Running into Confusion: Tip for Engineering Technical Writing

I am a runner who studies all the detailed information about a race before the actual event.  I go to the information page to determine what items I will need to bring, what time I must be at various locations, where the aid stations are located, or how the trails are marked.  One race I signed up for had one of the worst information pages I had ever seen; there were no titles, just one giant paragraph of information.  All I wanted to know was the pickup time and location for the morning shuttle.  I was able to determine the pickup time after reading the page, but not the location, which resulted in me running to catch the shuttle for the race.

I have memories from college where the professors would request a fifty-page technical report as a semester project.  This document would be full of data complete with equations and terminology only a Material Engineer would understand.  When you start your engineering career your technical writing should not be looked at as a highly-detailed document, but as a way of taking complex information and explaining the information to a specific audience. As you have already found out, communication is one of the most important skills for engineers, and preparing technical documentation is part of this.  Here are some pointers that I would like to share with new engineers in writing a technical report.

Know Your Audience:  I have heard some engineers protest that I do not read their reports, when submitted for review.  Well to tell you the truth, it is because of how the report is written.  If a technical report requires me to hunt for the crucial information, then I will place it to the side because I have a limited amount of time to achieve all my objectives.  Your reports should highlight the important data and only include the crucial supplementary information. Remember keep the report to the point by using the most direct language to convey the information.  The tone of the report is neutral and professional.

Think About the Audience’s Background:  Are they engineers in your industry? Are they in sales, finance, or a board member?  What would be the purpose for them to read the document?   These questions should be answer while you plan the report.  You will want to design the report so that your reader can understand the text and identify the information that is pertinent to them.  Many times, I have written three different variations of a report in order to communicate appropriate information to different audiences.  Usually one for engineers, top management, and non-technical persons.  This may be a practice that you would like to try.

Document Layout: All technical reports should have a plan.  You want the report to be easy to navigate so your audience can find information quickly. Design and outline the document before you start writing.  This will assistance you in determining what highlight information is necessary and where it would fit in the organization of the document.  For my department, a preset temple was designed so all engineer formats their report in the same layout, making it easier for other employees to identify where information is located.  Not all companies have practice, so you will need to be prepared to setup your own plan and design.

Review the Report:  It is very important that you read the document and review it before submitting a final draft. Use the tools you have available to perform spelling and grammar checks.  Then review the document again to verify it is understandable to the audience.  One practice I have is to read the document aloud, which helps to emphasize odd sounding phrases and unnecessary words.  Next, have someone else review the document for you so they can determine if the text is readable and accessible.

These are just a few recommendations to help you create a great technical report.  Please comment with any questions you may have or add any additional tips you use currently in report writing.

Author: Natalie Grace Keyser

I am a dedicated Quality/Technology Manager, driven Metallurgical Engineer, Supporter of Future Professional. My professional personality shows in my running, where I will not back down from a challenge or slow down before the finish line is reached.

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