Preparing a Useful Engineering Report: Some Suggestions

Posted on July 27, 2015

Engineers are excellent problem solvers. As writers of effective documents that communicate the results of our good work – not so much. This entry offers a few thoughts on how to improve the writing we do. I think most of us will acknowledge the value of the following points but they don’t always make it into our written products:

  •  Carefully consider who your reader(s) will be. What are they hoping to gain from your report; what is their level of understanding of the problem and their backgrounds for comprehending your conclusions and recommended solution(s)? Write so that all will get your message.
  •  If your report can naturally include an opening executive summary put special attention on making that writing, along with your conclusions, as clear and concise as you are able. It’s likely that some readers will review only those sections. This is particularly true of managers and persons with little technical education. Making a positive impression on those folks may be the most effective way to gain acceptance of your findings or recommendations.
  • In organizing the sequence of your presentation, proceed from the “big picture” to smaller issues and details. Even though you may be very interested in the latter consider if your intended audience will be.
  • Therefore keep voluminous data, calculations, detailed explanations and rationale for your analysis methods out of the body of the report. Quickly summarize these items in the body of your writing and, if your readers need to see details, use appendices.
  • Short, piety sentences make an argument or a point most effectively. They bring the reader up short and he or she will then better remember what you are saying. Long, compound or convoluted sentences and extended paragraphs serve no one’s interests. Avoid them! Concise declarative statements are always best.
  • Write to make the reader’s job easier. Use a subject followed by a verb with as few adjectives and qualifying phrases as possible. No run-on sentences. “The hungry cow jumped over the fence” – Is much better than – “Sensing the smell and sight of moist, green fescue on the other side, over the short white, 1X6 pine planked fence the hungry bovine vaulted.” If adjectives, qualifiers, further explanations, etc. are critical to your message, use them in direct, separate sentences that follow. But are all necessary?
  • After using given terms or words once it’s generally not effective to repeat them multiple times. Seek synonyms for previously used words. This helps to keep the reader’s attention. If it’s essential to emphasize something repeating the same idea in different words is much better.
  • Each paragraph should convey only one thought, finding or distinct topic. The more important that specific item is to your basic message the shorter that paragraph should be. Provide the essential thought in this first paragraph and then, if necessary, provide supporting information in paragraphs that follow.
  • If plotted data are presented always label the variable on each axis along with appropriate units familiar to your readers. Often SI units with English units after in parentheses are best. Clearly label different curves on the same plot with dots, dashes, etc. – not with different colors. The report may not always be printed in color. Put only essential information in captions under data plots and photographs. Provide details in the text of the report.
  • Plan your writing tasks according to the due date so that you can complete a draft, include time for it to “rest” (overnight as a minimum) and allow time to make needed revisions before final submittal. The rest period is important. During the second run through you will likely see both large and small opportunities for improvement that you missed when preparing the draft. Please don’t depend on Spell Check alone to verify correctness, e.g., “there” and “their” and “its” and “it’s” are all acceptable words but maybe not in the context you intended. When emailing a report, read and re-read the final version before tapping SEND.
  • One of the best ways to improve your writing is to read quality writing outside of your professional field. Read on diverse subjects prepared by clear writers. Both fiction and non-fiction are useful. Many engineers prefer non-fiction.
  • If you don’t already have a copy, get The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. It’s a valuable but dense little book. We all can benefit from reading it and re-reading it, maybe, annually.

Posted in: Uncategorized