Perspectives: Field Notes

Make Your Message Clear and Concise

Some common errors plague writing done by many engineers.

By Dirk Willard, Contributing Editor

“How to write good” made me laugh until I heard an engineer from Texas say it, believing that was correct English. The phrase should be “How to write well.” Thankfully, you understand that, right?

Let’s explore some ways to allow you to write crisply and clearly — convincingly — so the work you’re discussing gets done precisely. And, that’s the point: writing badly is a safety issue. Spreadsheets, tables and lists won’t get you off the hook; somehow, somewhere, you must explain, in plain English, what you’re trying to say. In a previous article, I painted with broad strokes; in this column let’s look at the sinew of technical writing.

 I’ll begin with one of my pet peeves: the thought to nowhere. Here’s a good example: “Appropriate adjustments to the tuning constants shall be made to achieve stable control.” The point comes across better by saying: “Tuning constants will require adjustment during commissioning.” If you can precisely name something, do it. For instance, instead of just stating “the line needs valves with different, smaller orifices,” give the orifice size you suggest. Another point worth mentioning is plural versus singular: usually the first noun in the sentence is the subject and thus determines whether the verb should be singular or plural — e.g., “The problem with the six pumps is [not are!] excessive impeller wear.”

Here’s another example of thoughts to nowhere: “It seems that the shear forces emanating from the impeller negatively affect the polymer agent, in that, it breaks down the actual polymer-to-polymer molecular forces.” Unless you’re writing for Scientific American and you’re explaining rheology to high-schoolers, don’t elaborate on physical details. If you must, here’s a better way to express this thought: “The shear forces produced by the impeller break down the polymer.” Notice I got rid of unnecessary adverbs and adjectives: negatively affect, actual and molecular forces. I also eliminated “It seems,” which creates the impression that you’re not sure. If you know what you’re talking about, write with authority. When I rewrote the sentence, I focused on what produces the shear forces and the consequences: the polymer is sheared apart. Unless you’re actually going to discuss shear vectors around an impeller, leave the elaboration to the PhDs.

Overly long and complex sentences muddy the message. Mark Twain, an expert on the German language, once remarked, “Some German words are so long that they have a perspective.” He also complained about the over-use of parentheses and how single sentences stretched the length of pages in German newspapers. That’s what I am talking about. Here’s a fair example: “If this is a free radical solution or emulsion reaction, as I assume, then it is a chain reaction that could lead to an explosion if all monomer is added at once, and the temperature rises out of control.” This sentence has perspective; it loses focus. How is a free radical solution related to an emulsion reaction? Most engineers understand that temperature will rise out of control because an explosion is exothermic. Try this: “If all the monomer is added at once, a chain reaction could occur.”

Here’s another pet peeve: trade names. Did you know that “Teflon” applies strictly to polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) produced by DuPont, which originated the material? (Notice, by the way, that all letters in such an abbreviation are capitalized — that’s another good tip.) You can use either term in referring to DuPont’s products, but say PTFE for materials made by others. Using trade names that aren’t as common in our business can cause confusion. Consider “Terylene,” which was the trade name of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) made by now-defunct Imperial Chemical Industries, a company that once rivaled DuPont (which offered its version as Dacron — a trade name that Invista now owns.) Not only can the popularity of certain trade names wane but also product names can change, say, when a company is acquired. So, if you’re using a trade name, provide a generic description, too.

Okay, here’s another itch that needs scratching: burying the lead. In the days when newspaper stories were banged out on manual typewriters, editors often complained about reporters, too familiar with their story, who rambled through the details. That’s burying the lead. When you write anything, remember the reader really wants the important points upfront. Take a lesson from the editors by putting the heart of the story in the first few paragraphs and leaving the supporting information to the end. Write as though your reader only will glance at the first few sentences because that’s all the time you’ll likely get to convince the person to read the rest. Writing, in the end, is about baiting the hook and leading your reader through your reasoning to accept your ideas.

dirk.jpgDirk Willard is a contributing editor for Chemical Processing. You can e-mail him at

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