Written Communications

No matter if an engineer did the best job in the world with a design, if the person responsible for the design cannot communicate the design effectively, then the design effort was wasted. That’s the reason that I gave to my Transport Processes Design course students for requiring that they paid attention to communications in their design reports equal to the attention they paid to technical aspects of their designs. And, I followed up by giving two equally weighted scores for each report, one for technical correctness and the other for communications ability. When it came to the final average grade for the course, communications counted for 40%.

Communications is an important part of engineering. Time and again, I have heard industry representatives express the importance of communications skills when hiring and promoting within the company. Although my course requirements only tested written communications skills, verbal communication skills are also very important.

Design report communication score depended greatly on writing, but it must be also said that well-designed illustrations are also part of good communications. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the writer saves a lot of (very busy!) reader time by including clarifying pictorial illustrations in strategic places.

It is also important to avoid typographical errors and correct the inevitable typos before submitting the report. Nothing can ruin the acceptability of the report and the regard of its author than to have to read a report that was written and submitted without sufficient care. The boss may not be sensitive to typographical errors, but, in order to reach the position that he or she has in the organization, it should be assumed that correct language, punctuation, and spelling are second nature to her or him.

Good written communication takes the cognizance of the audience reading the piece of writing. If it is an engineering design report that is at issue, then there are likely two types of readers: The first is a very busy, time-limited management type, who must digest the essence of the report as quickly as possible to make a judgment about the soundness of its conclusions. For this person, a good summary at the beginning of the report is necessary. The summary should include a brief statement of the problem or object of the design, and then a second short paragraph stating the main results and conclusions. The second audience is a technical person to whom the manager, who may or may not be technically inclined, sends the report for detailed analysis. It is this person for which the body of the report is written. The report should include sections on background, general design approach, and detailed design (including equations, drawings, and/or tables), and, last, test results, if any testing was done. Detailed calculations should appear in an appendix.

It is not necessary that the report writer be among the world’s best, but being able to provide adequate explanations, in terms as simple as possible, is a necessity. I had always told my students that they should avoid technical jargon whenever possible. If it was necessary to use highly technical terms, then they should be briefly defined. “Write as if your mother is the reader,” I told them.

These students were required to pass a prior technical writing course as part of their university requirements. One problem that I encountered with that prior course was that it emphasized using the active voice for verbs. Students were encouraged, even required, to construct sentences such as “I adjusted the amplification for best signal-to-noise ratio.” This is wrong for technical writing: The passive voice is preferred because it takes the attention of the reader away from the actor and puts it on the action. The actor in technical writing is usually not nearly as important as what was done. The sentence above should be: “The amplification was adjusted for best signal-to-noise ratio.” It matters not who did the adjusting; what is important is that the adjustment took place.

Despite the fact that conciseness is virtuous when in the context of technical writing, it is sometimes better to be a little redundant. Those occasions occur when the strict meaning of an adjective or adverb is not well enough known or not restrictive enough so that the use of more than one modifier with similar meanings may be necessary to answer any questions the reader may have about what is actually meant. For example, use of the word “viscous,” a technical term meaning “thick,” or “pouring slowly,” may need to be modified to read “highly viscous” or “thickly viscous” in order that the desired image of a very gooey liquid is conveyed to the reader

Related to the message of the previous paragraph, there are courses in writing that extol the advantages of long sentences—the longer the clearer, they say. While it may be true that long sentences become that way because they may contain strings of descriptive words and phrases, and therefore are more likely to be more informative, too many long sentences can fatigue the reader. Strings of long sentences need to be interrupted by short, and if possible, dramatic sentences in order to maintain the interest of the reader. There is also a big difference between written and verbal communication, because one would want to use short, easily understood, sentences when speaking.

I also had some often misused language words and phrases that I had to pass on to the students. The first was the distinction between the words “which” and “that.” The word “that” is used whenever the following clause is necessary to the meaning of the word or phrase that it modifies. “That” is called a restrictive modifier because it helps to define the preceding word or phrase. The word “which” is used when the following clause adds on to the preceding word or phrase, but is not necessary to its definition. “Which” is called unrestrictive, and usually follows a comma. An example of proper use is the sentence, “The word that you use can be correct or not, which is what this sentence is all about.” The phrase “that you use” helps to distinguish one word from all the others in the world, but “which is what this sentence is all about,” is extra information not necessary to the beginning of the sentence.

Another pet annoyance of mine is the use of the words “compose” and “comprise.” Something can be composed of its parts, but its parts comprise a whole thing. The two-word phrase “comprised of” is incorrect and should never be used.

I have recently cringed when I hear brutalized and corrupt forms of the nouns “surveillance” and “liaison,” both from the French. It has become popular to change these nouns into the verbs “surveill” and “liase.” Don’t do it! Use other words, such as “conduct surveillance” (or “watch for”), and “establish a liaison” (or “connect”). Use of these corrupted nouns as verbs demonstrates a weakness of language abilities.

I had heard a quotation from a famous author who, when asked how to become a great writer, answered to the effect: “Take care of yourself, stay healthy, and stay out of accidents,” meaning that to become a great writer requires time and maturity, and, I might add, practice. I never did find out the identity of that writer, but the sentiment is true; writing can improve with age.

After the design reports were submitted on the due date, they were distributed to other students for anonymous peer evaluation before I had even seen them. Students were required to evaluate both technical and communications aspects of the reports according to an outline of requirements that I provided to them. This accomplished several things: First, it gave the students practice at peer evaluation, a skill that they would need later in their careers; second, it provided students a close look at the reports submitted by other groups, so that they could see what was good and what was not good about other submissions, and thus learn what to avoid or what to do better on the reports that they would submit for subsequent assignments; third, it gave me a chance to see what good and bad points that others had found in the reports they were evaluating, and saved me grading time; and fourth, returning the peer review forms to the originator of the report spread the responsibility for the evaluation over several people, so it was not just my opinion, but mine plus another that ended up appraising the report. Sometimes I conveyed to the report originator that I agreed with the peer evaluator, and sometimes I said that I disagreed. In any case, the system worked well.

I had, in my classes, some very discerning peer evaluators, and, quite often, they went through the writing with very close scrutiny, even marking up the report prose. I appreciated these students because they were very helpful both for me and for the originators of the reports they evaluated.

To end this rather long treatise on written communications, there are several witty rules to be included here, one or two of which have already been repudiated.

  • Never generalize.
  • Proof read carefully.
  • No sentence fragments.
  • Passives must be shunned.
  • Don’t use contractions.
  • Avoid redundancy.
  • Avoid redundancy.