In this series of articles, I will be providing advice to college and university students, especially those in graduate school, on writing technical reports, theses and papers. This information should also be useful to practicing scientists and engineers working in government, corporations or consulting. In general, the standard of technical writing in professional practice is woefully inadequate; consequently the professional who seeks to achieve a level of writing expertise comparable to their excellent technical skills will have a distinct advantage over the competition.
Most technical people, especially engineers, dislike writing; to many it is the nasty little job that always follows the fun part of the work. However, technical writing need not be unpleasant or difficult. We are problem-solvers and this is just another problem. The key is simply to have a plan of attack. No experienced engineer or scientist would dream of showing up at a field site with a bunch of equipment and a group of workers, without first spending a fair bit of time on detailed planning. Without that detailed plan, there would be anarchy, frustration and a lot of wasted time for everyone concerned. Sitting down at the keyboard, in front of a blank screen, without a game plan will be similarly frustrating and unproductive. However, this is exactly what most beginners do and it’s the main reason most end up hating writing. So, for this first article in the series – let’s define the problem and come up with a basic plan that you can adapt and customize.
The simplest way to tackle any technical writing project is to think of the analogy of building a house. Of course, being an engineer, I like this example because it’s all about building something – but I choose it mainly because it’s something that everyone should be able to understand. So let’s think about it… First – how NOT to build a house:
- Start at the front entry: build the front door, then build the frame for the door, then build the walls, then paint the walls and, finally, hang a mirror.
- Whoops! We forgot the front closet, knock out the wall on the left – put up the closet doors, then build the closet.
- Whoops – it’s getting too dark to work – we need lights! Rip open the wall on the right and run some wire for the lighting. Darn – we knocked the mirror off the wall – 7 years bad luck for that!
- We get the front hall problems all sorted and we are ready to move on to the hallway – and once that’s finished: the living room, dining room and kitchen, each in turn.
- Finally we are ready to build the bedrooms – we’re out of room, so they will go on the second floor. Whoops – we didn’t think about that when we built the first floor – it’s not strong enough to hold up the second floor – rip out everything downstairs and start again using stronger walls this time.
I don’t know about you – but to me this sounds like an extremely frustrating, expensive and time-consuming way to build a house. Not to mention completely impractical. How’s this for an alternative approach instead?
- Draw some diagrams of what you want the house to look like. Decide what rooms you want, where the closets will be, how many bathrooms will be needed and what lighting and electrical fixtures would be appropriate. This means that we will have to think about the use of the house. How many people will live there? What is their lifestyle and how will their needs and capabilities affect the layout? If it’s going to be a big house, think about which interior walls should be load bearing – they will have to be “beefed-up” to support the weight of the second floor or roof. Make sure all of these details are on the plan.
- Decide what materials you will need to build the house. You will need to have those in hand before you even think of starting to build anything.
- You’re finally reading to start building. Start by framing up the house, this is the skeleton that divides the rooms and contains the structural components that hold everything up.
- Put that sheet of drywall down! Don’t even think of putting any of that up until you have run all of the wires and pipes for the electrical and plumbing.
- Okay, now that the plumbing and electrical services are all run (and everything up to this point has been approved by the building inspector) you can start covering the frame with drywall. Then you are ready to spread the plaster and seal the joints and cracks.
- Hang the doors, put in the toilets, tubs and sinks, paint the walls, put on the light fixtures and you are ready to start decorating.
In the broader sense the analogy is this: don’t sit down at the blank screen and write the title page, abstract, introduction, body, conclusions, then prepare figures and tables. It just won’t work – you’ll be extremely frustrated and will end up doing a lot of unnecessary rewriting. In a more specific sense, the proper house building approach shown above is an exact analogy for the technical writing process. Notice especially a lot of planning and preparation is required before you can even think of starting to build. The same principle applies in technical writing – it may seem like a waste of time to do a bunch of planning first, but the truth is – it is far more time consuming to work without a plan. In fact, it’s totally impractical.
Here is our house building plan applied to the problem of writing a report (or paper, thesis or article):
- Make an ‘outline’ describing what you want the report to look like. Decide what objectives you will address and what information you wish to present. Think about your reader – what is the best way to organize the information so that it easy for them to understand? If it’s going to be a big report, think about what key thoughts, data or results could be ‘beefed-up’ by providing tables, graphs and diagrams. Make sure to include notes on the tables and figures you will need within your outline.
- Decide what materials you will need to have on hand to write the report. You should assemble all necessary information before you start to write. This includes preparation of all of your figures and tables.
Now you are ready to start writing!
Most theses and technical reports have pretty consistent outlines. For an experimental thesis it might be something like this:
- Literature Review
- Experimental Apparatus or Methodology
- Data Analysis
- Conclusions and Recommendations
For a numerical modeling thesis it might be something like this:
- Literature Review
- Model Development
- Model Application
- Conclusions and Recommendations
For a technical report – e.g. an engineering design report – it might look something like this:
- Site Description and Available Data
- Methodology or XXXX Analysis (substitute type of analysis for ‘XXXX’)
- Design Details or Design Results
- Summary and Recommendations
These are not universally applicable – but I do hope you can see the general trend in all of them: introduction, past studies, data, methods, results, conclusions… Hopefully this will give you the basic idea and you can adapt this generic template to your own thesis or report.
In my next post, I’ll talk about the fundamental building block of every report or thesis – the paragraph – and later I’ll suggest a strategy for getting your thoughts down on paper quickly and efficiently. In the meantime – get started on your outline! 🙂