Guidance for engineers on technical writing: a review of Addison Wesley’s contribution

Rosenberg_MECH.inddAnthony Haynes writes: There are numerous resources providing guidance for engineers on technical writing. One such is the volume by Barry J. Rosenberg in Addison Wesley’s ‘Spring into…’ series.

In the preface, the author explains he has aimed the book at ‘engineers and scientists who must write about stuff’: ‘The book is for engineers and scientists, not professional writers’.

Broadly, the book provides guidance on three types of things:

  1. the components of writing. For example: language; tables, graphics; and lists (such as bulleted lists and directions);
  2. genres. For example: manuals; websites; proposals; and slides.
  3. the processes of writing — notably, various forms of editing.

I don’t approve of all of Rosenberg’s advice. For example, in the section on verbs (p. 34), he writes:

“Avoid the following famously weak verbs: 

  • to occur
  • to happen”

This is the kind of advice I recoil from. These verbs exist for a reason. To advise avoiding them altogether is crude. Such advice can encourage writers to see writing as a matter of learning a set of arbitrary rules.

In general, though, Rosenberg’s guidance is very constructive. I particularly like the second chapter, on Audience. It shows how to define one’s audience and then customise one’s writing.

I also welcome the chapter on lists, a very common component in engineering writing. The chapter provides detailed advice on the craft of writing, and setting out, a list.

Generally, the text communicates in a very direct manner. It’s written in a firm, unfussy, style that I think most engineers will appreciate. A consistent strength of the text is it’s frequent use of examples to illustrate the points being made.

The strap line on the book’s front cover is ‘the smart professional’s choice’, In my judgement, that strap line is justified.


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