A Good Writer is Hard to Come By

Technical professionals often overlook one of the most important aspects of the job

Technical professionals didn't become so because they love to write. That's why so many of them -- especially those involved in civil-engineering disciplines -- are surprised by the amount of writing they have to do. In fact, some, like those engaged in the geosciences, discover that almost all of their deliverables are in writing; e.g., proposals, reports, specifications, memoranda, and project notes. And that creates a paradox, given that any errors in those documents can create liability exposures worth hundreds of thousands -- even millions -- of dollars: Here you have a group of people who, typically, do not like to write -- who have never liked to write -- and who, given their antipathy and resulting avoidance, do not write particularly well. Nonetheless, writing quality is more important for them than it is for just about any other professionals, including professional news journalists (even Pulitzer Prize-winning news journalists). After all, if news journalists make a mistake, they can take care of it easily by publishing a correction in the next day's or next week's edition. Technical professionals don't have that luxury. They have to get it right the first time, because if they don't, others who depend on the professionals' instruments of professional service might be led astray (or would be in a position to allege that), and the result of that faux pas could cost money -- a lot of it -- to repair.

Bringing the paradox into even more pronounced relief, many (not necessarily most) technical professionals chose their pursuit not because they liked math and science more, but rather because they liked writing and the humanities less. Nonetheless, they have come to learn that they must write -- a lot (daily, in most cases, which is what they can be called journalists (derived from jour, which is French for "day")); that they must report (hence, they are reporters) accurately and completely; that they must convey their thoughts in a manner that minimizes the potential for misunderstanding (real or alleged); and that they have to do all of this under tremendous time pressures in order to meet budgets and schedules.

Dealing With It
Given the foregoing, you would think that technical professionals would roll up their sleeves and do whatever they reasonably could to improve the situation. But that's not the case. They received precious little writing guidance at the college level, and what is offered, from what I can tell, is none too good. You would think that practicing professionals would make their displeasure known; that they would aggressively seek to expand existing, somewhat diminished technical curricula to change the situation, but that has not (to my knowledge) happened, except perhaps in a few isolated cases. So what happens? Where do technical professionals learn how to write? They learn it on the job from engineers, geologists, environmental scientists, or others in a similar position. And where did those instructors get their guidance? They got it on the job from engineers, geologists, environmental scientists, or others in a similar position, of course. And this phenomenon creates a classic case of the blind leading the blind or, more charitably, of not-very-good writers passing along their not-very-good skills, based on their recollections of what they learned from their professional forebears, who go it from their forebears, who learned from their forebears, etc. All of which explains why so many technical reports, memoranda, et al., are difficult to follow (not a good thing, liability-wise), in part because they rely on styles more reminiscent of 1905 than 2005.

Common Mistakes
Reliance on the passive voice is, perhaps, the first thing that needs to be considered by you. (Ed. Note: The passive voice is the voice used to indicate that the subject of the verb is the recipient, rather than the source, of the action indicated in the verb.) The passive voice is not used by people in their thinking or speaking. Why is it, then, that the passive voice is recommended by so many technical professionals to their protégées as "scientific writing style" and something that is good to be applied by them? Awkwardness is embodied by the passive voice. Wordiness created by it is almost inevitable. And as is shown by this paragraph, more time is required by the style for reading and comprehension. Plus that, if the preposition "by" is not included in a passive-voice sentence, the subject of the thought -- i.e., the person or thing by which action has been taken -- is not identified, thus creating the potential that important information will be omitted from a report (by the person writing the report, whoever that poor, anonymous soul may be).

Translation: (in 64 words vs. 137): Consider reliance on the passive voice. People don't use it when they think or speak. Why, then, do so many technical professionals regard the passive voice as "scientific writing style" and insist that their protégées use it? The passive voice is awkward, wordy, and difficult to comprehend. Plus that, it permits -- if not encourages -- omission of important information; i.e., who is responsible for what.

Consider, too, professionals' reliance on any number of phrases that were trite even a century ago, like "Enclosed, please find," and "If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask." That so many technical professionals use this identical language is appalling, especially given their desire to overcome the impression that all technical professionals seem to be the same. "We're different from one another and deserve to be treated as such, and not like commodities," they say. "Not when five reports from five separate firms look and sound identical," client representatives respond. In fact, because their writing style is the same, it creates an appearance of sameness that cannot help but contribute to their commoditization.

As archaic as many technical professionals' writing may be, many seem to have abandoned important, time-honored professional terminology in favor of somewhat contemporary commercial jargon; e.g., referring to customers rather than clients or client representatives; jobs rather than projects, engagements, or commissions; scope of work instead of scope of service; and work products rather than deliverables or instruments of professional service.

Compounding the situation is technical professionals' fundamental deficiencies in things like grammar and spelling. Assuming you're a technical professional, go ahead and take the accompanying quiz. (The answers appear at the end of this column. Don't cheat!)

