As an engineer, you need to frequently communicate with others through writing. Whether you need to explain the installation of equipment, operation of a facility, or maintenance of a component, it is critical to be able to deliver simple, clearly-worded directions. Or, maybe you find yourself striving to justify a design element to convince an investor. You must be able to methodically balance background information with the key points that your audience is seeking. Regardless of your reason for writing, how effectively you can get the message across to the end user depends on your writing skills.
That’s where technical writing skills can come in handy: mastering the ability to write documentation that is clear, concise, and targeted for the specific user. After more than 23 years of supporting engineers in developing and revising their documents, we have a few tips you can use to help improve your writing.
Technical Writing for Engineers Tip 1: Recognize the consequences of your communication.
Writing is a task that can often feel abstract and distant from work that has a more observable impact. Or, in other cases, the process of writing may appear daunting due to the sheer scale and demands on your time. As you sit down at the keyboard, or pick up a pen to edit, it is essential to keep in mind the objectives and real-world effects of your communication.
Ask yourself what could happen if this task were done poorly? Could missing details lead to misuse of a device and cause poor performance? Would it reflect back on you as a professional, or result in your company losing business? Is there a chance that lack of clarity could even lead to damages, injuries, or preventable deaths? No matter how minor or extreme, there are always consequences for how communication is received, and the end user of each document is directly depending on your knowledge and input to experience the best possible outcomes.
Technical Writing for Engineers Tip 2: Determine your audience.
Knowing who will be using or reading your document greatly affects how you put it together. Engineers, investors, operators—they all require different information, and shaping your documents to give each user the greatest opportunity for quick understanding and comprehension saves them and you both time and money. The most often missed tip we can provide in technical writing for engineers is to invest some time into figuring out the audience, which then leads to tip three.
Technical Writing for Engineers Tip 3: Write for the audience.
It may sound redundant, but now that you know who will be using your document, it’s time to put that knowledge to work. That means developing documentation that is fit-for-purpose and written specifically for your end user. Consider these situations:
- Are you writing a paper for an engineering publication? If so, your audience will predominately be comprised of fellow engineers and you don’t need to minimize technical verbiage to bring the reading comprehension level of your document down. However, you do need to know and align your writing with all the conventions, rules, and limitations of the publication’s style guide.
- Are you preparing information for an investor? Then you are probably appealing to someone without an engineering background, and they need to know specifics without too much detail or an abundance of technical jargon.
- Are you writing a document to explain operation of a facility? In that case, it is best to focus on what the operator needs to do and how to accomplish it in an equipment startup procedure, whereas a facility training manual should explain more about why certain processes are occurring.
Did you notice something different in the last example? If so, you deserve some brownie points. A very subtle, but important note to consider is that even a single audience may have different needs at different times, and your writing should be designed to account for that. And speaking of design. . .
Technical Writing for Engineers Tip 4: Design your document.
Taking time to create a coherent design for your writing is as crucial as following a building plan or machining specification. It is absolutely fine to start your writing with a verbal brain dump to lay out a few ideas on the page, but without organizing your ideas into an outline afterwards, you may as well stack timber, shingles, and wiring in a pile and hope it miraculously turns into a house. The flow of your ideas must be intentional, and the words you use to express them must be precise.
Every form of writing from an email to a scientific paper should follow a logical development. Knowing your audience, determine what is most helpful for them to understand the information: should events be described chronologically? Do they need to know important information immediately before anything else? Is there a sequence of steps they need to follow in a particular order?
It may be tempting to breeze past this phase to save time, but a well-composed plan will benefit both you and your audience by establishing a stable framework for your writing.
Technical Writing for Engineers Tip 5: Review, review, review. . . and review.
Our last tip on technical writing for engineers is to follow the old axiom “measure twice, cut once.” The concept of double-checking applies just as much to your written words as it does to your daily work.
After you finish the first draft of your writing, take some time to reread the content to ensure it is understandable, accessible, and appropriate for your target audience. Try to check for patterns: are the directions phrased similarly? Is the voice and level of detail consistent? Is the same terminology used across definitions and descriptions?
Once your review is done, seek the opinions of other writers or engineers to help verify the accuracy of your information and point out any potential gaps or additions. Have the reviewer briefly summarize your writing back to you, and ensure they understood the message the way you intended to communicate it. If their summary is off base, consider ways to clarify, simplify, or reinforce your meaning so that the intent is easy to grasp on the first readthrough. After your work is sent, submitted, or published, it can be difficult or impossible to correct any mistakes. So, invest upfront in your attention to detail, and recruit resources in your network to help finalize your content with confidence.
If you are looking to expand your network for more support in technical writing, revising, or training tips on any of these topics, check out our other blogs and free Learning Center: or bring your questions and contact us directly!