with their writing…”
These exchanges seem to occur regardless of whether I’m speaking with acquaintances in industry or academia; often, the critics are engineers themselves.
The importance the engineering profession places on communication skills has increased since the days of the slide rule. ABET accreditation criteria cite the “ability to communicate” as a core competency, and today’s programs address this metric with serious intent. Nevertheless, I continue to encounter misunderstanding about what “engineering writing” is, coupled with the stereotype that engineers inherently lack writing skills—even though clear, crisp prose is fundamental to their work.
As a STEM writing specialist with more than a decade of industry experience, I also teach classes in science writing, business writing, and technical writing. While these are all recognized genres, “engineering writing” remains unclearly defined. (For proof, Google each term’s definition.) One challenge is that engineering writing embodies features from all three of its aforementioned cousins. Like science writing, it is informed by the scientific method and avoids judgment prior to investigation; like business writing, it responds to company needs and bottom-line management priorities; and like technical writing, it must precisely and accurately describe complex products, processes, and procedures. Each of these genres must communicate messages in concise, clear, and grammatically correct sentences with straightforward rather than fancy style.
Beyond these commonalities is the zone of pure engineering writing, which records engineers doing engineering and creating new engineering content.
The cognitive processes that propel engineering projects require both math- and word-based thinking, articulated firsthand in a set of discipline-specific documents that index to engineering in action. For instance, a project cycle might include a proposal, design review, status report, test procedure, qualification record, and final report. These writing situations and forms constitute a unique genre of writing that we engineers own. (Technical writers may step in to develop instructions, manuals, marketing materials, and so on, but their role is to support engineering projects, not pinch-hit for engineers doing theirs.)
I often encounter engineering students and professionals who have felt they didn’t “fit in” when they studied writing. Having minored in English while earning my mechanical engineering degree at Cal Poly–San Luis Obispo, I can empathize. While I excelled in engineering courses, my math-based thinking didn’t work well for critiquing literature and writing essays, and I often grew frustrated by my English instructors’ subjectivity and holistic grading. Nevertheless, I trudged onward, retaining my passion for both words and numbers. Later, I returned to graduate school and earned a master’s degree in professional writing.
Too often, young engineers adopt a misguided, self-defeating belief that they can’t write well because they struggled in an English class. Given that engineering undergraduates spend more time crunching numbers and less time writing than humanities or social science majors, it’s not surprising that they sometimes lack the speed and ease of their peers in essay-intensive classes. I imagine there’s an inverse disparity when English majors take calculus.
Writing is a skill; it’s not rocket science. To achieve mastery, you must practice. On the first day of class, I always tell my students that they have the potential to become great engineering writers if they reset their motivational equations and put in the time and effort.
Educators and institutions can and should do more to bring engineering writing into its own. Most engineering colleges support writing-in-the-disciplines courses and allocate funds to ensure their students meet ABET communication requirements. But most engineering professors don’t want to get into the business of teaching writing, so classes typically are farmed out to STEM writing specialists. As long as engineering departments, industry advisers, and writing specialists work together to ensure that assignments are authentic and anchored in relevant engineering content, the outsource model functions well. But it’s all too easy for these partnerships to become like gym memberships: everyone buys in, participates vigorously for a while, and then gets sidetracked.
How can we add sustainability to the outsource model? How do we install valid metrics? Who’s accountable for engineering writing outcomes anyway—university writing programs or engineering colleges? There are many questions to tackle. To start, I urge the engineering community to recognize that engineering writing has a unique form, fit, and function—and that it is a professional asset we must own, champion, and prize.
Brad Henderson teaches engineering writing and other STEM writing courses at University of California–Davis. A former industry design engineer and technical education specialist, he is the author of A Math-Based Writing System for Engineers.