“The most common mistake engineers make is that they approach writing as a single activity or task, and not a process."
"Writing needs to be done in stages.”
This is the advice of writing expert and facilitator of Engineering Education Australia’s Writing Winning Technical Documents course, Christine Misso. Here, Christine will provide five key pieces of advice for engineers for forming clear and concise reports.
1. Be clear about your purpose and audience
You shouldn’t even bother starting your document until you’re clear about both your purpose and your intended audience.
Think about the purpose of your document. Why are you writing it? What’s the most important information you need to get across? What do you want your reader to do with that information?
As well as considering the purpose of the article you need to think about your reader.
Your document won’t be effective if you don’t consider your audience’s knowledge base and interests. What do they already know about your subject matter? What kind of information are they interested in? Do they even want to read your document? How will they read it — will they be reading it on screen, on a noticeboard, in the back of a taxi going to the airport, or will they be holding it in their hand and doing something with it?
2. Plan before you write
Before you write a sentence, do some planning. Consider any project you’ve ever worked on and how important the planning stage has been; writing is no different.
When you plan, you consider the kind of information that’s relevant and appropriate to include. You decide how much (or how little) detail you need to go into. Importantly, you also determine the best position for that information — that is, you need to create a logical and interesting shape and flow for your reader.
Not everything you write will follow the same structures. While there are many different approaches and ways of planning, you need to arrive at an outline of what you’re going to cover before you start to write.
3. Write with clarity and impact
Do all the paragraphs look easy to read? Do each of them cover a different subject matter? Will your reader have to read sentences more than once to get a clear message? Have you made good choices for the words and phrases in your document—are they appropriate for your reader and for the style of your document?
If you have correctly identified your audience, this step should come naturally. You need to make sure that your writing is understandable while not being simplistic for your targeted audience.
Your reader shouldn’t have to go to any effort to read your document—it should be clear and easy to read.
4. Maximise the ‘look’ of your documents
The layout or ‘look’ of a document is important for two reasons. Firstly, a document that’s clearly and consistently presented ‘looks’ like a professionally written document—this immediately instils confidence in the reader.
Secondly, the more effectively you use tables, figures, headings, lists and other elements of layout, you get across concepts clearly for your reader—you’re also making the document easier for them to use and to follow.
5. Check your documents for quality
Set aside enough time to review and proofread your document—the final stage of effective writing. Many people will write their document and think that’s the end of it, but even the best writers make mistakes.
Run a critical eye over your document. Is all the information relevant? Is there any missing information? Is the important information prominently placed? Have you misspelt a client’s name, or misused an apostrophe?
When you review and proofread effectively, you can be confident that your document is clear, interesting and compelling to read, and that it’s highly professional because it’s free from errors and inconsistencies.
Improve your technical writing skills by attending Engineering Education Australia’s Writing Winning Technical Documents course. Find out more via the course webpage.