Technical Writing for Engineers [The Ultimate Guide & Course]
Engineers often believe technical writing to be highly-detailed documentation for fellow engineers. In fact, technical writing is a style that takes complex information and clearly explains it to a specific audience.
Engineers are a great wealth of technical knowledge, however, they can struggle with how to prepare technical documents. Yet, by mastering this form of communication, engineers can enjoy important benefits.
This article will outline how the challenges can become benefits and identify strategies for engineers to achieve great technical writing. We also offer a course that teaches technical writing to engineers. You can learn more about this course by clicking the button below.
Challenges versus Benefits
An engineer is a writer.
Or, at least, they should be a writer.
Communicating technical information can be just as important as developing it. Adding technical writing to your toolkit will add a surprising amount of value to your career.
Writing is an important part of the engineering process. Whether you’re a beginner or looking to refine your writing, this guide takes you through engineers’ common writing challenges, the benefits to overcoming them and tangible solutions to help you do just that.
Challenge #1: Communicating Technical Knowledge
If you’ve ever wondered why your boss or technician hasn’t understood the importance of a particular concept, the problem is likely communication. When too many technical details are presented in a report or other document, the crucial ones can get buried.
Engineers often write technical documents as if their audience were fellow engineers. However, the audience is always changing. The reader of one document may be an expert while the reader of your next document may be a business-minded executive or a consumer.
Writing for a non-engineering audience is a significant, important challenge.
Benefit #1: Increased Clarity and Communication
Good writing by an engineer will increase communication effectiveness. Directing your writing to the intended audience will allow the reader to understand the content on the first read, rather than needing to ask for additional details or explanation.
By understanding the audience’s goal in reading the document, you as the writer can highlight the important data. Only the most crucial supplementary or background information should be included. The information that is needed for a decision, instruction, or education must take center stage.
Good technical writing will save time, avoid misunderstanding and increase workplace efficiency by promoting good communication between engineers and other staff.
Solution: Use Technical Writing Style
There is a major misconception that a complex and scholarly text is good technical writing. However, the opposite is true. Elaborate text often confuses the reader and conceals the purpose.
Keeping the information accessible is most important. Technical writing uses the simplest and most direct language to convey the information. The tone is neutral and professional.
To achieve this tone, use the active voice in your writing. Choose your words carefully so you use the fewest words possible while being precise. Avoid jargon and use clearly-explained terms instead. These strategies will create a text that effectively communicates technical details.
Solution: Enhance with Graphics
Good graphics support good writing. Include diagrams or schematics where they add value and increase reader comprehension. They should be directly referenced within the text and clearly explained in a caption.
Challenge #2: “But no one ever reads it...”
Some engineers get frustrated by the fact that their reports gather dust. Documenting can seem like a customary process with no real value. Why write a text that will never be read?
The problem is not with the reader but with the text itself. Technical documents that bury crucial information or are difficult to understand can delay reading, decision-making or worse, be altogether overlooked.
A good technical document is written for a specific purpose and defined audience. Therefore, it is written to be read.
Benefit #2: Valuable Career Skill
Imagine how many crucial details get buried in elaborate yet inaccessible engineering reports. These reports make the reader hunt for the information they need. Engineers who can convey that essential information improve communication inside companies. Better communication ultimately increases efficiency and productivity.
For this reason, employers view engineers with good communication and technical writing skills as highly valuable. Technical prowess is not enough. Technical writing can differentiate your skillset, leading to better employment prospects and higher job security.
Solution: Know Your Audience
Ignoring the audience is one of the biggest writing mistakes for engineers. The reader will be different for each document. To write well, you must know their knowledge of the field, relationship to the department or company, and purpose for reading.
In the planning process, ask yourself, "Who is my reader?" Then, write out this information so that you are aware of it and have a constant visual reminder.
Keeping the audience top of mind will change the way you write your document. While you’re writing, ask yourself, "Would my reader understand this text?" If the answer is no, re-write it. If the answer is yes, you are producing good technical writing.
Solution: Plan Effectively
A technical document without a plan is like a ship without a captain. It is difficult to navigate and takes a long time to reach its goal (if ever!).
As an engineer, you will have a deep understanding of the topic. For most reports, the reader needs to know only a fraction of your expertise. The planning process is crucial for separating the information that needs to be included from the rest.
Be wary of details. The reader generally needs to know the implication of high-level specifications, not the specifications themselves. Once you’ve highlighted the necessary information, it can be organized into a coherent overview.
Planning can take many forms. We recommend using a mind-map to capture and visualize the document. Other writers may prefer a pen-and-paper sketch or a spreadsheet outline. The format does not matter so long as it allows an effective and efficient plan for your document.
Challenge #3: Making Time for Writing
Writing often takes a back-seat to ‘real’ work. Sometimes, there can be not enough hours in the day to complete technical work, let alone to write it down. Documenting can feel secondary, and therefore gets little time allocated to it. It can be helpful to set aside time for writing where there are no distractions. Don’t wait until the end of the day to write your documents. Additionally having a quiet space can ensure you are focused without distractions.
Benefit #3: Records and Completes Work
Great work does not share itself. The most innovative concepts can be lost if they exist only in the laboratory. Technical writing records engineering work and allows it to reach beyond the engineering department.
In addition, documentation provides a mark of completion. Some projects have a clear end point, while others can be vague. Documenting, including outstanding work for future, finalizes a project.
Solution: Prioritize Writing
Writing should not be an afterthought. For each major activity, documentation should be integrated into project management and time planning.
By considering writing as part of the engineering process, creating the text will feel less onerous and more natural. Do not leave the writing to the last minute, as rushed writing is generally bad writing. Carve out time to plan, write and review the document.
Solution: Engage in the Review Cycle
As you get ready to review, take advantage of the available software tools. Check your text through both Microsoft Word’s Spelling and Grammar check with its Readability tool and the online Grammarly tool. Then, review the document again with the audience in mind. The most effective trick is to read the text aloud. Reading will highlight awkward phrases, unnecessary words, and repetition.
The review process takes many forms. Most engineering companies have an internal review process using some variation of first draft-revised draft-final version. The revisions are completed by colleagues, supervisors or fellow experts. Understand the company’s review process and integrate into your writing timeline.
The review provides a fresh perspective. Feedback and edits improve the document and offer valuable lessons for future writing. Take advantage of this learning opportunity.
The review process can also be informal. If the executive you’re preparing the document for and your best friend have a similar level of knowledge of the topic, ask your friend to review your text. Friends and family can be a great resource to review your text for non-expert readability and accessibility. You can also ask your colleagues to do an initial review before sending it to the formal review.
Additionally many engineering firms offer technical writing courses for their employees. These courses often come with document feedback and review. This allows you to receive objective feedback on the structure, style, and tone of your writing.
Conclusion and Further Reading
Good technical writing shines a light on important engineering work. Improving technical writing is not an overnight process, but one that provides big value to your work, your company, and your career.
To learn more, check out the following links:
- IEEE Professional Communication Society - Communication Resources for Engineers
- Engineer’s Guide to Technical Writing by K. Budinski'
About the author
Tom specializes in technical writing and is particularly interested in analytical and financial writing, as well as synthesizing strong executive summaries. He holds a B.A. in Business Administration and English from Reed College, and a M.A. in Communications from the University of Colorado. He has successfully supported our clients from Boeing, FedEx, and the US Army.