What is this thing? And who is it for? A Guide to Writing as an Engineer

Anthony Haynes writes: At first glance, A guide to writing as an engineer presents itself as a textbook, no question.

Published by Wiley — a publisher of textbooks — it has large- format pages. On the front cover is a photograph of what look like three college students. Prominent, in red, is a box announcing that this is the fourth edition — a useful identified for tutors and students.

Inside, there’s plenty of chunking, including the plentiful boxed material characteristic of college textbooks. And, at the end of each chapter, there are questions.

Yet on closer inspection, the genre appears more ambiguous.

In the preface, in a  section entitled ‘Who should use this book’, the authors — David Beer and David McMurrey — write:

The idea for this book originally grew from our experience in industry and the engineering communication classroom — in particular, from our wish to write a practical rather than theoretical text that devotes all its pages to the communication needs of working engineers and those planning to become engineers. Many engineers and engineering students complain that there is no helpful book on writing aimed specifically for them. Most technical writing texts focus…on the entire field of technical writing. In other words, they aim to provide total information on everything a technical writer in any profession might be called on to do“.

There are distinct signs here of fudge. ‘Our experience in industry and the engineering communication classroom’; ‘the needs of working engineers and those planning to become engineers’ (my emphases): the authors — or, I guess more likely, the publishers — want to have it both ways.

I challenge their decision, for reasons both negative and positive.

The negative first:

  • In professional publishing, fudging the decision over audience typically entails the risk of falling between two stools
  • Professional people aren’t keen to buy something that looks like a textbook: they have left college behind
  • Although the authors say that the ‘book can support writing courses for science and engineering majors’ (editor’s note: where did ‘science’ come from? Is that a further fudge?), in the opening chapter they write ‘Few engineering colleges offer adequate…courses in engineering communication’. That makes the book sound close to being a textbook designed to support non-existent courses
  • The pedagogic apparatus is rather light. Yes, each chapter provides a set of questions. But that’s about it. Beyond the questions, which are short, there aren’t any other exercises or activities. Though each chapter has a bibliography, there’s no annotated guide to further reading. And so on.

And now the positive reason, which in fact provides the motivation for writing this post: for professionals, this book is extremely helpful. Its scope is wide, covering several forms of communication that are central to engineers’ work. The guidance, which is indeed evidently rooted in ‘experience in industry’ is to-the-point. And the treatment is at least reasonably up to date: it includes discussion of digital forms of communication.

So my advice to professionals is: ignore the textbook format; see the book in your mind’s eye as a how-to book — a practical resource.

In the next post, I’ll review the book as if it were unequivocally that.

In the meantime, I suggest a moral. A consistent theme of this blog is that it usually pays to be decisive about one’s audience: decide who you’re writing for and then optimise your communication for that audience; if you’re writing for more than one audience — well, there are solutions to that, which we can discuss in due course. Here I’ll just say that one option might be to produce more than one version — one for each audience.

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