The Joys of Teaching Engineers to Write

By Christa Bedwin

head-ChristaBedwin-12When the Corrigo managing editor saw that I specialize in teaching engineers and scientists to write, she asked me some provocative questions, and then asked if I would turn the answers into a blog post. I would be happy to discuss if you like—please find me on LinkedIn.

Q: Why would an editor want to teach engineers to write?

Because it’s so much fun! Engineers are extremely thoughtful, always looking at a problem from a number of angles and challenging dogmatic ideas. This matches my own approach to life and to language, so I love discussing English with engineers.

Conversations with high-IQ people are great. You just won’t get the same level of analysis from a room full of literature majors, who have been trained  in a completely different way of thinking.

I love the engineering approach to language. Engineers are taught to invent, to innovate, to question. And isn’t that essentially exactly the same process editors go through when they edit?

Ergo, if you ask me, editors and engineers are a natural match!

(Caveat: If you’re a dogmatic, authoritarian sort who can’t stand to be questioned and to reasonably and scientifically debate why one word choice or text layout or document format is preferable to another, or give the reasoning behind your rules, then you might not like engineers—they want reason with their rhyme.)

Q: Wouldn’t it put editors out of business if all the engineers and others learned how to write better?

There is nothing to fear. We will never run out of work editing for engineers, because there will always be, in our lifetimes, a lot of work for engineers to do, and they need to write to report on the work that they do and communicate with clients, each other, and the public.

Good Reasons to Teach

Even if you mentor and teach some of your individual clients to be much better writers, even such great writers that they don’t really need you any more, fear not! There will be plenty of new engineers who will appreciate your teaching too.

And as we all know, one client who values you will often refer you to many more clients.

Another point that great editors know is that often, if you hold a class to teach all the engineers in your company how to do what you do, the result is often that they value you more because you are doing more, with a deeper background, to their manuscripts than they know how to do themselves, and that they previously misunderstood what you were doing. Teaching classes about what you do will often result in people valuing your work more highly. Not everyone has a passion or a skill for editing.

Ergo, there is absolutely no need to hold back. It’s well worth it to share all of our trade secrets with our clients, engineers or not. Mentor away! A more likely result of you teaching them better writing is increased appreciation for you, not a loss of work.

Benefits to Working with Engineers

Another factor at play in editing for engineers and scientists in English is that you will often get to work with plenty of brilliant people from all over the world, because engineers travel (and immigrate) a lot for work. Their English might not be perfect, but that might be because it’s their fourth, fifth, or sixth language!

And if the writers have romance languages as their first language, then you get to edit poetry. Sometimes I find it a shame to reduce the word count and eliminate the poetry into ruthless efficiency. Easier to read the science, of course, but slightly less beautiful, sometimes.

Q: How do you teach engineers to write?

This is a big topic, but here’s a start on what you need to arm yourself with if you are going to edit for engineers, and/or teach them something too.

Speak functionally. Engineers love to know how things work. If you explain how white space helps to highlight the important points by reducing reader fatigue and distraction, and give some examples to demonstrate it, then engineers are way more likely to jump on that train than if you just tell them abstractly that they should use more white space.

Guidelines are good, too, but if you just spout a lot of rules without backing them up with good reasons, engineers are likely to analyze themselves out of using your rule.

So, participate in the analysis. And if you are asking people to follow rules that you can’t back up with sound logic, functional science, and a history of how that rule came into being, then maybe there’s something wrong with your rule!

Use examples. Examples teach like theory never can. Great teaching (or style guides or instructions for projects) includes both examples and theory.

Example:

Let’s say that someone in your class, or in a company that you edit for, has brought up the case of putting one or two spaces after a period. Some writers do not like the fact that this rule has changed in their lifetime, and they have plenty of reasons not to follow the new rule.

If you don’t tell them WHY they should only use one space after a period, you will find you have a low compliance rate.

However, if you explain that two spaces was appropriate when we used typewriters, but that computer programs are designed to use just one space, and that it will look wonky if they use two, that will get a lot of converts. Engineers understand changing technology and modernization.

