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Teaching Engineers to Write? 656

$hecky asks: "I teach several sections of a first-year writing course at a small, private college where most of the students are, or plan to be, some flavor of engineer. Right now, I'm planning next year's courses and wondering what has (and hasn't) helped Slashdot readers become better writers. Also, I'm wondering which writing skills you, in your roles as workers and teachers, would most like to see emphasized in first year writing courses. Put another way, where do you see people who have completed first-year writing courses screwing up their writing, and which experiences, practices, and pressures you think have made you a better writer?"
"First, let's head a couple wagons off at the pass. Let's avoid the vulgar confusion of good writing and good grammar. Horrifying grammar is a common problem, but its not a problem I can fix in a semester-long class. About a century of research tells us that native English speakers aren't rule-based parsers, so teaching grammatical rules (like when to use the subjunctive or where to put commas) doesn't improve compliance. The best strategy on those fronts is a habitual reading of clearly-formatted texts and scrupulous multi-stage review of everything you write, both of which are somewhat outside the scope of a semester-long class.

Second, let's say that the chief virtue of good writing is clarity. While some kinds of writing prize being strategically elliptical, and others prize brisk and clever metaphor, most of my students aren't writing grant applications, patents, or poems. So metaphor, however brisk or clever, is out of place if it obscures its subject.

Third, this course is a cultural studies type, rather than a workshop. This means that the course has a topic of inquiry about which all of the students read and write for a semester and that, while being reasonably complex, the topic should accommodate students who are going to become accountants, math teachers, and advertisers. It's common for engineering students to wash out into the business school, and there's a significant contingent of humanities students as well. Anything other than a general interest topic (like the 1960s, ideas about the American West, or fairy tales) isn't an option.

So think back to your writing. What has made you more comfortable with your writing, or eager to improve what you've written? What inspires you to read outside of a classroom or mandated context? Was has impressed on you the importance of revision, or at least of reviewing your writing at intervals? Which parts of which college (or high school) curricula have helped you write better? Finally, which aspects of your students' or co-workers' writing do you find most troublesome?"
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Teaching Engineers to Write?

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  • Irony (Score:5, Funny)

    by Ninwa ( 583633 ) <jbleau@gmail.com> on Saturday May 06, 2006 @11:25PM (#15279547) Homepage Journal
    wuldn't it be ironik if no1 respondid?
  • by OrangeTide ( 124937 ) on Saturday May 06, 2006 @11:26PM (#15279549) Homepage Journal
    The 5 column system tends to work well for Engineers since it presents some of the trickest parts of English in a logical way.

    http://www.lbt-languages.de/english/lernhilfe/lern hilfe.html [lbt-languages.de]
    • as a (former, hopefully future) writing instructor, i've got to say that grammar is just about the least important part of writing. most grammar instruction (AKA prescribed grammar) actually does more harm than good, because people replace the unspoken grammar instruction that they learned from their family and friends with incorrect and confused uses of prescribed grammar. what *does* work for engineering students (and most other students) is to instruct them on organization. organization separates forma
      • Those charts can be useful cheat sheets for non-native speakers of English. I teach writing (and general ESL) in Sweden, and grammar is a problem.
      • "as a (former, hopefully future) writing instructor..."

        Wouldn't it be more correct to say "As a (former, and, I hope, future) writing instructor"? as "hopefully" is an (almost universally mis-used) adverb?

        • "Main Entry: hopefully
          Function: adverb
          Date: circa 1639
          1 : in a hopeful manner
          2 : it is hoped : I hope : we hope
          usage In the early 1960s the second sense of hopefully, which had been in sporadic use since around 1932, underwent a surge of popular use. A surge of popular criticism followed in reaction, but the criticism took no account of the grammar of adverbs. Hopefully in its second sense is a member of a class of adverbs known as disjuncts. Disjuncts serve as a means by which the author or speaker can com
      • by NMerriam ( 15122 ) <NMerriam@artboy.org> on Sunday May 07, 2006 @02:05AM (#15280102) Homepage
        I would agree with this completely -- the best use of a semester would be to show students how to approach the organization of written information. This should actually be second nature to engineers, as they frequently are called upon to organize and categorize things, yet their writing tends to lack the clarity of purpose that a good writer brings through proper organization.

