Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

This book is full of practical advice and useful examples to help students and engineers write clearly, accurately and impressively. This updated fourth edition features new material on technical notes, inspection reports and business cases, along with abstracts and summaries. It is an essential aid for today's engineers.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction

Abstract
Communication as described by Sir Francis Bacon in the late sixteenth century is much the same as the communication of a practising engineer – man or woman – today. Reading, discussing and writing take up a large part of a working life, and through these activities knowledge is broadened, abilities are sharpened and reactions become more focused; the experience and expertise of the professional engineer are presented precisely and effectively. This book is primarily concerned with the third aspect, writing, but the other two are equally important. Engineers must find out what is happening in their field, nationally and internationally; they must keep up to date with current practice and study the exact requirements of their companies and their clients. They must read the relevant documentation and be ready to respond to it if their knowledge is to be ‘full’, that is, sufficient to allow them to make appropriate decisions. It would perhaps be brave, and certainly foolhardy, to take all such decisions in isolation. Bacon’s second requirement, ‘conference’, involves engineers in meeting people, talking to their clients, giving instructions and making presentations, and discussing day-to-day problems with other engineers.
Joan van Emden, Lucinda Becker

Chapter 2. Types of Technical Writing

Abstract
Emails are one of the most common means of communication, used within families, between friends and colleagues, within companies and to clients and customers worldwide. They have enormous advantages, in that they can be sent and received at a time convenient to sender and recipient (much more convenient in this way than the telephone); they can be used on the screen, forwarded to other readers, or printed out and used as documents; they travel quickly round the world; they can be long or short and can include attachments; they can be sent to individuals or groups as required. It is important, however, to remember that, legally, emails are seen as written documents and may be used in court; however carelessly or rapidly they are written, they cannot be undone once they have been sent. There are rules and conventions in writing a business letter which have developed over centuries (see pp. 00 ), but few conventions exist in an email. One of the most common problems is that writers tend to regard an email as a form of speech: they can be informal, humorous, aggressive or chatty as if they were talking to the recipient, and the speed at which the email travels increases this illusion. The words on the screen, however, are not supported by facial expression or tone of voice: they are simply written words, and that is how the reader sees them. Any attempt to reproduce the habits of speech is likely to fail or be misinterpreted; for instance, capital letters used for emphasis may seem aggressive to the reader.
Joan van Emden, Lucinda Becker

Chapter 3. Good Style

Abstract
This chapter will include much detailed advice about style, but other important aspects are to be found in later chapters. The main points to remember have therefore been brought together as a checklist to help you to achieve and maintain an appropriate, readable style. The rest of the chapter will look at these important messages more fully, with examples and activities. Good style can roughly be defined as style which is appropriate to the needs of the reader. A particular piece of information might, for example, be presented as original research in the publication following an academic conference. Subsequently, it might appear in a textbook for undergraduates; it might become such a basic contribution to knowledge of the subject that it would appear in a newspaper article for the intelligent but non-specialist reader; it might be published in school textbooks; eventually, it might be found in a children’s encyclopaedia. In each manifestation, the information will be presented with vocabulary, sentence structure, explanation and examples suited to the current readership. If the level is estimated incorrectly, the information will not be accepted. It will be seen as ‘too difficult’, ‘bewildering’ or ‘condescending’, and will be rejected by the reader for whom it was intended. Such extreme variations of readership are unusual, but they illustrate the need to write in a style which is helpful and encouraging to readers. Writing in a vacuum, for the sake of writing rather than for a clearly defined audience, is unlikely to result in good style, and, indeed, the end product will probably not be read at all. The first requirement of good writing is that it suits the reader.
Joan van Emden, Lucinda Becker

