Principles of Engineering Design Applied to Writing on the Job
- Hugh Hay-Roe (Murray Associates Intl.)
- Document ID
- Society of Petroleum Engineers
- Journal of Petroleum Technology
- Publication Date
- June 1995
- Document Type
- Journal Paper
- 493 - 493
- 1995. Society of Petroleum Engineers
- 6.1.5 Human Resources, Competence and Training
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- 108 since 2007
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It's no secret that plenty of engineers dislike having to communicate in writing and feel that they don't do a very good job. They may blame deficient language skills, when in fact the biggest problem is something else entirely. The unrecognized No. 1 problem is this: the writing techniques we learned in college were never meant to satisfy the needs of readers in industry.1,2
A practical solution to this problem was developed by Melba Jerry Murray, an industrial editor. She worked with the engineers of a major oil company to create a systematic procedure for writing to management and professional colleagues.3 Murray noticed that most engineers communicated effectively in conversation but dropped the ball when they started to write because they went back to the approach they learned in college. She solved that problem by using the conversational transfer of information as a guide for designing memos, letters, and reports of any length. It works like this:
1. Get to the point. Tell your readers what you want from them, or to offer them, in plain business language.
2. Answer, in sequence, any questions that your readers would ask in response to your main point. (See the left side of Table 1 for an idea of how this works.) Now you have a reader-oriented summary of your message. To use it as is, skip ahead to Step 7. But for long reports, articles, or proposals, proceed with the next step.
3. Use the summary (Step 2) to develop a reader-oriented topic outline. This will ensure that you get away from the old outline shown on the right side of Table 1.
4. Develop a main-point outline. In the outline, every heading you wrote for your reader-oriented outline is followed by a sentence containing the main point for that section of the document.
5. Assemble illustrations that will support and explain your text. Send a set of the illustrations, attached to a copy of your main-point outline, to everyone who will have to approve your document.
6. Arrange a prewriting conference to get approval of the proposed content.
7. Compose the complete text. (For several reasons, the worst way to do this is to write it out in longhand.)
8. Edit and polish the completed draft.
This approach appeals to engineers because it is logical and systematic. Managers receive the full impact of your ideas without having to search around with a highlighting marking pen for essential points buried in the text. Any engineer-writer who has the habit of sandbagging readers with big words can relax and write simply. Plain language reduces the chance of making embarrassing errors.
1. Barabas, C.: "Technical Writing in a Corporate Culture: A Study of the Nature of Information," Writing Research Series, Ablex Publishers (1990) 18.
2. Medawar, P.: The Threat and the Glory: Reflections on Science and Scientists," Oxford U. Press, Oxford, U.K. (1991) 233.
3. Murray, M.J. and Hay-Roe, H.: Engineered Writing: A Manual for Scientific, Technical, and Business Writers, PennWell Books, Tulsa (1986) 292.
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