Write Like You Mean It (Part 1)

old-booksEngineers 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.

Figuring out how the Romans built roads might just teach you how to manage apparently insurmountable engineering problems in real life.

Learning about the real life and work of the average sailor might just make you appreciate how similar a ship is to an office.

Read classics. Read religious stuff. I’ve learned more about logic in studying theology than I ever did in engineering school — really.

Part 2


  1. Dirk Schroetter on 10 October 2014 at 8:49 am


    I could not agree more – both with your analysis and your recommendations. And if we could battle the “Engineering by PowerPoint” epidemic as well and adopt some of Tufte’s methods of displaying data and relationships the world could become a better (engineering) place.