RE: teaching technical writing to engineers

Subject: RE: teaching technical writing to engineers
From: "Jones, Donna" <DJones -at- zebra -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 24 Mar 2004 16:58:22 -0600

Eric Dunn wrote:
> 10 weeks of hell for a writing course?!? What was your degree in?

My degree is a four-year B.S. in Scientific and Technical Communication from
a good engineering school (Michigan Tech). Most of the students who were in
the program at the time that I was around transferred into the program
rather than starting out in it. They found that, while they had an interest
in the engineering field in which they began, it wasn't what they wanted to
be "when they grew up." Rather than scrapping all of the hard-earned
knowledge that they had already acquired in their base engineering classes
(which I can definitely appreciate), they chose to use that knowledge to
help tell people how to use what engineers developed but didn't have the
skills to communicate.

> An engineer that can write well but can't grasp fluid dynamics,
> thermodynamics, linear analysis, FEA, or design principles may get by in
> the future as a moderately-technical technical writer but is WORTHLESS as
> an engineer. Most engineering students are trying for engineering jobs,
> not a fall back position as a writer.

ANY engineer who can't grasp those engineering principles would be worthless
as an engineer, regardless of whether or not they can write well. But a
valued engineer who can also communicate well has enormous potential. If you
try to publish a paper or apply for a copyright and can't convey your ideas
clearly, you're lowering your worth as an engineer the same as if you didn't
know some of those other principles. The engineering student who is also a
skilled communicator can open him/herself up for many different job
possibilities in the future, including tech writing, management, tech
support... (Yes, those possibilities can be viewed as good or bad.) Also, it
never hurts to be good or well-versed in areas other than your specialty.
That's why a good tech writer will also have a good technical background.

> Any engineering student that can't
> figure out why grammar is being marked as wrong by either talking to the
> teacher directly, the teacher's aide, looking it up in suggested
> references, or taking the required remedial course deserves to fail the
> class.

You would be surprised at how much you don't know about basic grammar until
you've had it taught to you at a college level. I didn't need remedial
courses in grammar, just more depth to know how to make words work for me.
It was a valuable lesson. Engineering students would not need to go to the
same level that people majoring in technical communications do, but it
doesn't hurt to have a refresher of the basic rules and a more in-depth look
to make them better able to express themselves.

> I mean, they don't go over basic mathematics as they throw complex
> calculus and Laplace transforms at you, why should you be taught basic
> grammar as you're taught the more advanced concepts of technical writing
> and communication?

No, you don't repeat all of the basics of mathematics in a calculus course
because you build into taking calculus. No one takes calculus as a basic
math requirement for another major because everything you need to know can't
be covered in so short of a time. Writing courses require an understanding
of grammar that is built up as well, but we in the U.S. don't always have
that basic skill. Just being able to speak English doesn't guarantee that a
person has a decent grasp of grammar, and that goes for people who are
native speakers as well as those who learn it as a second language. I know
many native speakers of English who sound less intelligent than they are
because they can't phrase a sentence correctly.

Here's a thought, if all engineers were good at communicating, there
wouldn't be much need for tech writers because the engineers could do all of
the documentation themselves.

I could go on, but it's time to go home. :-) Good night!

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