How'd you do? If you're inclined to say (possibly as an excuse) "I'm a technical professional -- I don't have to be an English scholar," you have my sympathies. However, one does not have to be an English scholar to do well on the test. All you need to know is the basics, which is also all you need to have control of your language, so you can relate your professional guidance (as well as proposed scope, et al.) in such a way that it is not easily misconstrued.

Do recognize, of course, that the quiz did not cover all the basics. One of the more common writing problems not covered, and to which technical professionals seem particularly susceptible (in part because of the passive voice): Danglers. For example:

As one of our best clients, your satisfaction is important to us.

Who is the client? If you say the writer did not name the client, you'd be wrong. The client's name is "your satisfaction," because the noun and its conjoined modifier immediately after the introductory dangler -- "As one of our best clients" -- is what the dangler is describing. True: Some grammarians say it is acceptable to yield to common parlance by overlooking the error and inserting an understood "you and" before "your satisfaction." As far as I'm concerned, that's not acceptable when the writer is a professional known for precision, and when, in some cases, the construction could create (or allegedly create) erroneous guidance. In other words, technical professionals need to know how to do it right and, if they do, why not practice doing it right?

Technical professionals also have some not-so-basic things to worry about; e.g., taboo words that can create grave -- and often uninsurable -- risks. These include words like certify, inspect, monitor, ensure, and safety. You also need to worry about the casual use of absolute words, because they indicate conditions that almost invariably do not and cannot exist. Absolutes include words like all, every, full, empty, and (for you environmentalists) clean.

The Proof is in the Words
How about proofreading? Given that technical professionals perform quality control of their writing through proofreading, you would think that they would know how to do it. While any number of them will say they do, ask how many have actually taken a course in proofreading. "I don't have to. I proofread well," is not an acceptable answer, because proofreading cannot be accomplished by reading a given document or passage from front to back, no matter how many times the reader does it, nor is it accomplished by reading something from back to front. (Given that a misplaced decimal point commonly can be worth in excess of $100,000 when spotted by a clever contractor, not knowing how to proofread properly can be a huge professional deficit.)

So, how good do you feel about your abilities? How about the abilities of those for whom you are responsible and liable? If you have doubts, you really need to invest some time in improving your skills. A number of good courses are available to firms, government agencies, and other "clients," at times and places the clients specify. Whether or not you use such courses is immaterial. What does count is that you recognize what's expected of you as a technical professional, and that you develop the skills necessary to deliver what's expected. I understand it's not easy. No one ever said it would be. Of course, no one ever said you'd have to do all this (expletive deleted) writing.

Test Your Knowledge

  1. This test (comprises or compromises or is comprised of) ten questions.
  2. Between you and (I or me), this test is easy.
  3. (I've or I had or I) learned this stuff in fifth grade.
  4. I'm not sure which teacher it was, but either Mr. Jones or Miss Smith gave me (his or her or their) best effort.
  5. One of them really (affected or effected) me.
  6. And that's really a (compliment or complement) on my part.
  7. But I am appreciative. What they taught allowed me to (affect or effect) a different personality.
  8. I should write to that teacher and say, "Thank you (." or ".)
  9. In fact, a lot of the grads should revisit that school just to write "Thank you!" on the walls of (its or it's or its') halls.
  10. If my favorite teacher were still around, I'd go into his office with my wife and say, Hello. It's (we or us)."
  11. I'd explain, "You're the one who taught me that a pound of feathers and a pound of bricks (weigh or weighs) the same."
  12. I guess it's pretty (doubtful or dubious) that he'd remember me.
  13. Of course, if he isn't still alive, that would be somewhat of a (mute or moot) point.
  14. Besides, he always (homed in or honed in) on even the slightest error.
  15. He said some things that (implied or inferred) that my English skills were lacking.
  16. I vowed that I would not allow that situation to (reoccur or recur).
  17. John Doe as well as I (was or were) upset with him from time to time.
  18. Actually, now that I think about it, a variety of memories (upset or upsets) me.
  19. I guess that's why I didn't go after a (Bachelor's Degree or bachelor's degree) in English.
  20. But that's okay. Based on what I read ten years ago, I learned a lot and (lead or led) the campus technical group.

Answers: 1(comprises) 2(me) 3(I) 4(her) 5(affected) 6(compliment) 7(effect) 8(.") 9(its) 10(we) 11(weigh) 12(doubtful) 13(moot) 14(homed in) 15(implied) 16(recur) 17(was) 18(upsets) 19(bachelor's degree) 20(led)

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

John P. Bachner is executive vice president of ASFE/The Best People on Earth. He authors several columns for engineers and allied professionals and is a frequent seminar leader and instructor. ASFE is a not-for-profit trade association comprising geoprofessional, environmental, and civil engineering firms, design/build contractors, and educators.

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