But you will still have some holdouts. So try an authority-based viewpoint. “It’s what we do in the publishing industry. You may notice that every book in the bookshop and every journal you ever submitted a paper to, strip out the extra spaces.”

That might get you a few more converts.

Then, you might try a second, even more intricate functional argument: Double spaces on word processing programs create large white spaces between sentences, which will lead to rivers of white space between sentences. These  rivers of white space have been proven in multiple controlled experiments to make readers’ eyes wander and get distracted from the reading at hand.

Load yourself up with knowledge, not arrogance. As the spaces-after-period example shows, sometimes you just need to patiently have more information than they can possibly contradict.

And then you patiently have to accept that some of them are still going to disagree and keep using two spaces after a period, the way they were taught in 1973. Don’t sweat it. Just add it to a standard editing task you do on that person’s papers when you receive them.

Q: How do you know that you’re teaching with any success?

One of the best compliments I ever received from an engineer was “I forgot to touch my phone the whole time you were teaching. I don’t think that’s ever happened before.” 🙂 Obviously he found what I had to say worthwhile.

Another good indicator of success is when people ask follow-up questions.

You can deliver all the information in class, and even have people work through examples, but the real learning happens when the engineers are back at their desks, working on the writing they get paid for. When they email with questions on how to apply the principles taught in the course—for example, how to make something more readable, or how to add more white space to five dense pages of report—then I know they’re processing what they learned.

Q: Do you have any tips for others who need to teach writing?

Be humble. You probably know a lot, but always remember to listen while you’re talking, too. Laugh at your own mistakes (such as writing the wrong word on the board, or having a typo in your materials) rather than getting uppity. Consider this strategy: Take along small wrapped chocolates to share with students who point out your mistakes. It keeps class lively and students engaged.

Be flexible. Remember that each class of students has different needs, so your teaching should flex to fit those needs. A great teacher never teaches two classes exactly the same, or two individuals exactly the same, though the core material may be similar.

Be practical. There’s no need to train report writers extensively on English grammar terms (antecedents and prepositions and the like). Teach them what they need to know in terms that interest them. Not because they can’t learn the grammar terms, but because it is more interesting to focus on how  and why to do something than to load the course with abstract terminology.

Be prepared to repeat yourself. If you are working  within a company context, you will have the opportunity to teach through weekly emails, commentary in document edits, and daily conversations, not just in classes. Don’t expect everyone to understand, process, and instantly apply every point that you teach. Be patient when you need to reteach something or remind people now and then.

Use the “textbook” in the room. If you can get senior and intermediate people to come to your corporate courses, and make it well known that you respect and want to hear from those people, your courses will have much more ongoing impact for the juniors in that company. Each company has its own rules and styles, so having people in the room who can speak intelligently about those items, and discuss  challenges particular to their company, is valuable if you can manage it.

Have good resources. Write your own, or consider the ones available at www.solarosatech.com.

Keep them engaged. Chuck out the slide shows and the video projectors, and put pens and paper in their hands. There’s no better way to learn than doing, so get them working. Break up informational sections with examples and exercises to try, and the day will fly by.

Enjoy what you do. Teaching engineers and scientists to write is really fun. Do know your stuff, inside and out, but go prepared to debate and analyze and say “you’re right” now and then, without any worries or egos in the way. Like them, and they’ll like you right back!

 

Christa writes and edits globally through www.globalstudiotca.com, teaches writing seminars internationally to engineers, scientists, and businesspeople through her training company, www.solarosatech.com, and has six books available on Amazon.com. She loves to connect on LinkedIn, so drop her a line!

An earlier version of this article appeared on Indian Copyeditors Forum. Republished with permission.

 

One thought on “The Joys of Teaching Engineers to Write

  1. Margaret Cekis

    I agree whole heartedly with your article. I started my technical editing and writing career as an editor in an R&D institute, and I loved working (and arguing) with engineers because they are smart, and interested in the whys and reasons. My worst job involved marketing people who didn’t want the reasons why they couldn’t add things to a manual that had already been typeset and sent to the printer.

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