Chapter 4. Vocabulary

Abstract
Some people like words and others like numbers. The sad truth is that those who like words rarely like numbers too, and vice versa. Engineers often have love affairs with figures (having passed a range of mathematically oriented examinations in order to become engineers) but tend to feel that words are out to get them. As a result, they are uneasy about writing continuous prose and long for the release of a friendly equation. Words are indeed difficult in the English language. They are spelt in odd ways, often pronounced differently from the way they look, may sound the same as each other but have different meanings, and there are so many of them. It is a great advantage to have a language which is rich in synonyms (words which mean more or less the same thing), but there is a catch in this: which words should we choose? The first of these points is sometimes overlooked. Engineers often write for a wide audience, not all of whom will have the same specialist knowledge. One of the early, preparatory questions to be asked before beginning to write any document is about the knowledge and experience levels of the intended readership. Will most of the readers understand the technical terms used? If not, and if help is not readily available, they will quickly become irritated with the writer and the text; they may even stop reading. There is of course a danger in over-explaining, seeming to patronise the readers; if too much is explained, they will soon be just as annoyed, and may stop reading. Readers often have different levels of expertise from those of the writer, but it is the writer’s job to decide how much explanation is appropriate, and then to be consistent.
Joan van Emden, Lucinda Becker

Chapter 5. Sentences, Punctuation and Paragraphs

Abstract
A sentence is as long as a piece of Sellotape and, for some people, more sticky. This is a useful analogy, as it avoids the cliché (‘as long as a piece of string’) and at the same time gives positively helpful information. Sellotape is an excellent product, provided that the length of tape is right for its purpose. Too short a piece, and the tape fails to fasten the parcel firmly; too long a piece, and tape, paper and fingers stick together in a nasty mess. Sentences are much the same. A very short sentence may fail to give the required information, or it may leave out essential elements such as a verb. A very long sentence often confuses itself, its writer and its reader, and ends up as a nasty mess. Sentences must be the right length for their purpose. Before looking more closely at sentence length and construction, we should say what a sentence is. A sentence is a group of words which makes sense in itself. A sentence contains at least one main item of information to which various subsidiary ideas may be attached. A sentence must contain at least one complete verb. The first aspect of this definition is most important, and many mistakes would be avoided if the writer asked, ‘Does this make sense?’ If it does not, it is not a sentence. Complete understanding may depend on knowledge of the context, but each sentence in itself should be intelligible to the reader.
Joan van Emden, Lucinda Becker

Chapter 6. The Presentation of Written Information

Abstract
Earlier in this book (Chapter 2), we looked at the formats appropriate to particular types of technical writing such as emails, reports and instructions, and at the conventions of style and layout which should be followed. There is another aspect, however, of the effectiveness of written information: its presentation. This is largely a matter of reader goodwill. If the document looks both professional and inviting, the reader will want to read it. If it looks scruffy and difficult to approach, the prospective reader will be put off, and will relegate the paper to the bottom of the pile, or, worse, the wastepaper basket. A report which looks less than professional undermines the credibility of both writer and company; instructions which do not look ‘official’ may be ignored. In this chapter, two different aspects of presentation are discussed: checking (to make sure that the correct information is correctly presented) and the layout of the printed page. Most documents are checked for factual errors. Before starting to write, an author may need to make reference to previous similar documents, company guidelines, and books and journals in a library belonging to the company or a professional institution.
Joan van Emden, Lucinda Becker

Chapter 7. Writing for Publication

Abstract
Nowadays, there is a tremendous outpouring of technical information, much of it online but a great deal still in the form of books and journals, and specialist articles in the quality press. Such material all has to be written, and, although much will be produced by professional journalists, there is a demand for the work of technical specialists, writing either as an optional extra or, especially in the case of academics, because it is part of their contract to write for publication. This chapter is intended primarily for people who have not had material published before. It is a daunting prospect: most technical publications look authoritative and are often expensive; online publications can reach an unprecedented vast audience, potentially millions at the click of a mouse. New writers may understandably feel that there is a great gulf between themselves and published authors. Yet such would-be writers are themselves part of the market for technical publications, and they have no doubt assessed a range of work they use in order to keep up to date with their own field of interest. They probably know which journals are the most adventurous in publishing new ideas, which tend to lag behind the latest thinking; they may know a publisher whose technical books tend to carry authority, and they will almost certainly have seen and been attracted by extracts or publicity on the internet. This is a useful start, as writing without a focus is rarely successful and the hopeful author needs to identify the publication which seems to suit the material available most closely.
Joan van Emden, Lucinda Becker
Additional information