Working to boost your writing skills improves communication, minimizes mistakes and paves the way to management promotions. Even the most specialized of engineers can help themselves—and their customers—by remembering the three E’s of technical writing: energy, empathy and editing.
Don’t be ashamed to infuse your technical writing with energy. If you are documenting something you have designed, channel that pride into the text and share your enthusiasm. Sharing your energy through the written word makes the reader feel “in” rather than “out” when it comes to your design vision.
In neurological terms, empathy is what happens in your brain when you watch someone else throw a ball. The same neurons fire in your brain as if you were throwing the ball. The same phenomenon occurs between writer and reader. When writing, try to visualize someone actually reading the words or following the steps in your technical documentation. Think about how your words will stimulate others’ neurons, which in turn will stimulate your neurons.
One trick to better connect with your readers is to pick an actual person as your target audience. This is what public speakers often do—they make eye contact with one person in the crowd. In turn, the entire group feels more connected by empathetic proxy. The same energy applies to the writer-reader dynamic.
But be sure to pick someone you respect and enjoy talking to. When I wrote my book on financial risk management, I actually visualized explaining the subject to my father—a civil engineer.
Be sure to write like you speak. Visualize your reader’s facial expressions as if you were conversing. These empathetic techniques will not only elevate the conversational tone of your document but also make the writing experience more pleasant. And always remember: Your reader is your customer.
Editing is the last crucial step. Think of your editor as your first customer. Editors also want your writing to succeed. They probably share the same motivation that fueled your writing in the first place. This is sympathy pairing with empathy. Who better than a trusted colleague to ask: “What exactly did you want to say here?”
Working with an editor also increases the communal nature of good writing. Bad writing can sound like a boring person talking alone in a room. Good writing feels like an interesting conversation between the author and a circle of readers. Involving an editor helps to open up the dialogue between writer and readers.
The best writers learn to self-edit, but this takes practice. Start by reading your own work backward. Starting at the end also snaps your attention to the “punch line” of your piece, thus overcoming the rookie mistake of putting too much effort into the start of your piece and then fading toward the finish line.
Engineers are engineers for a reason. They love math, numbers and technology. If engineers loved words, they would have studied English. But within the competitive world of engineering, better technical writing can provide a competitive advantage by better serving customers and maximizing internal efficiency.