        One thing I notice is that people unaccustomed to writing formal papers tend to adopt a very stilted and affected style, thinking it sounds more "official", but it is usually just confusing. As students are writing, some of the most helpful things you can show them are the areas where they sound unnatural. While there's entirely too many people writing in an overly-conversational way online (essentially writing the words they would speak), one of the keys to compelling writing is to be natural and give it some personality.
      • So as a former writing instructor, you should know that correct capitilization helps the reader more readily parse the sentance structure, and should be used even when the writing style is 'informal'. Lack of capitalization is just plain laziness.

        E-mail, IM, and particularly SMS is killing proper writing techniques.
  • What?! (Score:4, Funny)

    by hungrygrue ( 872970 ) on Saturday May 06, 2006 @11:27PM (#15279555) Homepage
    This is Slashdot, where grammar, punctuation, and subject verb agreement long ago came to die.
  • by pHatidic ( 163975 ) on Saturday May 06, 2006 @11:28PM (#15279556)
    I think my biggest problem as a writer has been just learning to get over myself. Adding chiasmus and clever literary trope seems clever to me at the time, but doesn't really do anything for whoever is reading my stuff.

    Another weird habit I have is writing everything as if it were going to be read out loud. This makes many of my sentences unreasonably short. Which is good, when read it my voice. But most people on the web don't read in my voice.

    (you can see what I'm talking about if you check out the newer writing on my website)
    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 06, 2006 @11:49PM (#15279645)
      And yet, you use the word chiasmus...
    • Thank you Mr.Shatner. You're right though, no one reads in you're voice.
    • by billstewart ( 78916 ) on Sunday May 07, 2006 @04:52AM (#15280423) Journal
      I worked at Bell Labs after college, and a critical piece of required training was a writing course. I don't remember who ran it, probably some outside teaching firm, but it was really really valuable to me. A couple of the critical lessons
      • Write like a newspaper reporter, not a grad student.
      • Your objective is clear communication to the reader, not beauty or eruditeness or narration of your discoveries and reasoning process. Don't waste their time, or at least don't waste it up front.
      • Hit the important conclusions in the first few sentences so your reader will read them. If you'd like to wrap up with them at the end of your memo, that's fine too, in case anybody's still reading by then, but conclusions come first.
      • If you're trying to express something complex, simplify your writing so it doesn't get in the way. For something simple, 10th grade language structures will do, but if it's really hairy stuff, back down to 8th grade or so.
        (Yes! Now the engineers get to play with grammatical analysis tools and run them on their documents, which was a really cool thing back in the just-after-punchcards days :-)
      • Think about what your audience knows and doesn't know, and what they want and don't want. Express things in terms of what they know and want, not what _you_ know.
      • If you want somebody to do something, tell them specifically. The passive voice indicates that things will or should be or were done, and may optionally refer to who they might be or have been done by - in business, it's perfectly ok to tell people that you want them to do stuff, and politely expressing the valuableness of the acheivement of doneness of stuff not only doesn't tell the person you want to do stuff to do it, it often leads to later arguments about responsibility, scope creep in contracts, or simply to stuff not getting done which causes projects to fail.
      • Yes, this probably means unlearning almost everything you were taught about writing in college. Sometimes it means unlearning what you learned back as far as junior high school.


      Some engineers are really good at grammar and spelling, and consider computer languages to be fundamentally the same processes of clear and beautiful thought as human languages. Others handle them as entirely different things - can't spell worth beenz and don't grammar thier English, even though they spend all day producing flawless syntax in artificial languages. Those of us in the former group don't really understand the latter, and find their behaviour annoying, but it's such a common pattern that it's obviously a different set of mental structures approaches to information processing or something, on the level of spoken-vs-written-vs-visual focus, as opposed to laziness and stupidity (:-) (Though the folks who don't find grammar and spelling natural should really use spell-checkers...) And I'm not ragging on non-native English speakers here - it's extremely common in native speakers, while the non-native speakers I've worked with often learned formal English grammar in school and don't use many of the more subtle verb forms of colloquial speech, though they do often have problems with spelling.

      But as the original article says, grammar and spelling are much different issues than organization of content. There's a real value in teaching engineers how to write.

