Canadian Consulting Engineer

Technical Writing

As a professional engineer you spend at least 25 per cent of your time communicating with clients and col leagues through your writing. It's important that your writing communicates well. Avoiding som...

October 1, 2005   By Maja Rehou

As a professional engineer you spend at least 25 per cent of your time communicating with clients and col leagues through your writing. It’s important that your writing communicates well. Avoiding some of the more common errors and poor practices will improve the clarity and effectiveness of your documents.

Avoid the passive voice

Take the following example: “The 33 acres surrounding 1000 Blank Avenue were tested by representatives of the MOE and found to have a considerable magnitude of local contaminants. As a result, the buildings in close proximity to the property will be contaminated as well.”

The passage, while not incorrect, uses awkward and wordy phrases such as “considerable magnitude” and “in close proximity.” It is also written in the passive voice, which is when the subject of the sentence is acted upon, rather than doing the acting.

Changing the passive voice to active voice and defining an acronym like “MOE” for readers possibly unfamiliar with the term, results in the following, more direct sentence:

“Representatives of the Ministry of the Environment tested the 33 acres surrounding 1000 Blank Avenue and found the land considerably contaminated. As a result, the buildings close to the property will also be contaminated.”

Using the active voice in a report will sound stronger, more direct and more convincing. The active voice also makes the writing more concise. The passive voice, by contrast, makes the author sound detached and uninvolved.

The best way to avoid passive voice is to write in the first person and using active verbs. Using “I” or “we” clearly identifies who was involved and is particularly important when making recommendations. “We recommend …” sounds more convincing than “It is recommended that …”

The first person form enhances the author’s authority and credibility because it shows that he/she or the company takes ownership for the content and stands firmly behind the data and results. While it is not always possible to transform all sentences in engineering or scientific reports into the active voice, here are some common passive voice constructions to avoid where possible:

* “This is also seen when …”

* “It can be seen that …”

* “It is shown that …”

Assess your audience

* Know what the readers want, expect and need from the document. If you are required to write on a liability issue, for example, and want to convince an insurance company that a building collapsed due to an improper design, then your report should not emphasize the prevailing extreme weather conditions.

* Know how much the reader already understands about the topic and background. For instance, even if the reader of the report is another engineer, he or she may be in a completely different discipline that has its own jargon and industry-specific information.

* Know who else may read the document. There may be a variety of readers with different backgrounds. For example, a property development company, real estate agent, legal counsel, as well as other environmental engineers will read an environmental assessment of possible land contaminants. They will all have different needs and purposes in mind.

Organize your document

A third element in effective technical writing is taking into account how the document will be read. Will it be read from start to finish, or will the readers need to go to various sections to get the information they need? Many will not read a 40-page formal report in its entirety, so they need to be guided through the document by headings and subheadings. Major sections and subsections should be clearly related and each paragraph should flow logically from one idea to the next. This flow can be achieved by using linking words and proper transitions.

A typical report arrangement is: 1. Summary, 2. Background and/or Introduction, 3. Facts and Findings/Discussion, 4. Conclusion or Outcome.

The material within sections 2 and 3 can be organized in various ways, according to:

* chronological order

* decreasing importance

* cause and effect

* comparison and contrast

* classification into categories.

In the “decreasing importance” organizational structure, for example, the first topic covered will be the most important, followed by others of decreasing importance. In a “cause and effect” structure, the cause of a particular situation is stated first. Then the information in the following paragraphs describes the “effect” or what transpired, and it indicates the relationship between the things and/or events.

Deciding which is the most effective organizational structure to use depends on the nature of the report or analysis and the information you are conveying.

Regardless of the type of organizational format you use, you should write all reports and subsections in a pyramid style. The summary or abstract at the beginning of the document will state the results of your investigations and the most important information. Similarly, the first paragraph of each subsection should summarize the information that follows.

Technical writing is a process that requires a systematic approach. No matter how proficient you are in your area of expertise, communicating your facts and data effectively in writing can be a challenge. Even difficult subjects like engineering benefit from the use of clear and simple prose and by logical organization as outlined above.

Maja Rehou is founder of WordForce Communications, a Toronto-based company specializing in technical and business communications. E-mail mrehou@wordforce.

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