Technical Writing for Engineers

Posted by [email protected] on 12/08/2020 6:23 pm  /   Technical Articles

Joel Hartman

By Joel R. Hartman, SE

The engineers that I know are highly competent and specialized, with knowledge allowing them to solve problems adeptly and design unique, effective solutions. However due to the technical nature of engineering projects, often one of the biggest challenges is effective communication. If a skilled engineer also possesses the ability to communicate design solutions to a diverse audience, they will be able to influence important decisions, and help ensure that the best value is attained for a given project and the community at large. Effective writing skills will go a long way to save time on projects, reduce conflict, increase business prospects, and improve designs by fostering better collaboration between disciplines.

While templates are widely available and every office likely already has standard formats, the communication needs of specific reports will vary significantly, requiring the author to regularly edit language and compose accessible descriptions of complex topics. In this article I will outline some key points that will help focus and improve your writing, and note common errors to avoid when communicating analysis results and engineering concepts. It is my experience that written communication can improve significantly with the purposeful application of report formatting, audience awareness, and thoughtful syntax.

Most of this should be simple to implement, and while these concepts are not new, they do seem to be neglected in engineering education and largely forgotten by the time we get to a point in our careers where we are responsible for creating new technical documents. Many of you will realize that you follow a lot of these guidelines intuitively, so my hope is that in conceptualizing these practices it will make it easier to create standards for reports and teach technical writing to new engineers.

Background
At some point in our education most of us learned a few standard formats for writing, and these coalesce in our mind as the templates we have to choose from when starting a writing project: essays, research papers, lab reports, and business letters. As Engineers, our English education tends to drop off in favor of more technical courses, and little effort is made to formalize our writing knowledge and make the best use of it for Engineering. The Engineering reports we write end up requiring a combination of these previously learned formats, employed with purpose to convey important information, document results, conduct business, and maintain relationships with colleagues and clients. 

To make use of our existing writing knowledge in applying it to engineering products, we should first understand the purpose of some of these familiar writing templates, and keep in mind how these might be incorporated into compiling an engineering report.

  • Essay
    • Narrative
    • Persuasive
    • 5-paragraph format, i.e. 1-parapgraph introduction summarizing scope and outlining exposition, 3-paragraph exposition presenting relevant points and supporting information, 1-parapgraph conclusion summarizing key points.
  • Research Paper
    • Informative – ideas presented require supporting documentation
    • Format: introduction/thesis statement, body, conclusion, citations
    • Incorporates outlines, drafts, peer review, revisions
  • Lab Report
    • Informative with focus on processes & documentation
    • Format: Abstract, Hypothesis, Equipment & Procedures, Results, Conclusion, appendices for data & references
  • Business Letter
    • Can have many possible purposes, but usually not more than one or two pages in length. The focus is on format rather than content. Specifies a template and etiquette to convey professionalism, and communicate the desired objective.


We will pull key ideas from each of these writing formats in compiling our Engineering reports. Our reports will vary in scope and purpose, but will share many of the same needs for specific writing skills to effectively communicate technical information to a variety of audiences.

Engineering Report Format
The sections outlined below will be relevant to almost every report in some way. This is intended as a guide to build a report standard, and it is expected that it will be modified to suit the specific needs of a given project.

  • Title Page
    • Company and client logos
    • Project/location info
    • Contributing authors names, credentials, and Engineer of Record seal & signature
  • Introduction Letter
    • Follows a typical business letter format
    • Contains the abstract, i.e. brief summary of purpose, methods, and results
    • Realize that this is the only part of the report that most people will read, so don’t miss the opportunity to highlight vital information.
  • Table of contents
    • Serves as an index for longer, more complex reports. Ensure that headings and table/chart/graphic numbering matches exactly with the verbiage and order of appearance in the body of the report.
  • Narrative
    • Introduction: describe scope (specific structures/components to be evaluated or designed, as well as site & location info) & objective/purpose (e.g. new design, load change analysis, rehabilitation, etc).
    • Procedure: outline codes & standards, design docs and survey info referenced, describe software & calculation methods. Include tables and/or graphics to summarize construction plans or equipment/loading changes.
    • Results & discussion: show results that are directly relevant to the scope and that will inform recommendations. Add commentary where needed for clarity.
    • Conclusions & recommendations:
      • State how the objective was addressed by the work performed, e.g. “The analysis determined that the existing structure does not have adequate capacity to support the proposed equipment upgrade” or “the design provided in the construction drawings sheet S1-S7 is sufficient to support the proposed equipment and all required occupancy loads as defined herein.”
      • Provide any recommendations necessary to achieve objectives. Recommendations should be specific and unambiguous - there may be many options for how to go about a design or retrofit, our job is to consider various
        scenarios (costs/benefits, etc.), choose, and provide actionable expert recommendations. Either a solution is provided directly or an additional scope of work is defined to address the problem.
  • Appendix
    • The appendix serves as a source for information relied upon and referenced in the report narrative. This will include the results of original work done for the project, design information from other contributing disciplines, and cited research or engineering standards.
      • Analysis/modeling results
      • Additional calculations & relevant discussion
      • Drawings/design details
      • Survey data or legacy documentation

 

Scope of Work
The scope is relevant to all sections of the engineering report. A scope outline will often be the first thing sought out in the report. The scope will also guide the narrative and determine what is to be included in the calculations and appendices.

