Is Writing an Essential Skill for Engineers?

Dec. 1, 2011
Technical skills may still be king, but engineers are finding that they also need a broad array of the so-called “soft” skills if they are going to be effective in today’s multidisciplinary teams.

Engineers are artists, even if they don’t fit the popular notion of the term. It’s just that their medium is mathematics, rather than paint or words. Because they go to school to develop their creative genius to design the things that people need, they devote their time studying the necessary math and science. In fact, many try their best to get through their universities with as few “distractions” as possible and may graduate with only one course in writing. So, it’s not surprising that a challenge to a guest lecturer on good writing would become one of my foremost memories of engineering school at Cleveland State University back in the early ’80s.

The challenge came from a student during a projects class as the lecturer was briefly reviewing some grammar and offering the usual advice that just about everyone hears from English teachers. The faculty of the chemical engineering department had asked an editor from a locally based plastics magazine to give us seniors some pointers on assembling the required technical reports and to critique our writing afterward. Because engineers have a reputation of being weak writers, our professors did not want to neglect this important life skill and have us enter the workforce at a disadvantage.

My dissenting classmate, however, objected not only to the lesson but also to the whole premise of the exercise. After all, we were engineers, not English majors. We were about data and delivering results. No one in industry was going to make us write elaborate technical reports and critique the writing afterward. Consequently, teaching us about the art of writing was a waste of time.

In a way that he might not have intended, the student made an important point, observes Alan Rossiter, Ph.D., a chemical engineer and president of Rossiter and Associates, a consulting firm based in Bellaire, Texas. “It depends on what you want to do with your career,” he says. “If you get your satisfaction from doing calculations and want simply to do just that the rest of your life, then you don’t need writing skills.”

He hastens to add, however, that not investing the time and effort to develop good communication skills can be a self-limiting decision. “A lot of good ideas never see the light of day because the engineers who have them are unable to communicate their ideas,” he says. “So, if you want to advance beyond just being a number cruncher, then you need to be able to communicate effectively.” And that includes acquiring a minimal proficiency in writing.

Key to a career

In fact, lacking adequate communications skills can inhibit an engineer’s ability to get a job at some of the larger technology companies. For example, Rockwell Automation, the Milwaukee-based automation vendor, regularly screens engineering applicants for those skills. Although the screening is usually weighted toward verbal skills, “some business units do specifically evaluate candidates’ writing ability,” reports Susan Schmitt, senior vice president of human resources.

Even though Rockwell Automation places great value on the core technical competencies, its management feels that technical skills are not enough for bringing ideas from concept to reality on the factory floor. “Our engineers must communicate clearly—and often simply—with other employees, suppliers, distributors and customers,” explains Schmitt. “To that end, we continually encourage our engineers to develop and maintain effective communications skills, including the strong writing capabilities that facilitate many of the proposals, contracts, manuals and business writings their jobs require.”

Writing, moreover, is often the key into the internal communications networks that most companies, especially the large ones, have developed for disseminating technical information throughout the organization efficiently. Engineers are often expected to report on their work, not only to share with their colleagues but also to add to the corporate memory.

Such was the case when Michelle Bryner worked as chemical engineer at the fabrics division of W.L. Gore and Associates Inc., a Newark, Del.-based manufacturer of products derived from fluoropolymers. “If I was working with a coating or mixing with surfactants, for example, I would have to write a report so others could use my findings,” she says. Many of those same skills also helped her to prepare oral presentations both to her immediate team and before larger groups.

A leadership skill

Bryner also found writing to be an important leadership skill when she had been asked to lead a global team investing in a coating. Because walking down the hall to chat with a colleague was impossible, written communication by e-mail was essential for describing experiments, disseminating results, and justifying continued funding of her team’s project to management. “If my communication and writing skills were not good, I don’t think that management would have let me lead a team,” she says. For this reason, she believes that the impact of writing skills or the lack of them can often be subtle.

Investing further in her writing skills by earning a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University has generated even more dividends for Bryner. She freelanced for Popular Science for a while and is now an assistant editor of Chemical Engineering Progress magazine, the flagship publication of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers in New York.

Writing has been an important to Rossiter’s career, too. Like Bryner, he also submitted the usual written reports while a process engineer and manager at London-based Imperial Chemical Industries and a process integration consultant and manger at Houston-based Linnhoff March Inc. Now, however, writing reports and other documents has become central to his work since he opened his own consulting practice in 1997. In his practice, he serves as the lead engineer on all of his projects, coordinating the network of academics and independent industry specialists that he often uses.

Operating his consulting practice would be impossible with without skills in writing and oral communications. “If you want to work semi-independently or if you want to supervise other people, the ability to communicate is critical,” Rossiter says. “In fact, if you talk about leadership skills, I would put communication skills at the top of the list. If you can’t communicate with the people that you’re trying to direct or lead, then they won’t know what to do.”

