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The joys of teaching writing to engineers

Christa Bedwin
Editors Canada

2016-08-29

I love teaching engineers to write, and talking to engineers about their writing challenges at work. A colleague asked me to write about how I do it.

Some reviewers have noted that these points work to teach all people to write, but here's my perspective on the important focus points when teaching engineers specifically.

Q. How do you teach engineers and others to write?

This is a big topic, but here’s a start on what you need to arm yourself with if you are going to edit for engineers, and/or teach them something too.

Speak functionally. Engineers love to know how things work. If you explain how white space helps to highlight the important points by reducing reader fatigue and distraction, and give some examples to demonstrate it, then an engineer is way more likely to jump on that train than if you just tell them abstractly that they should use more white space.

Guidelines are good, too, but if you just spout a lot of rules without backing them up with good reasons, engineers are likely to analyze themselves out of using your rule.

So … participate in the analysis. And if you are asking people to follow rules that you can’t back up with sound logic, functional science, and a history of how that rule came into being, then maybe there’s something wrong with your rule!

Use examples. Examples teach like theory never can. Great teaching (or style guides or instructions for projects) includes both examples and theory.

For example, let’s say that someone in your class, or in a company that you edit for, has brought up the case of putting one or two spaces after a period. Some writers do not like the fact that this rule has changed in their lifetime and have plenty of reasons not to follow the new rule.

If you don’t tell them WHY they should use only one space after a period, you will find you have a low compliance rate.

However, if you explain that two spaces was appropriate when we used typewriters, but that computer programs are designed to use just one space, and that it will look wonky if they use two, that will get a lot of converts. Engineers understand changing technology and modernization.

But you will still have some holdouts. So try an authority-based viewpoint. “It’s what we do in the publishing industry. You may notice that every book in the bookshop and every journal you ever submitted a paper to, strip out the extra spaces.”

That might get you a few more converts.

Then, you might try a second, even more intricate functional argument: the use of double spaces on word processing programs creates large white spaces between sentences, which will lead to rivers of white space between sentences. These rivers of white space have been proven in multiple controlled experiments to make readers’ eyes wander and to create a distraction from the reading at hand.

Load yourself up with knowledge, not arrogance. As the spaces-after-period example shows, sometimes you just need to patiently have more information than they can possibly contradict.

And then you patiently have to accept that some of them are still going to disagree and keep using two spaces after a period, the way they were taught in 1973. Don’t sweat it. Just add it to a standard editing task you do on that person’s paper when you receive it after they write it.

Q. How do you know that you’re teaching with any success?

One of the best compliments I ever received from an engineer was “I forgot to touch my phone the whole time you were teaching. I don’t think that’s ever happened before.”  Obviously, he found what I had to say worthwhile.

Another good indicator of success is when people ask follow-up questions.

You can deliver all the information in class, and even have people work through examples, but the real learning happens when the engineers are back at their desks, working on the writing they get paid for. When they e‑mail with questions on how to apply the principles taught in the course – for example, how to make something more readable, or how to add more white space to five dense pages of report – then I know they’re processing what they learned.

Q. Do you have any tips for others who need to teach writing?

Be humble. You probably know a lot, but always remember to listen while you’re talking, too. Laugh at your own mistakes (such as writing the wrong word on the board or having a typo in your materials), rather than getting uppity. Consider this strategy: take along small wrapped chocolates to share with students who point out your mistakes. It keeps class lively and students engaged.

Be flexible. Remember that each class of students has different needs, so your teaching should flex to fit those needs. A great teacher never teaches two classes exactly the same, or two individuals exactly the same, though the core material may be similar.

Be practical. There’s no need to train report writers extensively on English grammar terms (antecedents and prepositions and the like). Teach them what they need to know in terms that interest them. Not because they can’t learn the grammar terms, but because it is more interesting to focus on how and why to do it than to load the course with abstract terminology.

Be prepared to repeat yourself. If you are working within a company context, you will have the opportunity to teach through weekly e-mails, commentary in document edits, and daily conversations, not just classes. Don’t expect everyone to understand, process, and instantly apply every point that you teach. Be patient when you need to re-teach it or remind people now and then.

Use the textbook in the room. If you can get senior and intermediate people to come to your corporate courses, and you make it well known that you respect and want to hear from those people, your courses will have much more ongoing impact for the juniors in that company. Each company has its own rules and styles, so having people in the room who can speak intelligently about those items, and about challenges particular to their company, is valuable if you can manage it.

Have good resources. Write your own, or consider the ones available online.

Keep them engaged. Chuck out the slide shows and the video projectors, and put pens and paper in their hands. There’s no better way to learn than doing, so get them working. Break up informational sections with examples and exercises to try, and the day will fly by.

Enjoy what you do. Teaching engineers and scientists to write is really fun. Do know your stuff, inside and out, but go prepared to debate and analyze and say “you’re right” now and then, without any worries or egos in the way. Like them, and they’ll like you right back!

Bio

Christa Bedwin writes and edits globally, teaches writing seminars internationally to engineers, scientists, and businesspeople, and has written six books. She loves to connect on LinkedIn, so drop her a line!