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Technical Communications For Engineers

What is Technical Communication?

Technical communication takes many forms: scientific and technical reports, lab reports, specifications, instructions, emails, memos, presentations, proposals etc… In general, technical writing is a form of non-fiction writing that encompasses technical information and is the primary tool used by engineers to communicate with each other, clients, and the public.  The communication is generally “transactional” which means it is a purposeful transaction between the sender and receiver for practical and specific purposes and geared toward a specific audience.

Importance of Technical Communication

As a graduate engineer you will use technical communication extensively.  In fact, some estimates1 place about 75% to 50% of engineers’ time devoted to technical writing while the remaining 25% to 50% is devoted to problem solving.  The skills at technical communication are often seen as more important than technical skills (problem solving) when it comes to performance evaluations and job advancement.   The technical communication is the tool that is used to explain your technical work to supervisors and clients.  If the communication is poor, then the work itself looks poor.

Goal of Technical Communication

Technical communication should provide the information to the reader that allows them to fully understand the work that was done and make conclusions based on the information presented.  The goals may vary based on audience and type of communication.  For example, a lab report will provide the information on how the lab was performed (experimental procedures) and the results of the lab.  A design report may contain the information used to conduct the design, results, and final design suggestions.  Many forms of technical communication are “archival.”  That means they are meant to be kept and referred to by future engineers.  It is important that the communication is complete and useful to future engineers that may wish to understand or modify a previous design.

The fundamental purpose of scientific discourse is not the mere presentation of information and thought but rather its actual communication. It does not matter how pleased an author might be to have converted all the right data into sentences and paragraphs; it matters only whether a large majority of the reading audience accurately perceives what the author had in mind.George Gopen and Judith Swan, The Science of Scientific Writing

Technical Writing

How to Read Technical Writing

Understanding how a reader reads technical writing helps you to know how to write it.  Technical writing is not like a fiction book.  You don’t read from front to back all the way through.  Most readers will start with the abstract to determine if it is something they want to learn about.  Then they will jump to the conclusions to see what was determined or recommended.  If they are still interested, then they may read the other chapters (not necessarily in order and not necessarily the whole chapter).   Therefore, in writing, your abstract needs to be a complete accurate portrayal of what the work contains.  The conclusions need to be self-contained and highlight the most important aspects of the work. The other chapters need to be able to stand independently (there may need to be cross-references to other chapters or sections).

Importance of Format

The format or flow of information is important in helping the reader easily understand and process the information.  The format builds the scaffold upon which the communication is based.  A strong consistent and recognizable format aids the reader in processing the information.  Most technical communication (reports) use consistent formats.  A common format for a report is as follows:

  • Introduction – explains what the report is about and why is it is needed.
  • Procedures – If the report is based on an experiment (lab) then this describes the procedure and apparatus used. If the report is a design report then this may be the design procedures and calculations.
  • Analysis/Results – reports the outcomes of the experiment or design.
  • Discussion – explains the significance of the results and suggested recommendations.
  • Conclusions – summarizes the main points of the report. Nothing new is presented in the conclusions.

Within each section there is an orderly explanation that explains the logic of the work.  The paragraphs are also arranged in a consistent format usually starting with a topic sentence and then other sentences related to the topic of the paragraph.  More information on report formats can be found here.

Importance of Clarity Conciseness and Completeness

Not only is the format of the communication important, but the writing itself is important. The writing should be more than just grammatically correct.  The writing should be clear (easy to understand), concise (focused and relevant to the report), and complete (provide all the needed information).  Writing that follows these traits will assist the reader in understanding the communication and make the best decisions based on the information.  More information on Clarity, Conciseness, and Completeness can be found here.

The Cost of Poor Communication

Poor communication leads to poor decisions and in the end costs the company and the employee.  Consider the cartoon depicted in Figure 1.  Clearer, more effective communication among the customer, engineer, and other parties would have resulted in a better product.  Don’t cost the company money, or yourself the recognition you deserve – learn how to communicate effectively.

The Cost of Poor Communication cartoon
Figure 1 – Project Management Tree Cartoon *4

References

  1. McConkey, “Writing a work term report,” ENGR 120 Plenary Lecture, University of Victoria, March 3, 2017.
  2. Technical Writing Essentials https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/technicalwriting/part/techcomm/
  3. Donnell, J., Jeter, S., MacDougall, C., Snedeker, J. Writing Style and Standards in Undergraduate Reports. [VitalSource Bookshelf]. Retrieved from https://bookshelf.vitalsource.com/#/books/9781932780109/
  4. Ward, “The project management tree swing cartoon, past and present,” TamingData, July 8, 2019 [Online] Available: https://www.tamingdata.com/2010/07/08/the-project-management-tree-swing-cartoon-past-and-present/CC-BY-ND 4.0.
  5. WAC Clearinghouse Resources https://wac.colostate.edu/resources/
  6. Missouri Science and Technology Writing resources https://writingcenter.mst.edu/onlineresources/
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