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Why Most Professional Writing Courses for Engineers Don’t Result in Better Outcomes

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Posted Feb. 5, 2024

Writing is undeniably an indispensable skill in the technical, scientific, and engineering sectors, but have you ever wondered why, in college, engineers are required to take so few writing courses? 

“A very experienced engineer I worked with towards the beginning of my career once told me, the output of engineering is documentation,” says Aaron Moncur, host of the podcast Being an Engineer, in a conversation with Pam Hurley, PhD, founder of Hurley Write. He’s right: we have long argued that the document is the deliverable of your work.

Yet most writing courses—especially academic ones—fail to adequately prepare students for the real-world applications they’re likely to face. The central problem is that most professional writing courses over-emphasize grammar and rhetoric and under-emphasize critical thinking and problem-solving.

Consider an engineer documenting their work. Without a deep understanding of who they’re writing for and why,  they may write a grammatically correct document whose highly technical language is impenetrable to a non-technical stakeholder, rendering the document useless to those readers. Or, without thinking strategically about how to structure the document, they may write a technically correct document that buries the most important information in the middle of long pages of unbroken text. In that case, they may not make a meaningful impact on their readers, who may miss or misunderstand the most important content.

Good grammar won’t fix such problems, and neither will a tool or training course that fails to marry critical thinking to the writing process. “Tools like Grammarly don’t just fix everything,” observed Moncur in our discussion. “They just fix the grammar, not the underlying thought process, which is really the most important part of the writing.”

This has enormous implications for engineers. Substandard writing output, even if their technical work is flawless, can put careers and business performance at risk.

On an individual level, poor writing undermine career advancement.

For instance, an aspiring manager could be adept at writing detailed reports but still fail to ascend the career ladder because their writing doesn’t highlight their strategic contributions. Effective writing should not just inform and educate but also persuade and compel action. Technical skill, absent an ability to expertly document and communicate technical achievement, isn’t enough to carry a career forward.

“If you’re not good at technical writing, you’re missing out on opportunities that would otherwise be available to you,” said Moncur. “[But] if you have [both] the minimum technical skill set and you’re also really good with communication, there’s almost no limit to how far you can go.”

On an organizational level, poor writing imposes huge opportunity costs.

For example, let’s say a company’s research team produces an exhaustive analysis of market trends, but the document is too dense and fails to succinctly highlight actionable insights. Their report thus falls flat at the organization, producing no changes in organizational strategy, and thus no change in overall business performance. Here, the team’s writing needs to be outcome-oriented, directly tying their findings to strategic recommendations.

In another case, a team of engineers is writing a proposal for a grant or new customer. They scour the document for any errant grammatical imperfection, but they don’t think strategically about the purpose of the document. Almost all writing is goal-driven, but without that understanding, the team in this case produces a proposal that fails to make clear how they would produce superior results than a competitor.

Even worse, if the organization and its members think about writing quality only in terms of grammar, they may miss the potential inherent in putting out strong, impactful content. “Writing is a great leveraged tool,” Moncur told us. “If you can write something that can be disseminated to many different people” you can reach a far larger audience.

He’s right. We worked with an engineering firm that wanted to be more successful on LinkedIn. Our work with them went beyond just helping them “write better.” We also needed to help them better understand their value proposition, figure out how to translate that value into written content, and implement a strategy that would result in maximum exposure to their desired audience, but it had to do so in a way that would drive desired action, which in this case was increased engagement on LinkedIn.

All of this means organizations need to up the ante when it comes to writing skills development among their staff, especially in technical areas. Better writers achieve better outcomes, both personally and organizationally. But better writing rests on a foundation that’s more multidimensional and multilayered than just grammar or simple rhetoric. The only way to truly level up writing ability is through a course that marries strategy, process, problem- solving, and critical thinking into a cohesive whole.

Listen to our conversation with Moncur here:

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For a proven partner in training entire workforces to conquer real-world writing challenges,Contact Hurley Write for a consultation to assess and find the right solution(s) to your writing needs.

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Why Most Professional Writing Courses for Engineers Don’t Result in Better Outcomes

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