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

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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.

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