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Engineering Skills: Is Writing One of Them?

Automation World Editor-in-Chief Gary Mintchell stirs the pot on our LinkedIn group by asking: Why is writing an important skill for engineers? Or do you want to argue with me that it isn't?

Members of the Automation World group on LinkedIn discuss whether writing is critical for engineers.
Members of the Automation World group on LinkedIn discuss whether writing is critical for engineers.

On the Automation World LinkedIn group at http://bit.ly/automationworld, discussions typically range from members seeking advice on how to automate a particular type of machinery to the role of IT in automation decisions. Recently, Automation World Editor-in-Chief Gary Mintchell thought it would be interesting to step beyond the usual discussions about various automation technologies and into the realm of required engineering skills other than the obvious technically oriented ones.

Response to his question about the importance of writing for engineers was swift, but by no means short.
 
Among the first respondents was Leon Ejdelman, president of Letico Inc., a St. Laurent, Quebec-based engineering firm. “In my opinion, the majority of engineering schools do not pay enough attention to the issue and, as a result, most engineers can not write,” he said. “Writing skills, no matter what language, are very important — even for engineers.
 
Concurring with Ejdelman was Rick Rice, an applications engineer at Crest Foods (Rockford, Ill.), who said, “Technicians and operators count on engineers to convey their thoughts and instructions in a meaningful manner.”
 
Rice added that “technical writing was a prerequisite to graduating from my field of study and it should be in the core curriculum of all engineering disciplines.”
 
Drawing on her personal experience as an engineering manager and an applications engineer, Joan Welty, now the director of marketing at AutomationDirect (Cumming, Ga.), said, “When I was an integrator, our projects were made better and we were viewed as more competent in the customers' eyes since I was able to perform my engineering responsibilities and write clear reports as well as operations and training documents. At AutomationDirect, my writing skills allowed me to move into marketing, since I could write about the products I had been using.”
 
Despite the abundance of respondents in agreement that writing skills are important for engineers, not all concurred with the assertion that the ability to write well is critical.
 
“From my point of view writing isn’t so important,” noted Radomir Pistek, a sales support engineer for Emerson Process Management in the Czech Republic.  “More important is expression. I think this will be the issue for the future in a world of communication clients.” 
 
Pistek contended that you can already see the overriding power of expression today in the “short expressions” we use in our emails and text messages to get our points across.
 
Other respondents agreed that new communications technologies would likely affect the way we write and, potentially, the need for engineers to possess a highly skilled level of writing ability. 
 
“At present I think writing skills are important, but looking into the future I wonder if that will be true,” said Mark Berube, a product engineer at AutomationDirect and a co-worker of Joan Welty who weighed into this discussion on behalf of the need for engineers to possess well-developed writing skills. “Writing, like so many other things in our daily lives is undergoing standardization. Like it or not, the movement toward standardized written communication will continue. I can envision a future where the writer will dictate the keypoints of a document or correspondence to a computer that, in turn, will produce a grammatically correct finished document.”
 
Berube adds an interesting point for consideration of his argument: “You may argue that written communication is a creative art that can never be duplicated by technology,” he said, “and, at present, I would agree. But looking ahead, I wonder? I learned mathematics in school, but I reach for my calculator on a daily basis.”
 
It may come to pass that, one day in the future, well-developed writing skills may not be a critical requirement for engineers. But that day has not yet arrived. In the meantime, it’s best to heed the advice offered by Bob Lowe, executive director of the Control System Integrators Association (Madison, Wis.). 
 
“No engineer is isolated from the need to communicate with their coworkers, vendors, clients, and others,” Lowe said. “Engineers write technical descriptions on how to do things or how things work. They may write proposals, project plans, specifications, change orders and so forth. Proper writing skills complement their technical skills, making them a valuable asset to a team or company. On the flip side, poor writing skills limit their effectiveness and efficiency. Additionally, the quality of an engineer’s communications can be perceived as an indication of the level of professionalism of a company, and perception is reality to the reader.”
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