      • by Dr. Evil ( 3501 ) on Sunday May 07, 2006 @09:01PM (#15282939)

        I figured out many years after highschool that the reason why so few people understand how to write:

        • Highschools teach writing in English class.
        • English teachers teach English class
        • To qualify as an English teacher, you have to pass English courses
        • English courses teach creativity, literature, classics, poetry etc.
        • Essays, documentation, memos and reports have nothing to do with creativity, literature, classics, poetry, etc.

        I think it is quite possible that most of the English teachers in North America know less about technical writing or writing essays in the social sciences than the average engineering undergrad. Infact, English teachers are the least qualified people to teach you how to write.

        PhysEd teachers have a better chance of teaching you how to write!

        (The most annoying part of communicating with my coworkers is translating English written with Chineese grammar into English with English grammar.)

  • What hasn't helped my writing is following the /. style of editing and spelling. Sigh.
  • Learning how to write proficiently is certainly useful. Learning how to make yourself understood is even more useful. We all have different priorities. Agonizing over someone's diction, while it may be useful in necessary in an academic environment, seems akin to an art professor agonizing over someone's brush strokes when they're just trying to paint their house.

    • The best advice that ever provided to me for writing consisted of avoiding, as much as possible, all use of the word 'be' and its variants. Doing so forces the writer to utilize more interesting words and vary the sentence structure, which helps to keep the reader's attention. The following list contains all of the words to avoid:

      am
      are
      is
      was
      were
      be
      being
      been

      While not sorted alphabetically, my teacher at the time provided them in that order, so my recital follows the same.
  • by multimediavt ( 965608 ) on Saturday May 06, 2006 @11:32PM (#15279571)
    The type of writing that garners the most interest from young minds is creative writing rather than the more mundane technical or analytical types. These are engineers. They need to be able to abstract and yet be "technically" correct.

    Writing assignments that start with a foundation, akin to how Sean Connery's character in Finding Forrester helped his apprentice stir his creative juices, can be really effective. I remember quite clearly an English teacher I had in eighth grade that would give us assignments like that. He would start us off with a paragraph setting a scene or introducing a character and we would have to take the story forward from there. Obviously, there are some additional parameters that you as the instructor can wrap around the assignment, but the concept is something that works well for a mixed audience of students.

    Just a suggestion.
  • by rcoxdav ( 648172 )
    As a person with a degree in Electrical Engineering, who then went to grad school for secondary ed physics and math, I found that the classes that helped my writing the most were those classes that a lot of people dread, the gen-ed classes. I found that my Pscychology, the grad level Education classes, and anthropology type classes really improved my writing. The reason is that I was made to work outside of my comfort level of math and physics, and actually do reasearch, put coherent thoughts together, a
  • I'm a first year engineering student. Oddly enough I'm switching to business, though I'm in the top of my engineering class. You say the school is small, but what about the classes? If the classes are small and you have time, I suggest starting off with small papers and slowly progressing to larger papers. Cover different kinds of writing, do a bit of grammar (it does help regardless of studies), and be willing to talk to your students for a bit after class. If you cover multiple areas of writing, you will
  • Suggestions... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Jjeff1 ( 636051 ) on Saturday May 06, 2006 @11:34PM (#15279577)
    First, get every student a copy of "The Elements of Style". It's a very small book originally written around WWI. It points out the most frequent mistakes in writing. It's an excellent book, following the tips within will make anyone a better writer.

    Second, teach people to write to their audience. Far too often I see engineers write a recomendation to a customer that points out technical merits or problems, but doesn't frame those issues with reguard to the customer's business. A COO probably doesn't care about the problems with an ACL entry in a VPN setup. They do care if their employees can't work while on the road.

    Third, while you might not be able to help people with their grammar or spelling, make sure they understand that those things do matter and need to be fixed. One of my co-workers is Jeopardy smart, but his writing is awful. If you were to judge him by his writing you'd think he was a complete idiot. Proofreading is sometimes more important that the initial writing. Students who have severe grammar problems should read their work out loud to themselves. That will help a LOT.
    • They do care if their employees can't work while on the road.

      I'd recommend reading "All Marketers are Liars" by Seth Godin. Not only does it cover this topic very well, but it is also written in a style that one would do well to emulate. The book basically explains how to tell stories that match people's worldviews. For example, Fiji water sells for twice as much as Poland Spring because it has a story on the bottle.
    • While I agree with most of what you said, I want to call attention to your last point:

      Third, while you might not be able to help people with their grammar or spelling, make sure they understand that those things do matter and need to be fixed.

