Top 5 Technical Writing Mistakes To Avoid In Engineering
I’ve been editing engineering papers, dissertations, reports and proposals for a little while now, and there are a few common technical writing mistakes that all engineers, scientists and technologists should avoid.
This blog will help you to avoid multiple rounds of edits between you and your supervisor. It will also prevent your paper from rejected by the engineering journal, again. By ensuring that you correct these technical writing mistakes, your document will be more polished and much more likely to be read, accepted and published.
These tips apply to formal technical writing - dissertations, lab reports, journal articles, proposals and formal business documents. Blogging or marketing in engineering is a whole different kettle of fish, and I’ll explain that in a separate blog post, because engineering deserves better writing on all fronts.
Here Are The Top 5 Technical Writing Mistakes:
1. Incorrect Numbering Of Report Sections
Let’s start with the easiest correction, and one that I see all the time. Engineering reports should always have numbered headings, but often those headings will jump from 5.3 to 3.4 (instead of 5.4). These technical writing mistakes can easily happen when you use the automated headings in Word.
The good news is it’s an easy problem to fix. Take five minutes after you finish writing the report and carefully check that all sections are numbered appropriately. Be sure to also do this with figures and tables. It seems like a small detail, but if readers detect carelessness in your numbering of headings, they may begin to wonder what else what written carelessly.
I know it’s a pain to go back through and verify all the sections are numbered sequentially, but it is one that’s necessary, and you’re an engineer, so counting should not be an issue.
2. The Use of Pronouns
What is a pronoun, you ask? It’s a word used to describe a person; for example, I, we, you, they, us, them, etc. These are all words that should never appear in a formal journal article or am engineering report.
If you work for a company, and you want to say something like:
“We analyzed the simulations to determine the optimal rear wing angle.”
You could say:
“Engineering Firm XYZ analyzed the simulations to determine the optimal rear wing angle.”
If you are writing your dissertation, or a technical journal article, you should write:
“The simulations were analyzed to determine the optimal rear wing angle.”
Pronouns should not appear in your technical writing. As you edit your document, ensure that none of these words are used, and try to restructure the sentences as I’ve described above.
3. Sentence Tenses Are Inconsistent Throughout
When you are describing your research, experiment or even the literature you used to support your project, you should be using the past tense. Why? Because it all happened in the past. It sounds like a simple convention to follow, but if you haven’t been consciously doing this, it can be hard to implement.
Many reports will also flip-flop between present tense and past tense. This is only acceptable under very specific circumstances. For instance, if you are explaining a general engineering concept, which is accepted to be true universally, you could use the present tense. But if you are describing a paper that was published to present research on an engineering concept, you should use the past tense.
The only time you should use the future tense is in the recommendations section at the end, where you describe your suggested or planned future research.
4. Run-On Sentences and Redundancy
Us engineers are a detail-oriented bunch, and this often leads to sentences that are so jam-packed with information, they are much too long. If you have sentences in your report or journal article that are longer than three lines, you are going to need to do some slicing and dicing to break them apart.
An easy way to identify if you have run-on sentences is to read your report out loud. If you are struggling for breath halfway through a sentence, you need to shorten it. If you lose track of what the sentence was trying to communicate because it is too convoluted, you need to shorten it.
Run-on sentences often go hand-in-hand with redundancy. Many engineers believe that each sentence has to be stand-alone and contain all relevant details. This usually means that the same terminology from a previous sentence is repeated in the next sentence. Do not do this - your reader is intelligent enough to remember what you said in the previous sentence. Always lean towards efficiency and conciseness.
5. Not Defining Acronyms Prior To Use
An acronym is a short form of a longer term. Common examples include CFD (computational fluid dynamics), FEA (finite element analysis), ML (machine learning) or PVC (polyvinyl chloride). Now, all of these terms may be obvious to an engineer, but they are not obvious to everyone reading your report.
It’s important to never assume that your reader has the same technical background as you do. You manager or the VP at work may have an engineering degree, but may not be well versed in your specialty. The engineer reviewing your proposal at a government agency may not understand all of the terms you are using, and by defining them yourself, you save your reader time.
No one wants to Google all the acronyms you use. Always define acronyms.
How To Edit For These Technical Writing Mistakes
The five technical writing mistakes above can be easily eliminated on your own, as you edit your report, dissertation or proposal. But if you are like me, and after writing a long report, the last thing you want to do is read it again and edit it, you have a few options. You can always ask a friend or colleague to take a look through the document and make sure there are no glaring issues. This requires good friends working for free, or you buying the coffee and doughnuts for the office as a thank you. You can also hire a technical proofreader / editor to save you time, do the work for you, and provide advice on how to improve your writing in the future.
If you have any further questions for me about engineering reports, technical writing, mistakes to avoid in dissertations, proposals, or CVs, please let me know in the comments and I’ll craft a blog post to answer.