  • Clearly defined in report introduction or abstract, adhered to in calculations and results presented. Scopes can vary significantly so it is important to be specific and ensure that it matches up with contract documents.
  • State assumptions or provide references for items provided by others that are used in your design, e.g. “engineer shall be notified and revision may be required if the cladding weight is expected to exceed the limit specified"
  • Define items that are to be provided by others that will rely on results in your report, e.g. “premanufactured trusses to be provided by others; capacity to meet or exceed roof and ceiling design loads summarized herein.”
  • Avoid complex descriptions or supplementary calculations that can distract from the intended purpose. The goal is to convey specific results & recommendations backed up by appropriate documentation, not to impress the reader with technical prowess. Any information included can be interpreted as design direction and acted upon, potentially adding liability and responsibility outside the scope of work.
  • Avoid repeating information in multiple locations. This makes revisions easier, and avoids contradicting information within the report.
  • Go the extra mile to exceed client expectations within the scope. Use recommendations section to discuss additional services outside of scope that could help with current or future project success.

 

Audience
Throughout writing a document, an intended audience should always be established in your mind. Engineering reports often have multiple distinct audiences that need to be considered. This will affect the overall formatting and language used throughout the report. A successful communication will account for what the audience expects to see, inform them in succinct clear language, and anticipate concerns that they may have.

  • Client
    • Expects to see: full scope has been carried out, design product is high quality & brings them a good value.
    • Language is respectful and personal. May or may not be technically inclined but communication should be focused and easily understood. Use business letter concepts; greetings and salutations are included to foster an ongoing relationship.
    • Anticipate concerns: how do these results affect the progress of the client’s project? Are there further services you can provide to help? Are there alternatives or services outside the original scope that may be useful?
  • Supervisor/Colleague
    • Expects to see: technical summary, documentation, notes for review, reference data.
    • Language is objective and impersonal. Jargon and acronyms may be appropriate. Use lab report concepts; focus on process and documentation.
    • Anticipate concerns: Are assumptions reasonable? Is reference data reliable?
  • Plan Reviewer
    • Expects to see: analysis and results focused on scope, and corresponding to submitted drawings. Jurisdictional codes, standards, and community concerns adhered to.
    • Language is objective and impersonal, but specific technical knowledge should not be assumed. Use Essay & research paper concepts; an intelligible narrative and easily navigable citations will reduce confusion and expedite approval.
    • Anticipate concerns: is there anywhere where a brief explanation could prevent a comment/rejection? Is there any superfluous data that could create confusion?
  • Construction Manager/Contractor
    • Expects to see: recommendations and details for construction
    • Language is direct and descriptive, though graphics and details will be more useful than descriptions. Will get their information from the drawings, so ensure that all design data and relevant notes are correctly translated to plan sets.
    • Anticipate concerns: conflicts with other disciplines, field changes, approval/rejection of alternate methods and materials.

 

Language/Syntax
Using language with precision is one of the best ways to quickly improve the reception to your writing. By employing certain writing skills the audience can be engaged more effectively, making it easier for them to find the information they are looking for, and instilling confidence in the author and engineering product they have received.

  • Use passive voice to convey results objectively, e.g. "Based on the analysis it was determined..." rather than "From my analysis I determined..." in this latter phrasing the information is presented in the active voice, and will be  associated with the opinion of the writer, leaving room for discussion. An engineering analysis should be presented as conclusive (it is an objective analysis based on the latest accepted science and adopted standards), and the passive voice is more likely to be interpreted as fact without bias.
  • Use active voice when speaking directly to reader, as in greetings or salutations; "we appreciate the opportunity to provide our services, please feel free to contact us with any questions regarding this project." in this case the writer’s opinion is valuable, and is affirming an ongoing relationship with the client, another human person.
  • Use past tense when describing means and methods. Since analysis is necessarily done prior to presenting results and forming conclusions, past tense is appropriate for consistent syntax, even if portions of the report were prepared ahead of time.
  • Use pictures/graphics alongside descriptions to reduce confusion and reinforce comprehension.
  • For logical statements use precise/factual language, e.g. "the analysis determined that..." instead of "the analysis appears to suggest that..." conclusions should sound authoritative, qualifying statements regarding assumptions & disclaimers can be included separately.
  • Use synonyms! add clarity by avoiding repetitive language: instead of "reinforcements shall be installed prior to equipment installation" use "reinforcements shall be constructed prior to equipment installation" our brains use a lot of shortcuts when we read to process information faster, one of these shortcuts involves keyword interpolation – we make note of important verbs and connect them to the appropriate subject in the sentence. By using the same verb again it confuses this process (install gets associated with reinforcements and equipment, making it necessary to read the sentence again for clarity).
  • Add space. Use accessible visual formatting to improve clarity. Don’t hesitate to break up a paragraph to highlight important segments. Since we know many readers will be scanning and reading selectively, this is a useful tool to draw their eye and reset the counter on reading comprehension.

