Engineering Technical Writing: Tips for Engineers
Contributor: Heath Baker, Executive General Manager, NSW - Engenium Pty Ltd
Let’s be frank, engineering technical writing can be a daunting task – even for the most experienced engineers amongst us.
As an engineer you should be able to take complex information and convey it in a way that’s easy to understand – clear, concise and coherent. But there’s an art to technical writing that most engineers I’ve come across fail to grasp, often choosing to stick to bullet points as an easy way out.
While bullet points are a great way of listing a number of items in an easy to read format they don’t provide the depth of explanation often required by your clients, colleagues and other stakeholders who might be involved in the project.
The better you articulate yourself, the better you will be understood. This will leave no room for misinterpretation or confusion, which could present problems for you later down the track.
What is 'Technical Writing'?
Technical writing is a form of writing technical communication used in a variety of technical fields (such as engineering), written by a technical writer whose task it is to facilitate the transfer of information (knowledge) between two or more parties.
Knowledge, the information that technical writers must convey, is often complex meaning the technical writer must be capable of analysing the supplied information and then presenting it in a ‘human-like’ format that is easy to read and understand.
Competent and experienced technical writers also possess strong writing and communication skills. They do not always choose to convey information through text, rather utilising a diverse range of tools and software to create and edit illustrations and visual aids.
Engineering Technical Writing – An Experts Perspective
Gillian Mountford, Engenium’s Senior Technical Writer, offers some great advice if you are new to technical writing, or just need some guidance to improve your writing skills.
Here is what she has to say:
“Technical writing basically helps simplify the complex. It involves communicating complex information to those who need it to accomplish a task or goal.
As part of the communication process, there are three main factors you need to consider:
- The readers who will use the information.
- The purpose of the documentation. This helps define the type of documentation.
- The content, which should indicate logical groupings of information. The structure of that information may be influenced by different audiences and the purpose of the documentation.
From a personal perspective, I have a background in languages. I see great similarities between the translation process from one language to another and the “translation” or simplification of complex technical information to a new audience – engineer-speak to user-speak.
I suggests the following four skills are key for engineering technical writing:
- An enjoyment in learning about complicated systems – this understanding brings a sense of achievement and reward.
- An ability to write clearly and concisely.
- An understanding of the importance of graphical representation – almost everyone is a visual person and people understand better when you can communicate visually.
- The ability to interact with SMEs. You can’t be shy about going after certain people to extract information, and not too proud to ask the dumb technical questions that make engineers do double-takes!”
Improving Your Engineering Technical Writing
Engineers are technical individuals, but that doesn’t mean we are good technical writers.
The advantage most engineers possess is that we are detail oriented. We have a passion to want to know how things work.
The disadvantage of being an engineer is we often write in a truncated and bullet point like manner - making it tricky for the non-technical reader to translate it into something meaningful.
The path for you to improve your technical writing is improving your ability to see simplicity in complexity. It’s important to strip away the complexities of processes and systems and present your technical understanding in a way others can more easily translate.
You might think that writing in a simple way will mean you come across as less of an expert. But don’t be afraid of this.
The first step is accepting that your readers aren’t exactly like you. Don’t assume the intended or unintended reader will natively understand your funky acronyms, abbreviations and engineering terminologies.
Use present tense and keep sentences simple. These two rules are imperative for making information as clear and accessible as possible. Assume your audience will have a range of reading comprehension levels.
If writing for an international audience avoid using local idioms, for example, “add insult to injury” or “ball is in your court” or “at the drop of a hat”, these can become very tricky when translating across languages or cultures.
Engineers can draw so incorporate sketches, symbols, diagrams and images to better ensure your readers can translate what it is you’re communicating.
Even the font you select in the documentation can make a significant optical benefit (or hindrance) for your reader.
When reading other engineering technical writing, make notes of the styles and techniques the writer uses to help you improve your own.
Don’t’ Feel Like Doing it Yourself? Get an Expert In.
Engenium has professional technical writers who research and write user and reference documentation, such as:
- Operations Manuals
- Maintenance Manuals
- Equipment Hardware Manuals and Technical Descriptions
- Policy and Procedure Documents
- Technical and Functional Specification Documents.
You can engage one or more of our technical writers from just one day through to several months.
Contact our Perth, Karratha or Newcastle office and ask about the technical writing services Engenium can provide your organisation or project.