Book Review – Spring Into Technical Writing for Engineers and Scientists

by Noel Atzmiller

Spring Into Technical Writing for Engineers and Scientists, by Barry J. Rosenberg;
Pearson Education, Inc., Addison-Wesley Publishers, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 2005.

Have you ever tried to teach engineers or scientists how to improve their writing? If you agree to provide a course that will quickly benefit them, where can you go for suggestions and guidelines for educating this audience? For several years now, I have faced this challenge. Consequently, I have been on the lookout for information that I can use. My recent research to find helpful documents was not too fruitful–until I found this book by Barry Rosenberg.

Throughout the document, Rosenberg uses a somewhat flippant writing style and humor to direct the book “at engineers and scientists who must write about stuff.” When he describes the key principles of technical writing, for example, he cites this ditty: “Technical communication is to write and to say, the geekiest things in the simplest way.”

Although I was slightly stunned by the author’s approach, I quickly discovered that he organized his document into four sections to assist the reader in finding helpful information:

  1. Planning to Write
  2. Writing: General Principles
  3. Writing: Specific Kinds of Documents
  4. Editing and Producing Documents

Each section has chapters that present topics in a one- or two-page unit that Rosenberg calls “chunks”. This technique, says the author, enables the reader to learn the information as rapidly as possible. He also provides a summary at the end of each chapter to reinforce the main ideas.

As I glanced at the Table of Contents, I gravitated to certain chapters that interested me. In Section 2, the chapter called Professional Secrets caught my eye. Here, Rosenberg confidently announces, “This chapter teaches the tricks of the trade.” He continues by providing many practical techniques that can improve writing quality and reader comprehension. He also describes several techniques for using examples in writing, explains the use of tone and pace, and culminates the chapter by offering tips to overcome writer’s block.

Section 3 of Rosenberg’s book explains how to produce seven specific kinds of documents, “that the average scientist or engineer would have to write.” Included here are manuals, web sites, proposals, specifications, laboratory reports and e-mail messages. I focused on the seventh type of document: PowerPoint presentations.

The author first supplies an “algorithm” for organizing a presentation. In a table, he displays the basic sections of a presentation (introduction, body, and conclusion) and the approximate percentage of time and number of slides each section might require. More useful to me, though, were his many tips and suggestions for individual slides and how to prepare for different kinds of people in the audience.

The final section of Rosenberg’s book, Editing and Producing Documents, contains explanations of why editing can be difficult, and he provides recommendations on how to perform this task. In particular, his candid guidelines on how to edit work produced by a peer or from a superior encourage the reader to supply direct but positive comments on the work.

Spring Into Technical Writing also contains a useful glossary, and a substantive index.

So, was this book useful? In a word, yes. If you have a need for suggestions and guidelines on information to improve the writing of engineers and scientists, I think it will help you, also.