Re: Technical writing vs. engineering

Subject: Re: Technical writing vs. engineering
From: "Shelly M. LaRock" <smlarock -at- MTU -dot- EDU>
Date: Thu, 27 Apr 1995 18:19:17 EDT

Hi Everyone,

I've decided to come out of hiding to respond to Chateau's
posting. This isn't meant to be a blatant flame (although
it may be a little warm around the edges), but I just
couldn't *not* respond to it.

Chateau wrote:
> Believe me, as an civil engineering student my technical writing class
> was much more easier than any engineering class.
Looks like you had a tough time with grammar, though, eh?

That's the problem with most engineers' perspectives on technical
writing. They have one class and they think they are now good
tech writers. It's no different with the engineering majors here.
The one tech writing class the engineers have to take here at
Michigan Tech is a fairly easy class. They learn how to write
memos, cover letters, resumes, etc.--small stuff. So they all
walk out of the class thinking *I* need five years of schooling
to learn how to do what they did in 10 weeks. What they don't
understand is that tech writing goes far beyond memos and

> To me, technical
> writing is basically researching and reporting information in a specific
> writing style.

Just one style? There are so many styles of writing, and if
you don't know how to adapt your writing to match a certain style--or
create your own style--you will not be a successful writer.

I've talked to a LOT of recruiters and asked why they think they
need a technical writer. Every one of them said it's because the
engineers can't write. I'm not saying that maliciously. It's
just that you can't take one tech writing class and know how to
produce effective documentation.

> One doesn't even need a class, there are books that can
> teach a person to become a "technical writer".

There are also books on civil engineering, but if I read one, I
wouldn't think I was a civil engineer.

Perhaps you could send tell me about one of those books. And
to think I've had to go to school for five years to get my tech
writing degree--what a fool I've been.

> To be an engineer, you
> need so many fundamentals: you have to take Physics to know
> Thermodynamics and you have to take Thermodynamics to know Fluid
> Mechanics and you have to take Fluid Mechanics in order to take Water
> Resource Engineering and so on.

Technical writers must also take a wide range of interrelated classes.
Do you think I just magically knew how to use all of the different
software packages out on the market? And what about design concepts?
I didn't wake up one morning and find the ability to determine
document layout/design as the prize in my cereal box. After taking
your tech writing class you mentioned, would you know what the best
layout is for a software user manual? Admin manual? What about the
differences in writing paper docs and online docs? When can you
use jargon and when can't you? And this is only the tip of the

Tech writing isn't just writing memos and reports like a lot of
people think it is. Many people would be surprised to find out
how much work goes into writing a manual.

> I'm not trying to "downplay" technical writing but come on! It's not as
> easy to teach engineering to a writer that to teach writing to an
> engineer.

I beg to differ with you. I've tried teaching several of my engineering
friends how to write a simple resume. It hasn't been very easy. On the
other hand, I am a writer, but I've managed to pick engineering up quite
easily. I've had all of the calculus, physics, chemistry, thermodynamics,
statics, dynamics, etc. I don't think it's a matter of which one is
easier. I think it has only to do with which one a person has a better
aptitude for.

I can both write about AND design a bridge (trusses, supports, materials,
etc.) that will hold a certain load, be aesthetically pleasing, and
be cost-efficient. Granted, many people can't do that, but I don't
think that makes one easier than the other.

I'm just trying to make the point that taking a class or reading a
book doesn't make a person a technical writer. I've edited and
re-written a number of engineer-written documents, and when the time
came to explain the changes to the engineers, they usually didn't

Technical writing is a complicated field. For an engineer, a
writing class may be easy. For a writer, and engineering class
may be easy. But that doesn't make one easier than the other.

My 12 cents worth.

Shelly La Rock
smlarock -at- mtu -dot- edu
Michigan Tech University
Houghton, MI

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