Besides communicating with his network of experts and reporting results and recommendations to clients, Rossiter has taken the time to write three books, contribute to engineering encyclopedias, and to publish articles in engineering magazines and research in refereed academic journals. He has found that the effort has been useful in promoting his career. “If you want to be noticed, you’ve got to communicate,” he says.

Polishing your skills

For this reason, Rossiter offers some advice on communicating well in a section of his latest book, Professional Excellence: Beyond Technical Competence (published by Wiley and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, 2008). Because the book describes how to develop the non-technical attributes necessary for a successful engineering career, the guidelines that he gives for writing go beyond merely communicating technical information. They also help with such things as organizing your thoughts to achieve whatever your objectives may be, tailoring your message to the intended audience, and leaving a good impression in any day-to-day interaction.

Rossiter notes that any engineer who wants to improve his or her writing needs first to understand how learning to write is different from learning about technology. “Technical skills especially, we tend to learn by rigorous study,” he says. Soft skills like writing, on the other hand, are largely learned by experience and through interaction with others. After you learn the structure (grammar) of the language that you are using and the fundamentals of good communication, you learn to write by writing and looking at how others do it.

In many ways, the process is analogous to learning such skills as ice skating or karate. During a class, the instructor will explain and demonstrate the fundamentals and drill you in them. In the end, however, the only way to become good at skating or karate is through years of practice.

This reporter urges engineers who want to improve their writing not to underestimate the value of finding a good coach to critique your work. Although I had learned most of my grammar in the sixth grade from a gifted teacher and graduated from college with a measure of proficiency in writing, it was really the training that I received at my first job at a magazine that refined my craft. One of the talented editors there, a mechanical engineer turned writer, edited my work for about a year, squeezing out unnecessary words and reinforcing the principles of good writing. The pages bled red ink from his corrections, but my writing improved much during this time.

Although most engineers will not have access to the kind of intensive tutoring that I had, other resources exist. If they work for a big company, for example, they might be able to enroll in in-house programs such as the online writing courses in the Virtual Learning Center that Rockwell Automation maintains for its employees. Some companies also will offer tuition assistance for courses and workshops taken at community colleges and other local organizations. Even if yours doesn’t, it might be worth the investment of your own funds to spruce up your writing skills.

Schools stress writing

Because writing is an important life skill for every professional, engineering schools have been looking for ways to ensure that their students have a chance to develop some proficiency at it. At Cleveland State, for example, the engineering college now requires all of its students to take a course in technical writing in lieu of the English 2 course that had been required by the university. “It covers business correspondence, technical reports, as well as how to write clearly and accurately,” says Will Atherton, chairman of the mechanical engineering department.

Atherton had originally developed the course for the mechanical engineering students and taught it himself in the first years that it was offered. Now, the college hires freelance technical writers who produce manuals, develop web sites, and generate other kinds of corporate literature to teach the course. “It’s been much more valuable to our students than another course in English,” says Atherton.

The engineering college at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. is taking a more comprehensive approach to giving its students a well-rounded education that includes writing skills. Six years ago, the college formed what it calls the Engineer 2020 committee to develop a list of technical and non-technical attributes that engineers will need to be competitive in the future. Written and oral communication made the final list.

Each of the Purdue engineering schools is now deliberating on how to integrate the development of these attributes into their programs and how to assess the results. The faulty is looking at a multi-tiered approach. For example, professors are looking for simple ways to integrate writing and the other attributes into existing classes and into the sophomore, junior, and senior seminars.

Perhaps the most obvious place to start is the capstone design course. “The students have to make presentations and write reports that are graded,” says Mike Harris, associate dean of undergraduate studies and co-chair of the Engineer 2020 committee. “Some schools will have professional editors edit the work and give the students a detailed critique.”

In the nuclear engineering school, for example, one professor has gone so far as to develop a communications course for teaching the students how to both speak and write effectively. “She gives detailed comments on the writing style of the students,” says Harris. “Good writing goes beyond just using proper grammar.” There is talk of perhaps requiring all engineering students at Purdue to take this course.  

James R. Koelsch is a Contributing Editor for Automation World.

About the Author

James R. Koelsch, contributing writer | Contributing Editor

Since Jim Koelsch graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, he has spent more than 35 years reporting on various kinds of manufacturing technology. His publishing experience includes stints as a staff editor on Production Engineering (later called Automation) at Penton Publishing and as editor of Manufacturing Engineering at the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. After moving to freelance writing in 1997, Jim has contributed to many other media sites, foremost among them has been Automation World, which has been benefiting from his insights since 2004.

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