Engineers: treat writing projects like engineering problems


Posted August 29, 2018

Few engineers enter their line of work with high hopes of endless writing.

Yet writing is an intrinsic and key part of the engineering process. Whether it’s documentation and manuals, research and reports, or just emails and other internal communications, good writing is critical to any successful engineering career. All engineers must be able to communicate with colleagues, customers, and stakeholders clearly and effectively.
However, many engineers shy away from writing as much as they can. They may avoid it when possible, minimize it when they can’t get out of it, and gloss over the activity just to get it out the door.
One way to make writing projects more approachable is to treat them like engineering problems.

Treat your writing as though you’re engineering a product

Most engineers adopt a highly structured, step-by-step approach to engineering new products or programs. They start with ideation and brainstorming, from which they’ll prepare a rough blueprint. From there, they iteratively refine the concept or product until it’s ready for beta testing. And so on. Apply the same step-by-step, iterative approach to your writing. Read more about this approach here.

Apply top-down design

Top-down design is an engineering tactic that breaks a high-level system down into sub-systems. It can usually be visualized as a hierarchy, and it’s a great way to iteratively “build” a written work. For example, if you start with the task “make pancakes,” you might break that down into a series of subtasks, including (1) organizing the kitchen, (2) preparing the pancakes, and (3) serving them. Those tasks then break down further: for instance, organizing the kitchen might include gathering ingredients. And so on. Top-down design is actually a great way to take an idea and iteratively build it out into an outline, and then from an outline into an initial draft.

Employ failure mode and effects analysis

Failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) is a systematic methodology that reliability engineers used to understand problems that can arise from malfunctions. It involves studying points of potential failure and their causes and effects. Apply the same thought process to your writing drafts. For product documentation, for example, the writing needs to be understandable, accurate, and informational. Evaluate each section – perhaps even down to the individual sentence – and consider if it’s clear, unambiguous, and correct. If you’re not sure, why not? What might happen if someone misinterprets or misunderstands what’s written? What would fix the situation?

Make the most of your team

Major engineering projects are rarely the work of a single individual. Instead, it takes the combined skills, knowledge, and mastery of many great minds to come together and build a product, program, or other solution that works well. So too with writing. Ask for trusted colleague’s input on your drafts. Consider brainstorming with your team on content, intended readers, and best format.  

Get training

No professional engineer would ever tackle an assignment for which she was not appropriately qualified and prepared. Particularly for high-urgency but low-frequency writing projects (like a paper or presentation at a conference), supplemental training in writing can spell the difference between a painful and awkward piece and one that is effective and praiseworthy.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 25 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.