      With today's modern spell- and grammar-checkers, I'm not so sure that such things are super-important but what *is* important is good writing. That simply means making yourself understandable. I think you will find that someone who is intelligent and who cares ab

    • Re:Suggestions... (Score:3, Informative)

      by flogic42 ( 948616 )
      I wholeheartedly second this. The Elements of Style is superb. In writing, nothing is more important than getting your point across in as precise and concise a way as possible.
    • Re:Suggestions... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by belmolis ( 702863 ) <billposer@alum.PARISmit.edu minus city> on Sunday May 07, 2006 @02:51AM (#15280203) Homepage

      No! No! A thousand times no! The Elements of Style is awful. It purveys ignorant advice that no good writer would follow. For an idea of how awful it is, see this discussion [upenn.edu] by linguist Geoff Pullum.

    • Re:Suggestions... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by rolfwind ( 528248 ) on Sunday May 07, 2006 @04:17AM (#15280376)
      I read this book, and past the first few chapters, thought it was a boring and pendantic excursion into the proper grammar world. I said it before in this very thread, but I'll repeat it because it is such a good book:

      Get "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser.

      Here are the most worthwhile chapters:
      http://www.cla.wayne.edu/polisci/kdk/general/sourc [wayne.edu] es/zinsser.htm [wayne.edu]

      The rest of the book is okay, but these three chapters are simply inspired.
  • by RonBurk ( 543988 ) on Saturday May 06, 2006 @11:35PM (#15279580) Homepage Journal
    The #1 thing I would make sure I taught engineers is to separate writing from editing. The most common "I hate to write" problem I find in fellow engineers is that no one ever taught them to do the work in (at least) two phases.

    First, do the writing: get all your ideas down as fast as you can without worrying about structure, or complete sentences or anything except putting everything down that you can think of.

    Second, do the editing. Now look at your big pile of ideas and think about what the right order for things is, how to start and finish it, what to throw out, what things go best together, and eventually even sentence-level details like grammar.

    8 times out of 10 when I have an engineer staring at two sentences on an otherwise blank screen, it's because they think it has to spool out onto the page in linear, perfected form right from the start.

    • by KWTm ( 808824 ) on Sunday May 07, 2006 @12:02AM (#15279701) Journal
      Not to be contrarian, but I'd like to present a different viewpoint. I have never subscribed to this "just put your ideas down now; worry about the grammar later" school of thought. Such a process makes a chore of having to go back and correct the ideas to make them presentable, as if grammar and other finer points of writing were unnecessary burdens imposed by the teacher and other excessively picky individuals. For me, putting my ideas on paper (or on screen) in a presentable way from the very start makes my ideas flow better because I am channelling them into a form that is understandable by others and hence by myself. In short, it helps me think.

      Now, I admit that perhaps this way isn't for everybody. It just so happens that I've got a pretty good mastery of grammar, spelling, etc. --I won't claim that it's perfect, but it doesn't pose any extra burden for me to do it right. On the other hand, maybe it's because of this very demand for doing it right that has made it second nature to me. If the students don't have this habit ingrained yet, one semester won't be enough to change that; but I'd hate for anyone to aim for a "correct it later" attitude as the norm in writing.

      You could compare it to programming. What are your first steps when you sit down to write a program? Yes, yes, of course there are doodles, sketches and diagrams. But when you get down to coding, I hope that you don't just code any old program and then go back later to fix compilation errors. I hope that you'll make sure it's clean, well-structured code that makes it easy to improve (as opposed to "correct") later.

      • You could compare it to programming. What are your first steps when you sit down to write a program? Yes, yes, of course there are doodles, sketches and diagrams.
        Why note let them do that step too? Sentence diagrams [wikipedia.org] have been around for a long time. When I learned the technique in 6th grade, suddenly English seemed more like Math and I understood the basis better.
      • I vary, depending on what I'm programming. For some types of projects, where there's a lot of fiddly details, I'll write draft code first, of fairly dubious quality, and then refactor goodness into the code later. For projects where I know what I want to do, I'll just write nice code at once.

