Command of the language

The effective use of cogent, persuasive, terse, grammatically correct, standard English is going to make your job easier.

By Russ Kratowicz, Executive Editor

Mathematics is the language in which nature is written. However, words are the standard form of communication between humans. Among other factors in your life, it was your effective use of written language that landed you the job that that lets you read this article. It is the effective use of the written word that is going to help you cost justify projects, train employees, argue for adequate budget allocation, and delegate so you can better manage your time in the new year.

Yes, engineering is more than just reading magazine articles. I am sure that you've read your share of engineering specifications that cover some gizmo or another. Did you ever notice that specifications use language that normal people never use in real life? Not only that, but the written structure of specifications and other technical literature is not designed to allow the reader to comprehend the content easily. Isn't that some kind of a problem? Quite frankly, most technical writing is a real yawner. That is one of the major reasons that you never see <I>specs-on-tape<I> in your local book store.

No doubt about it, well-written and easily understood technical material does not naturally flow from the pen of most executives and engineers. Sure, we can use a word processor to cobble something together using boilerplate and pieces of old documents, but that does not make the text better. It just makes it look like someone used boilerplate and cobbled together detritus some from obsolete documents.

All of us can use help in writing for better comprehension on the part of the reader. With that introduction, we present you with some of the writing resources to be found on the Web. Remember, we search the Web so that you don't have to.

Back to basics
 I suppose that a good starting point would be good ol' English 101, so I direct your attention to Essay Writing: Overcoming a Student's Nightmare by Sharon Boddy. Her work can be found at http://www.writerswrite.com/journal/oct97/boddy.htm. Here you learn about the basic pattern of the production process that applies to technical writing in the business arena as well as to student essays.

The first step is choosing a topic. Boddy lists four possible topic formats to use and cautions against selecting a topic that is too broad for the tried-and-true formats. The next step is adding focus by developing a thesis statement. The thesis statement will probably evolve during the course of writing because the thesis is not a point of fact. Rather, it is an opinion of the writer.

Next is brainstorming to get enough ideas for producing an outline that presents the essay content in a logical manner. When that is complete, then start your research by listing the types of resources you will need. The research itself should affect the thesis statement unless, of course, you do not retain an open mind.

Then comes the writing of the first draft. Boddy explains the layout to use and where the thesis statement should be buried for maximum impact. You will learn the "so what?" method of self-critique in honing and shaping the piece into its final version.

More down to engineering earth
Manuals were invented so that filing cabinets would not go unused. Engineering would be no fun if we had no manuals to help us kill time either in the reading of or in the writing of them. Well, I'm here to tell you that there is help for you and your staff should you ever feel a need to convert a perfectly good tree into a three-inch thick manual.

Your friends at the University of Waterloo in Ontario were kind enough to provide an interactive design guide for writing manuals. Check it out at http://www.watarts.uwaterloo.ca/ENGL/courses/engl210e/210e/module/manual/toc.htm. This site is apparently associated with a technical writing course that has as a class project the writing of a technical manual.

The site is interactive to the extent that it has 49 links to different parts of the manual production process. When you get there, click on <I>No one wants to read your manual<I> to get some idea of the general philosophy of writing an effective manual. Other parts of the site discuss the principles of technical writing and the production process. It talks about preparing a documentation plan, using elements of technical writing, writing tips and tricks, editing, ensuring retrievability, and testing for usability.

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Other resources
There are many Web sites that provide a list of links for technical writers and other authors. One such example is brought to you by Copy Editor at http://www.copyeditor.com/Links.html. Here you will find copyediting FAQ; links to newsgroups; a searchable database of entries in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and other on-line dictionaries; grammar and style notes; and a database that translates words into many languages.

Another resource-rich site to check is the Internet Resources for Technical Communicators from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at http://www.rpi.edu/~perezc2/tc/. This one provides links to electronic mailing lists; newsgroups; electronic journals, magazines, and newsletters; and on-line dictionaries. The magazine section is particularly interesting if you have never examined e-zines before. The dictionary section has a two thesauri, an acronym server, and a glossary for Web terminology among other things.

