Improve Your Technical Writing…Study Engineering Writing

by Mark Armstrong

Technical communicators can benefit greatly by following the advances made in engineering-writing education.

Imagine that you are the new kid on the technical writing block: the new employee, the recent graduate, the contract employee, or the transfer from another division. You have just received your first writing assignment.

Where is the best place to start?

Consider the writing of Rosemary Gates. According to her, it might be best to start by studying the documents and interviewing the co-workers for unspoken expectations within your new workplace.  Naturally, you should then proceed with a review of your audience and then the subject of your writing (that is, the engine, software, or other product you were employed to document). To assume that there is no unspoken, workplace-specific standard might significantly damage your ability to communicate in that organization or industry.

Recent studies in engineering-writing education (like those of Rosemary Gates, Julia Williams, and others) focus on four main themes to consider in technical communication, all of which may positively affect your skills in effectively delivering the topic.

1.    Consider the Manual’s Interdisciplinary Audiences

Our communications cannot be limited to only objectively describe our product or unilaterally provide one procedure that meets the needs of the intended audience.  Rather, we must also consider other issues like the safety needs of the audience, the needs of the project’s stakeholder, compliance with the company style guide, and the schedule from the manufacturing department.

2.    Know that Writing is Integral to Engineering

A second engineering-writing theory that technical communicators can turn to their benefit tells us that just about every step of an engineering task involves some form of writing.  While some technical writers may see this as a tacit form of job insurance, the greater value in this theory may be in the way it uncovers sources of information for the technical communicator.

Dorothy Winsor, in her article Engineering Writing/Writing Engineering, demonstrates that knowledge within engineering is necessarily communication-centric. By stepping through the processes that a specific engineer follows while creating a report for an engineering society, she points out how the engineer at the center of her study generated his initial reports primarily by reviewing handwritten comments made on computer-generated texts that were handed out and discussed in design meetings attended by multiple engineers.  She goes on to point out that all of the stages of the development of the finished report (from the computer-generated portion of the handouts to the Progress Reports that the engineer cited to the comments on his draft copy) involved writing.

In this light, technical writers can benefit from the communication by getting included in the engineers’ conversation.

3.    Know that Engineers Use Graphics to Communicate

A third engineering-writing theory focuses on the fact that engineers use graphics when forming ideas and communicating knowledge.  Through this theory, knowledgeable technical communicators can both fashion documents for engineers and retrieve information from engineers.  Also, writers using this theory can encourage engineers to use various graphics when trying to communicate a concept.  For example, a writer might encourage an engineer to sketch a device or to look at a photo when trying to remember details.

This theory comes out of the ethnographic study of David Hutto, Graphics and Invention in Engineering Writing.  Through this study, Dr. Hutto found that graphics played a part in engineers’ composition of documents even when graphics were not a part of the final product.

4.    Know that Genre Theory is Being Implemented Successfully in Engineering Writing Curriculum

The last engineering-writing theory focuses on forms of discipline-specific writing styles within engineering.  Genre theory considers the accepted style within a discourse community when determining how those trying to communicate with that community should proceed.  For example, although it is standard practice for most technical writers to create procedures in active voice, engineering lab reports primarily emphasize the action taking place and, therefore, are completed in passive voice.  Similarly, the heading structure required for specific types of reports which are commonly used in certain disciplines are crucial to the discourse communities receiving those reports.

If technical writers consider the influence of genre and study the discourse community within our audiences, those writers will benefit through building credibility between themselves and the audience and by crafting a succinct message.  By speaking the language of the audience, technical communicators will naturally communicate better with the audience.  Additionally, technical writers that follow the conventions of the discourse will communicate more directly with the audience than those who avoid or ignore the discourse conventions.

Why should technical communicators look at studies on engineering writing when considering ways to improve technical communication? 

1.    Technical Writers and Engineers Often Share the Same Workplace

If we adopt the perspective of Mick Harney, technical writers do not just work with engineers, but are part of an engineering discipline.  By applying the definition of an information systems engineer to technical writers, Harney determined that technical writing is a discipline of engineering because technical writers use “specification, design, construction, testing, bringing into service, maintenance, and enhancement, together with quality assurance” when creating technical documents just as systems engineers would when creating and delivering an information system.