        Writing "crap" code (random variable names, somewhat haphazard organization, few design patterns) is a valid technique for getting the code out there so you have something concrete to work with. You'd probably best

  • by SetupWeasel ( 54062 ) on Saturday May 06, 2006 @11:35PM (#15279588) Homepage
    Horrifying grammar is a common problem, but its not a problem I can fix in a semester-long class.

    it's
  • by MsWillow ( 17812 ) on Saturday May 06, 2006 @11:35PM (#15279590) Homepage Journal
    About what am I to write? For conveying technical information accurately and succinctly, I would use K&R's C book as a guide. For scorching hot lesbian erotica, I emulate Elizabeth Oliver's "Pagan Dreams." To date, both approaches work, but only on the appropriate topics.
  • I saw it in "Joel on software", but the best thing you can do to help someone learn to write is to make them, well, write. Have them type up 2-3 essays per week. Subjects can be whatever you (or they) want, but the best way to become a good writer is to just keep writing and get feed back. If they can learn to express the proper way to pill a cat, they'll be able to use a lot of those same skills and express the best way to set up a build server using cron jobs.

    granted, you'll probally get sick of readi

    • 2-3 essays per week for a single course is more then excessive. There simply isn't time in the week for that. A typical college work load should be about 60 hours a week for all courses. With a typical 5-6 course load that gives 12 hours or less per course. At the first year university level 3-5 hours will be spent in the class room (includeing lab time) per course. That leaves maybe 9 hours to research and write essays. Many students (both science and arts)q will struggle to finish a single essay in that t
      • It doesn't need to be long to be an essay. I had a course that required two one-page long essays per week. It shouldn't take more than an hour or two to put together an essay of that length. Once you're in the habit of doing this, you can churn them out quickly. That doesn't mean the quality is poor, just that you're very comfortable with the format and the process of sitting down, organizing a few simple ideas, and writing them up. I think large numbers of short assignments are much better for this th
    • The problem is often that people write thoughts as they are structured in their minds in an instant. They often don't bother attempting to structure those thoughts specifically for the writing process. Asking to write 2-3 essays per week is probably the wrong approach.

      Have them write short essays, business letters, descriptions, technical notes, etc. 2-3 per week. No more than two pages apiece, hand written, ideally in quill and ink (why do you think that the writers of the 18th century were so much mor
  • Invest the time (Score:4, Interesting)

    by SeeMyNuts! ( 955740 ) on Saturday May 06, 2006 @11:38PM (#15279599)

    My best teacher by far was my freshmen English professor. One thing he did was meet with us one-at-a-time for every paper we wrote. He'd make us read our papers aloud, and he'd point out ways to re-order paragraphs, remove unneeded words, etc. He had taught for something like 50 years, and he knew every mistake we would make and how to explain why it was a mistake.

    • Re:Invest the time (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Haszak ( 851135 ) on Sunday May 07, 2006 @12:06AM (#15279717) Homepage
      I had a similar experience. The teacher that turned me on to writing was an instructor I had in colloge. He'd ask everyone to pick their best sentence from that week's assignment. He'd ask us to write it on the board, then he and the class would tear it apart and completely rewrite it. It really got us thinking about what and how we were writing. Do we need this word/phrase? What word/phrase would be stronger here? etc. And I'm still learning the lesson of writing to your audience. It's not "writing" to them, it's "understanding" them that's difficult. Especially for engineers writing about subjects they're familiar with and that their audience (unbeknownst to them) could never understand it in the way they do. I think journalism is a good teacher here. Put the who/what/where/when/why in the first few sentances. It doesn't matter who you are or what you're reading, there's a chance you're going to skim. Best to write for skimmers. I've started writing even small subsections with little bolded titles to catch those who are going to spend five seconds in that area. (It also helps people find what they're looking for.) And I even make seperate versions of the same explanation with titles like "one sentence", "one paragraph", "half page" to describe how detailed I'm getting. After all, especially in technology, you'll never know the abilities, understanding, or interest of those who pick up your documents.
  • a) Draw a connection to their own fields, or else they'll tune out right from the start. If you want to write good code, you should read a lot of good code. If you want to do good accounting, watch a lot of good accounting. If you need to write clearly, then read a lot of clear writing."

    b) Provide said writing. Try to avoid fiction and non-contemporary writing, rather stick with clear essayists, satirists, humorists, and engineers. Give them credit for writing book reports on their own fields, many O'Reilly
  • There are two specific experiences that have improved my writing.

