Following World War II, the world of engineering expanded dramatically. More people throughout Europe and the United States were employed as engineers than ever before. Unfortunately, growing pains were sure to follow. Stakeholders without technical knowledge found it hard to communicate effectively with engineers. At the same time, senior engineers needed to develop new strategies for discussing their work with non-technical leaders.
There have been many attempts at resolving this ongoing problem. In the 1960s, the new discipline of “technical communication” began to coalesce around the specialized writing skills that various types of engineers – and later, software developers and many others – would need. These included business assets like documentation, user manuals, and memoranda, among others.
Engineering writing is critical for a wide variety of reasons:
- It helps make the case for the engineering team’s value and any resources it may require.
- It clarifies engineering issues and problems to ensure all safety standards are followed.
- It provides colleagues in cross-functional disciplines with the information they need to do their jobs.
- It offers a way to accelerate and simplify collaboration even in complex enterprises.
Communication skills are consistently recognized among the most important “soft skills” that any employee can develop. For engineers, in particular, soft skills are truly essential for moving beyond an individual contributor role to one with supervisory or strategic responsibilities.
How Does Technical Writing Relate to Engineering Success?
What is technical writing, exactly? Simply put, it’s a form of writing that subject matter experts use to clarify, simplify, and communicate their ideas, often to a non-technical audience. This is one of the most challenging aspects of technical writing.
These non-technical readers might be executives, sales representatives, end-users, consultants, or virtually anyone else whose skills differ substantially from the technical writer’s own. In fact, businesses in one subject area may require documents written at a general audience level outside their area of expertise.
How to Improve Your Technical Writing
People who are not skilled creative writers can still be excellent technical writers. However, they need to learn a new set of skills to become effective. Most importantly, an engineer must be deeply knowledgeable about the product, technical challenge, or other subjects before writing takes place.
From there, consider these factors:
- Audience Analysis: Understanding what your audience knows and does not know about your subject helps focus your thoughts and produce documents that add value for others. Technical topics often need to be abstracted into simple terms for non-technical stakeholders – terms that are focused on their interests. Know what questions your targeted audience has about the subject and answer them in your writing.
- Simplicity: No matter how complex the topic is, it’s important to communicate it with both precision and concision, that is, saying what’s needed but no more. Avoiding technical jargon is a good first step, but the overall outline and organization of material is important, too. Subheadings, bulleted lists of key points, and call-out definitions of unfamiliar terms can make documents clearer. Plus, this effort demonstrates that you value your audience’s time.
- Modularity: When developing material for a knowledge base or other resources that will be used by different people over a long period of time, modularity can reduce re-work and improve effectiveness. The central idea of modularity is that each topic should receive a single, simplified explanation that can be reused to develop multiple documents. Always look for ways to distill a topic to its essence, making it less bound by current conditions or considerations that might change over time.
Engineers who want to focus on developing more effective documents often find pre-writing exercises, such as outlining, help them to achieve greater concision in the final product. Talking to your prospective audience can also be helpful in learning which questions documents should answer.
Engineering Trends Demand Greater Fluency in Technical Writing
Many forms of technical writing have traditionally been looked at as cost centers in the average business. Over the last several years, companies have downsized or outsourced their pool of technical writing experts while expecting engineers to adopt more technical writing duties in-house. The traditional dichotomy between technical experts and communicators is breaking down as a result.
Understanding technical writing can position an engineer for greater leadership duties in terms of training, hiring, and other essential functions that support technical work on a strategic level. Effective writing, in general, is virtually a pre-requisite for roles at the director level and above.
As the engineering world shifts to embrace new technologies and face new challenges, writing is becoming more important. Engineers who can communicate clearly and well with a wide range of colleagues are sure to find themselves surrounded by opportunities.
Ohio University offers an advanced degree program for engineers who want to become leaders without losing their foundation in engineering. Our online Master of Engineering Management focuses on leadership and management skills and their direct relationship to engineering process improvement, project management, effective communication, and innovative solutions.