8 Tips to Help Science and Engineering Professionals Spend Dramatically Less Time Writing


“How many of you enjoy writing and write daily?”
Our eyes pan across the room. Not a single hand is raised. Not one.
This scene plays out again and again during our writing training classes for scientists and engineers. Yet if you’re a scientist or engineer, chances are you actually spend a tremendous amount of time writing. Researchers find that many engineers spend more than 40% of their work time writing. Similarly, an informal survey reveals that more than 60% of scientists report spending more than half of their work time writing. That’s a lot of time doing something you dislike.
If you find yourself disliking writing and spending too much of your time doing it, you have two solutions.
The first is to learn to like writing more (or at least dislike it less). The only reliable method for learning to like writing more is learning how to write more effectively. People often dislike writing because they believe they aren’t good at it. When you’re more confident about your writing—and enjoying compliments about your documents instead of suffering criticisms—it’s amazing how much more you come to enjoy it.
In this blog, however, we’re focusing on the second solution: finding ways to spend less time writing. If you’re like most professionals, you’re inefficient with your writing time, and thus spending far more time than necessary to write emails, reports, proposals, and other documents. Adopt the eight tips in this post, and you should find that you’re spending dramatically less time on writing, giving you more time for other aspects of your job.
1. Limit Email Time
Spending less time on email is one of the biggest potential workday time-savers. An Adobe Systems survey finds that U.S. workers estimate they spend a whopping 6.3 hours each day checking emails, with 3.2 hours devoted to work emails and 3.1 hours to personal messages.
Not all of this time is writing time—much is reading—but many workers spend far too much time writing emails. Two tips to reduce this time are
  • Use a timer: Set a timer for a short period—say 15 minutes—for responding to email, and when it goes off, go to non-email work. Setting a time limit encourages you to move through your emails briskly.
  • Keep messages and replies brief: The time-savings from writing short emails adds up over the course of the day. Recipients prefer and expect short emails, too.
An underrated aspect of reducing the amount of time you spend writing emails is that it can improve your other writing. It’s hard to write all day. If you spend less time writing emails, you can give more of your writing energy to other documents (articles, reports, proposals, etc.).
If you’re interested in more tips for saving time on email, check out Minda Zetlin’s article “7 Ways to Spend Dramatically Less Time on Email.”
2. Prepare
Time spent on writing prep is time well spent. Effective preparation helps you write more effective documents and you usually save more time in the end; the prep helps guide your first draft and reduces editing and revising time. Effective writing prep includes:
  • Defining the writing problem
  • Gathering necessary data
  • Deciding on the outcome of the document
  • Defining your target audience and figuring out what you need to know
  • Exploring options (what’s the best way to convey your message to your targeted reader?)
3. Write an Outcome Statement
Don’t write documents that are significantly longer than necessary; many of the writers we work with tend to include everything they know about a topic, whether it’s relevant or not, and thus spend far too much time writing and revising. Writing an outcome statement can help keep you on track and thereby limit the amount of infomraiton you include. Documents that are too long are a disservice to readers, as nobody wants to wade through overly long, overly complicated documents.
4. Don’t Waste Time Trying to Sound “Smart”
Don’t get bogged down with using the latest jargon and terminology. Instead, use plain, understandable English to create readable documents. Your readers will appreciate it, and you’ll probably save time. In addition, if your documents will be used five days, five months, or five years from now by another reader, you should ask yourself if the words/jargon you’re using will be understood and/or used in the same way. Language changes.
5. Quiet Your Internal Editor
Nothing slows down writing a first draft like an overactive internal editor. It can be hard to stop picking apart your writing sentence-by-sentence or even word-by-word, but all those stops and starts slow your writing progress and cause you to lose your flow. They can even cause you to lose your inspiration.
Instead, when writing a first draft, focus on ensuring your overall document is well organized and effectively communicated. It doesn’t take much time during revision to change words and sentences; fixing a poorly organized document, however, can be a major chore.
For more on this topic, read Karen Hertzberg’s post in Grammarly, “How to Silence Your Internal Editor.”
6. Set Deadlines
Writing has a way of filling up whatever time you give it. Having strict but manageable deadlines helps you have an efficient writing process.
7. Have a Sensible Review Process
You might not have control of your organization’s review process, but poor review processes are a significant source of time-suck. The biggest culprit is the “too many cooks” problem. This is when too many people are editing and signing off on documents, each adding their thoughts and insights, resulting in seemingly endless rounds of edits. Often the document actually gets worse, rather than better in the process. If this sounds like your organization’s review process, consider incorporating a targeted review process: find a colleague and ask them for specific types of feedback; this way, they’re more likely to provide the feedback becaue they’re not being asked to review the entire document and you’re more likely to get relevant feedback.
8. Work on Your Writing
When you’re good at a task, not only do you perform the task well, but you also can complete it in less time. Research shows that if you work on your writing just 15 minutes per day, that you’ll improve your writing significantly.
If your team needs help strengthening their writing skills or needs to learn new strategies for writing effectively, contact Hurley Write today!
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