 

Drafting, Reviewing, Revising
Reviewing and revising reports can certainly end up being the most tedious part of the process. Some extra care here can go a long way to preventing problems and helping to find opportunities for improvement.

  • When reviewing a report, consciously put yourself in the position of each potential audience member. How will this be perceived by the client? The plan reviewer? This may be the most effective way to improve the presentation of data, i.e. by intuitively editing for a specific audience, rather than following specific writing rules.
  • Ask questions! For both the reviewer and the document author, clearing up misunderstandings prior to producing another draft will save time and paper.
  • As the document author, don’t assume any set of comments is comprehensive, revising a draft is always an opportunity to correct errors or improve the product, even if you thought it was finished previously. Just be sure to document all changes made in communications with the reviewer.
  • Add constructive discussion to comments – make note of patterns and add insight to the concepts behind a correction to prevent future errors.
  • Keep an accurate record of previous draft versions. Comments and edits may need to be revisited, and this will prevent redundant work.
  • Once you are sure your document is finished, challenge yourself to find one more correction.

 

Submitting Reports/Email Guidelines

  • Reply to latest email in relevant thread
  • Place project ID in subject line
  • Include vital info for those that won't read report: passing or failing analysis result, any actions that will be required prior to construction or plan review.
  • Be cognizant of audience when raising technical issues, e.g. do not challenge an analysis result or suggest an alternative design when a client is included on a thread – instead if there is an issue, have an internal discussion, make improvements and fix any errors, then present a fully formed solution to the client.
  • Avoid engineering jargon or complex explanations. Be prepared to answer questions as they come up, but be aware that adding too much qualification can convey a lack confidence in your analysis (if you are not confident, then more review is needed prior to submittal). Also, this info can get passed on like a game of telephone- simple fixes can turn into huge problems. For instance, something like this may be useful in report discussion: "Due to changes in seismic design response parameters at this location, in the latest revised edition of the adopted structural standard, anchorage forces have increased relative to the original design, and additional epoxy bolts are specified. The condition of the concrete slab is assumed to be cracked for calculation purposes and additional capacity may exist." If included in an email thread with non-technical personnel, this is liable to be paraphrased in subsequent communication: "Looks like the design is no good for earthquakes since the slab is cracked!"
  • Carefully review spelling & grammar – minor errors can create an incorrect impression of your technical competence and reduce confidence in the design product.
  • Use appropriate professional greetings and include signatures with contact information. Even if you know the recipient already has your information adding it to the message is courteous and welcomes further communication.

 

Contracts, Proposals, & Marketing Materials
While the focus of this article is on conveying information through engineering reports, there are other areas where technical communication is required, and engineer input will be highly valuable.

To contribute successfully to these documents, many of the same tools and approaches to writing can be used. If you can identify the primary audience, this will guide you to choose the appropriate language & writing style, and arrange the content effectively. The specific format will vary, but in each case it will be useful to identify the purpose, note the intended audience and appropriate writing style, and highlight the most important information to be conveyed.

  • Contracts
    • Purpose is to define terms for project work and payment as a legal reference for the firm and their client.
    • The audience is posterity, so all language should be objective and specific. Ideally there is one and only one possible interpretation of the phrasing. Remember, marketing language is not appropriate here. You already won the job.
    • Engineer’s role is to aid in writing the scope, schedule, and fees as it relates to the consulting work to be performed. A well-defined scope is crucial to the success of the project for both client and consultant.
  • Proposals/Marketing Materials
    • Purpose is to win work by demonstrating the best overall value in comparison with competitors.
    • The audience is a potential client. Writing will be persuasive – provide plenty of real examples to bolster qualifications. Identify specific problems relevant to the client's business, and describe convincing solutions. Using graphics and photos in clean, aesthetic layouts will help impress the audience and invoke a sense of professionalism.
    • Vital information to convey includes: team qualifications, product quality, and value.


Conclusion
I hope after reading this it is apparent that skilled writing can save time, improve business relationships, and directly increase the value of our engineering products. While most engineers don’t think of themselves as authors, I am confident they can tap into their well-honed critical thinking abilities to improve their writing.

The guidelines included in this article are intended as starting points to improve your engineering reports and documentation. As with any advice you will find that some of it does not apply well in your work; my goal is not to provide a concrete template, but to encourage purposeful writing and improve the results of technical communication. If you are thinking critically about the format and language you are using, you will likely find your own methods to improve your writing, and engage with your audience more effectively.


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