Take the Write Steps for Career Advancement

March 3, 2010
The ability to compose clear and effective documents is an important asset.

The process description read like it was translated from Korean into Czech and then into English. My boss was no Shakespeare but I assumed he could write English. I asked him politely if I could "borrow" the text for 20 minutes. He then looked over my suggested revisions and, feeling a little embarrassed, handed the draft to me to finish.

Being able to write can be a great career asset. Not developing your writing skills likely will hold you back. Writing can help you in other ways, too. For instance, one of the best methods I've found to understand something is to write about it. The required disassembling and reassembling of information act as a great learning tool.

Here's what you need to know to write more effectively.

One of the first lessons, according to my Air Force cadet textbook, "The Tongue and Quill," is to know your audience. A corollary is to know why you're writing and how the text generally should flow. Most companies have templates you can use for such things as design reports, studies and procedures.

With your goals clearly defined, develop a punch list of what the text must include. Let your ideas flow freely. Once you feel you've covered everything, ask someone to review the list — this may generate other suggestions. Then organize the ideas by arranging them in a spreadsheet under topics.


Cover one idea per sentence; group all ideas in the topic in a paragraph. This should give you a sense of length, assuming an average sentence of 15 to 20 words. If you have a length issue, start prioritizing. It will put your thoughts in focus and identify which ideas to eliminate.

At this point, you should have your summary or executive summary staring you in the face — so, write it. Draft it over and over again until it's three paragraphs or less, perhaps half a page as a maximum. Pluck ideas off the spreadsheet to fill the sentences but don't give away too much. Writing is a little like fan dancing. If you reveal too much too soon, you'll spoil the show. Besides, you can't substantiate all your points in a summary. You want people to read your report, cover-to-cover.

Support your write-up with graphics. Engineers tend to get more from illustrations than text. So, underpin your conclusions with figures and tables. Figures are preferable because they're more concise. The title of a figure should succinctly summarize what you want to get across to the reader. The caption underneath should state what the figure shows.

Remember what Shakespeare said: "Brevity is the soul of wit" (Polonius in "Hamlet"). Keep titles and captions short, deliver them with punch! This thought applies to text as well.

Pay attention to sentence structure. Break up sentences to avoid running ideas together. Split related ideas into individual sentences whenever possible. Separate connecting ideas with semi-colons. Use colons to end a thought by punctuating it with a single phrase. Colons are for phrases; semi-colons are for connecting sentences. Do you see how that works? The dash (—) also is useful — but like all devices, including the overworked comma, use it sparingly or your employer may want a urine test.

Review your summary several times and then, armed with supporting figures and tables, tackle the body of the report. This is where you fall back on templates. There are a number of good ones for engineering reports, proposals and procedures but it's best to follow the format used at your company.

When you don't have a template available use the following structure for technical reports: 1) executive summary; 2) introduction; 3) discussion; 4) conclusion; 5) and the appendix. (This format may not suit other writing assignments, though.)

If text in a report exceeds five pages, you'll probably need a table of contents. I usually write the summary next, with the executive summary fresh in my mind, so I can elaborate on key points. Then I write the introduction, including in it background information such as what initiated the report. The discussion should follow a chronological or logical path. Appendices should contain supporting information too expansive to be incorporated into the body.

To improve your writing skills, consider several good references, such as: http://writing.colostate.edu/guides/documents/ce-trpt/index.cfm; "The Elements of Style" by William Strunk, Jr.; "Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation" by Lynn Truss; and "The Associated Press Stylebook" by the Associated Press.

With a little effort and thoughtful study you can get your ideas across.

Dirk Willard is a contributing editor to Chemical Processing. You may send him a well-crafted e-mail to [email protected].