2.    Technical Communicators and Engineers Share a Common Focus on Technology

Technical writers and engineers share a common focus on technology.  Both groups work with some form of technology daily, must mentally manipulate concepts of that technology, and translate the concepts for transmission to the outside world.  In light of this common focus, technical writers and engineers may often experience the same problems (or different within an overarching concern).  So, for a technical writer to investigate engineering writing may be a means for that writer to recognize and address problems experienced with the technology.

3.    Technical Communication and Engineering in America Sprung from the Engineering Education Curricula of the Early 20th Century

During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the complexity of the new technologies that drove the Industrial Revolution powered several other events; technical writing was one of these. John Hagge’s Early Engineering Writing Textbooks and the Anthropological Complexity of Disciplinary Discourse points to T. A. Rickard’s A Guide to Technical Writing, published in 1908, as the first textbook in engineering writing.  Within this book, the one concept common to today’s technical communicator (Rickard’s advice to “remember the reader”) did little to make that textbook useful to today’s engineer or technical communicator.  Of Hagge’s sample of 20 textbooks written before 1935, all focused on the formalities of engineering language (even going so far as to suggest specific words and phrases) and usually gave examples of types of communications to be written by engineers.

As a result of the standardizations implicit with World War II, things have changed in both engineering writing and technical communication since the beginning.

  • Increased innovation with the creation of computers
  • Communication explosion caused by the Internet.

Still, a common history between engineering writing and technical communication points toward common traits within our current situation.

4.    Engineering Writing Brings a New Perspective to Technical Communication Research and Practice

Because the research of engineering-writing academics often centers on aspects of communication that are viewed from an engineering mindset, these engineering-writing articles often can provide a technical communicator with insight regarding issues in technical communication, such as:

  • Studies on ways engineers use graphics in reports might illuminate ways and types of graphics that technical communicators might use graphics in reports.
  • Review of such an article on engineering might improve your interviewing skills by providing ways to allow engineers to illustrate the input you need to receive from them.
  • Research on discourse communities within engineering might provide insight on the jargon that can creep into our technical communications.
  • Research on genre analysis of engineering writing might reveal audiences that that most technical communicators have not considered.

Today’s technical communicators already have a number of tools available to improve their technical writing tasks: audience analysis, usability research, readability formulas, precepts of persuasion derived from many rhetoricians, research of many technical-writing researchers.

Now, we should also consider adding to our toolbox the resources provided by engineering-writing educators.

Want to learn more? Check out these resources!

Gates, Rosemary. “An Academic and Industrial Collaboration on Course Design.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 3, no. 2 (1989): 78-87, accessed March 24, 2011,

Broadhead, Glenn. “Addressing Multiple Goals for Engineering Writing.” Language and Learning across the Disciplines 3 no. 2 (1999): 19-43, accessed March 22, 2011,

Williams, Julia. “Transformations in Technical Communication Pedagogy: Engineering, Writing, and the ABET Engineering Criteria 2000.” Technical Communication Quarterly 10, no. 2 (2001): 149-167, accessed March 8, 2011,

Winsor, Dorothy. “Engineering Writing/Writing Engineering.” College Composition and Communication 41, no. 1 (1990): 58-70, accessed March 8, 2011,

Leydens, Jon. “Novice and Insider Perspectives on Academic and Workplace Writing: Toward a Continuum of Rhetorical Awareness.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 51, no. 3 (2008): 242-263, accessed March 23, 2011,

Hutto, David.  “Graphics and Invention in Engineering Writing.”  Technical Communication 54, no. 1 (2007): 88-98, accessed March 7, 2011,,

Walker, Kristin. “Using Genre Theory to Teach Students Engineering Lab Report Writing: A Collaborative Approach.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 42, no. 1 (1999): 12-19, accessed March 8, 2011,

Haney, Mick.  “Is Technical Writing an Engineering Discipline?”  IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 43, no. 2 (2000): 210-212, accessed April 23, 2011,

Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Occupational Outlook Handbook.  Technical Writers.  (2008): accessed March 8, 2011,