Technical Writing & Communication: What & Why?

Summary: A look at the importance of technical writing in the sciences.

Technology is a manner of accomplishing a task using technical methods or knowledge. It has conferred a number of benefits on humankind. Engineering is the practical applications of scientific and mathematical principles. And engineers being the directors of motion guide the course of actions.

Writings that deal with the special knowledge especially on scientific or technical subjects are scientific or technical writings. Practice for such kind of writings is to be given to the technical students who study engineering and technology. Importance is given for technical writing in the Engineering curriculum not only in the Universities in India but also in all other countries promoting technology.

In general, the educational system of engineering, that is, the Technology Education can be defined as training for the practical applications of science in industry and commerce. Beginning from the 18th century there was a progress of technology. An increasing awareness of the technology and the dilemma confronting the world due the knowledge of technology makes it possible to offer a realistic assessment of the role of technology in shaping the society. For practical assessment, technology education should be comprised with technical communication courses, including oral and written, in the syllabi for shaping the society.

Technical communication is very important for practical applications of science, for learning the mechanics in technology, for promoting technological research, and for the training of technologists.

The primary training and interests of engineering students lie in technical areas. Most of the engineering students successfully pursue their technical subjects but without extra writing courses. After their studies, being practicing engineers and scientists in government and industry, they work on technical projects. It might seem they pursue and practise well and that writing and communication are superfluous to a technical education. In fact, this is not the case. Scientists and engineers may be technically brilliant and creative, but unless they can convince co-workers of their worth, the technical skills will be unobserved, unrewarding, and unused. If technical people cannot communicate to others what they are doing and why it is important, it is they and their technical skills that will be superfluous. So the importance of technical communication has to be noted. For example, most industries are composed of internal units that include, at least, a marketing unit, a manufacturing unit, an engineering unit, a design unit, and a management unit. These units are the internal organizations in the industries. While they all strive toward the same end, they do not necessarily agree among themselves. The engineers or scientists must present themselves effectively in competition. Inevitably, it is a part of their responsibility to transmit understandably the results of their work to other people, both verbally and in writing.

To present the ideas effectively, to transmit the ideas understandably and influentially both verbally and in writing, the communication skills should stand above all other types of skills. The American Society for Engineering Education conducted a survey to determine which academic skills are most needed for engineering careers in industry. The results show that communication skills rank above any other type of skill, capturing five of the most-needed skills, out of thirty-eight skills analyzed.

These five communication skills are:
Technical writing (2nd place)
Public speaking (4th place)
Working with individuals (6th place)
Working with groups (7th place) and
Talking with people (9th place)

Nicholas D. Sylvester in his book Engineering Education has given data under the title “Engineering Education Must Improve the Communication Skills of its Graduates.” From the data, it is observed;

“75 percent of engineering undergraduates take jobs in industry, where at least 25 percent of an engineer’s time is spent in the reporting process. As the engineer moves up the managerial ladder, this time can increase to as much as 80 percent.”

On the lack of communication skills, Nicholas observes;

Engineers cannot communicate – cannot spell, cannot make a sketch, have difficulty in all phases of communication with others. The student of today needs more ability than ever and a key need is to increase the ability to communicate both in speech and graphics.

Communication tasks are important to success in the technical professions and constitute a relatively large part of a job. The technical professionists should have clear organisation in writing and logical reasoning. They should write clear and concise sentences. They should follow the standard conventions of grammar, punctuation, and other mechanics.

Writers of scientific and technical writing should produce sentences that readers can easily understand, and they should place those statements in contexts, paragraphs or larger units. So people in technical fields should study significant amounts of both oral and written work and learn to communicate in a variety of forms, especially shorter forms using technical terms for the specialists and longer or expanded form for the non-specialists. They can help also the non-technical people understand easily the technical terms. If the writers being familiar with the terms, present in a way that could be made intelligible, the terms can be easily understood by everyone.

For example, the full meaning of a term can often be expressed by simply ‘unwinding’ it from right to left and inserting the appropriate preposition(s). For example, the term “wall stresses” could be expanded as “stresses on a wall,” “stresses inside a wall,” “stresses produced by a wall,” etc. Only the civil engineer can be sure that “stresses inside a wall” is correct.

The correct interpretation of the term depends heavily on the reader’s prior knowledge of the subject being discussed; the non-specialists would be able to guess the intended meaning of the compound term as a whole.

Likewise, there are many rules for making the scientific and technical writings easy for non-specialists too. From this perspective, communications skills are not just handy; they are critical tools for success, even survival, in ‘real world’ environments.

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