In the first part of this two part series, I talked about why it’s important to learn to write — and to learn to write effectively. But how do you become an effective writer? I started with the importance of reading, particularly difficult and regular reading across a broad array of topics. Is there anything else you do to improve your writing skills? Yes — specifically, get yourself edited, and get some practice.
Hey — I’m a pretty good writer, why do I need to get myself edited? After all, I’ve written nine books, hundreds of articles, tens of research papers, and… But that’s just the point, isn’t it? I wrote several large papers (at least I considered them large at the time) while I was in the Air Force, but they never seemed to have the impact I thought they should have. Weren’t they well written? Weren’t they well organized? Well researched? As it turns out, no, not really. I started on my first white paper just after I’d started in the Cisco TAC, reading through the EIGRP code and writing a paper — for internal use only — based on what I could find. Don and I backed up each assertion by setting breakpoints in the code and watching the actual variables change in real time, and then back checking everything on the wire using various packet capture tools. The paper was eventually published on Cisco’s public web site, and I thought I’d pretty much reached the pinnacle of my writing skills.
Then I started on my first real book, through Pearson Education. I quickly discovered my writing skills just weren’t what I thought they were. The drafts came back looking like a river of red ink. It took me two or three books to get over taking the editing personally. But I learned. I learned where and how to use an image instead of words. I learned how to organize information in way that made sense to people — to pay attention to the flow of the text.
I then took on a fiction book. Again, I thought I was pretty good by this time. Again, I was completely and utterly wrong. I hired a retired English professor to work through the edits. Again, entire rivers of red ink ensued. But I learned — I learned how to meter out information, to slow down, to find ways to describe things, to make things happen, rather than talking about what was happening. I’m still not an accomplished fiction writer, but the rivers of red ink certainly taught me.
Finally, I started working on a degree in theology. Certainly, after all the writing I’ve done, and all the times I’ve been edited, I’m a pretty good writer by now. Yeah, right. The rivers of red ink were even larger, longer, and redder (if that’s possible). But I learned to structure an argument, to think through the counterpoints, the other side, to actually research and think through what other people said, to catalog the options, to really read the entire article around someone making a point in the area in which I was working…
In short, editing has taught me to write. If you’re going to learn to write, you need to put yourself at the mercy of editors who are good, and learn to listen. Don’t take the red ink personally, take it professionally. Take it as a chance to learn.
Finally, get some practice. One of the reasons I actually began blogging, and continue blogging, is not to become famous, or to win friends and influence people, but rather to practice. There are different sorts of writing, each with its own rhythm. But I’ve learned that if I’m going to really learn to write consistently, I must give myself a reason to write consistently. Blogs, if nothing else, consume text. Day in and day out, it’s a challenge to find a topic, stick to it, make a point, and move on.
So there it is. It’s important to learn to write if you’re going to be an effective engineer. For practical advice, I can give three points: read hard stuff, get edited, and get some practice. Am I a perfectly practiced writer at this point? Can I churn out text whenever I feel like it? Certainly not. I still struggle with volume and speed. I still sit and tell myself to focus.
But I think, maybe, I might have finally reached the point of being a pretty good writer. No matter where you are, you should make a commitment to start your journey to good writing skills now. It will make you a better engineer.
Engineers are supposed to be able to gather information, arrange it in a way that makes sense, and then propose a solution that actually solves the problem at hand — right? So why is it I’m almost constantly astounded at the lack of writing skills in the engineering community? Why don’t engineers know how to write, given the almost complete overlap between the way the engineering process is supposed to work, and the way writing is supposed to work?
I suspect there are a number of reasons, probably foremost of which is that engineers don’t think in the logical chains we like to believe. Engineers are too often caught in the modern “search engine world” — find a thesis, search for a few exports to support your belief, and declare the issue decided. We’re sorely lacking the serious interplay between ideas, the pros and cons way of thinking, that exist in many other intellectual pursuits (though honestly, on a decreasing level every day).
If you need some encouragement, let me put it another way: learning to write will not only enhance your thinking skills as an engineer, it will also advance your career. Seriously.
What to do? Well, we can’t change the world, but we can change ourselves. Forthwith, a few ideas on learning to be a better writer.
Read. This might sound stupid, but the best way to learn to write is to read. I’m always astounded when I meet someone who hasn’t read a book in years (and often, they’re proud of it). Stop it! Not reading is nothing to be proud of.
But let me qualify — not just technical stuff. Read philosophy, theology, fiction (and not just science fiction!), history, biographies, and lots of other stuff. Let me give you two reason you need to read a lot.
First, you’re never really going understand language until you’re awash in it, buried in it, absolutely filled to the gills with it. Communication is an art as much as an engineering problem; the only way to really grock it is to do some serious reading.
Second, reading gives us the chance to peer into someone else’s mind (unless you’re a real postmodernists who believes there is no such thing as “the other mind,” or that reading is all about the reader bringing value to the text). The more minds you encounter, the more you’re going to understand people, and the more you understand people, the more you’re going to understand the world around you. Reading is the fastest and easiest way to gain access to another mind.
Read old stuff, too, and not just new stuff. Let’s not get into what C.S. Lewis called chronological snobbery.
Read classics. Read religious stuff. I’ve learned more about logic in studying theology than I ever did in engineering school — really.