The acronym server and the Web glossary are great resources when reading magazines that use a lot of jargon and acronyms with which you are not familiar. Just enter the string of letters and the server returns the meaning of the letters with a brief description of the concept implied by the acronym. This is another example of the Web at its best. Although the site also has a link to Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, it does not work. Instead you should aim your browser at http://www.columbia.edu/acis/bartleby/bartlett/.

The Writing Center, also at Rensselaer, found at http://www.rpi.edu/llc/writecenter/web/handouts.html, has on-line handouts that are guides for writing abstracts, cover letters, lab reports, memos, resumes, and a lot more. The memo handout, for example, discusses memo formats, the preparation and organization of content, and memo style.

Your tax money at work
Our hired hands in Hampton, Virginia spent our cash well in at least one instance. Mary K. McCaskill at the Langley Research Center posted to the Web two chapters of NASA SP-7084 Grammar, Punctuation, and Capitalization: A Handbook for Technical Writers and Editors. The document is intended for use in preparing reports at Langley but the information is quite relevant to general technical writing. Chapter 3 requires 35 pages to print in its entirety, chapter 4 needs only six pages. The examples she uses are generally technical in nature, much closer to what we do than most of the other resources listed here. Point your browser to http;//www.sti.larc.nasa.gov/newhtml/sp7084ch3.html for Chapter 3 and http://www......sp7084ch4.html for the other one.

Strunk on the Web
 Perhaps you recall the quintessential book, Elements of Style. Well, there exists an on-line copy courtesy of our friends at Columbia University. They keep the book at http://www.columbia.edu/acis/bartelby/strunk/. This is the grandaddy of style manuals. In the print version, it is not a very large book. In the interactive version on the Web, it is even smaller. If you don't feel like being rigorous about your writing, at least let whomever types your documents know that this resource is available.

English (American variety) as a second language
We don't speak English, we speak an American dialect of the language. If you want to learn a bit about the differences between the two, check out the next Web site.

The Hampstead School of English is located in London, the home of the English language. They have an on-line English grammar course at http://www.edunet.com/english/grammar/toc.html. It covers in detail the parts of speech, possessives, and determiners. The site is liberally laced with links so that you can enter just about anywhere and find the answer to you writing question easily. Or, you can view the subject index to get to the point more quickly.

Rice University maintains a page of links for the technical writer at http;//riceinfo.rice.edu/armadillo/Sciacademy/webcamp/writsour.htm. The entries fall into four categories: grammar and style; editing; citing sources and avoiding plagiarism; and resources for science and technical writers.

Foreign languages, anyone?
The University of Maine also has a list of on-line resources for writers at http://www.ume.maine.edu/~wcenter/resources.html. Here they provide links for on-line translation of foreign languages. A few of the links no longer work, but those that do work actually do something. Once at the linked site, you can enter a word in English and you get the equivalent in the chosen foreign language. Also, you can enter the foreign word and find the English equivalent. This could be useful in the global business world in which you find yourself functioning.

Epilogue
Once it was possible to make a decent living on the strength of one's muscle power. In the computer age, it is information workers that fill job openings. Intellectual capacity, technical know-how, and the ability to find information efficiently are necessary, but not sufficient, to guarantee success in a career. One must be able to communicate effectively to a variety of other people in a variety of formats.

Technical curricula do not generally focus on teaching students to write or speak well. Unless they learn by trial and error, the students are thus handicapped. If you have no use for the content of this article, at least tear it out of the magazine and pass it to some student you know. Life is tough enough, they need all the help they can get.russ.kratowicz@publishers.com

Did you ever notice that specifications use language that normal people never use in real life?

The thesis statement will probably evolve during the course of writing because the thesis is not a point of fact. Rather, it is an opinion of the writer.

You will learn the "so what?" method of self-critique in honing and shaping the piece into its final version.
The acronym server and the Web glossary are great resources when reading magazines that use a lot of jargon and acronyms with which you are not familiar.

If you don't feel like being rigorous about your writing, at least let whomever types your documents know that this resource is available.

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