    The first was reading "The Elements of Style", by Strunk and White. This book taught me the building blocks of the English language, and gave me an appreciation for putting together clear and non-ambiguous sentences.

    The second experience occurred during a co-op term. I had written a document and given it to the engineer in charge. After a few minutes he handed it back to me, with a big question mark against one of my paragraphs. When I rea
  • I hated English, not because I don't love to write, but because I hate having to write something I know nobody in their right mind would ever want to read. What's the point of that?

    Too much English is taught by analyzing writers who have very little to no relevence in most people's minds.

    I really wish I'd had more creative writing classes and that being creative, instead of just reading and digesting what other people have written, was emphasized more in our educational system.

    D
  • Being a college engineering student, I felt my writing courses were useless. I would have been a lot more motivated improve my papers if they were reqired to be done in LaTex. Sure the course would be about writing, but it would have an engineering feel to it too. I've taken math courses where our research and papers had to be submitted in TeX source, I don't see any reason why a writing course couldn't do the same.
  • by MarkusQ ( 450076 ) on Saturday May 06, 2006 @11:50PM (#15279646) Journal

    Present writing as an engineering problem. This is an accurate, if somewhat unconventional, way to look at it. When you write, you have a goal (communicate a certain set of ideas), some constraints (target length, assumed audience, etc.) and some criteria for ranking proposed solutions (shorter is better, linking ideas in multiple ways gives a more robust treatment, etc.)

    This fits neatly into the mold of classic engineering problems. Presented this way, they should be able to (with only a little guidance) bring their full skill set to bear on the problem. For example:

    • Top down design Starting with an outline and working out the details is the normal way of tackling an engineering problem.
    • Checking your facts Engineers should be used to checking anything that is even remotely doubtful before committing to it. So should writers.
    • Failure mode analysis For each sentence ask yourself, could it be misread? How? What is the best way to fix it?
    • Dependency analysis Are the ideas presented in an order that assures that each point can be understood on the basis of the readers assumed knowledge and the information provided by preceding points?
    • Optimization Are there any unnecessary parts? Does the structure require the reader to remember to many details at once, before linking them?
    • Structured testing If you read what you have written assuming only the knowledge that the reader can be expected to have, does each part work the way you intended? If you read it aloud, does it sound the way you intended?

    One of the biggest problems with teaching people to write is getting them to read what they have written, think about it, and rewrite it until it does what they wanted it to. Here, at least, engineers should have a head start over most students, insofar as they are used to the fact that your first stab at a design is almost never viable.

    --MarkusQ

  • Despite your aversion to teaching good grammar, that may be the most useful thing you can teach them. Poor grammar really marks a person in the working world, regardless of their final profession. If you teaching them grammar is out of the question, at least make a good grammar book part of the recommended/required reading list. Students always need a good reference, but seldom buy one unles forced. My own favourite is "English 3200", which is a programmed English coursebook that teaches grammar in 3200
  • by supabeast! ( 84658 ) on Saturday May 06, 2006 @11:55PM (#15279667)
    I've spent my life consuming vast amounts of text, and I feel that above all else, reading anything that's well-written has a positive effect on my writing skills. All the teaching I've had over the years had a miniscule effect on my writing compared to decades of reading major newspapers, news magazines, and a very long list of books. If you want to teach engineers a lot about reading, get them subscriptions to The New York Times, The Economist, The New Yorker, New York Monthly, US News and World Report, and other such well-written periodicals. They'll pick up a lot of good things from reading that stuff - far more than they will from reading technical publications.

    You might also consider sending them to classes that involve a lot of reading, critical thinking about the reading, and writing about said readings and thoughts. Classes in subjects like ethics and art history can force one to think and write in very different ways from what one is used to.
  • Spelling, grammar (Score:5, Insightful)

    by drsmithy ( 35869 ) <drsmithy@g[ ]l.com ['mai' in gap]> on Saturday May 06, 2006 @11:55PM (#15279671)
    About a century of research tells us that native English speakers aren't rule-based parsers, so teaching grammatical rules (like when to use the subjunctive or where to put commas) doesn't improve compliance.

    Look, there's no need to get fancy - in my experience you will make a massive improvement in most (young) people's writing today just by teaching them how to use apostrophes and the difference between words like 'there' and 'their'. Mixing up 'than' and 'then' also seems to be something Americans, in particular, do a *lot* (something to do with accent, maybe ?). Speaking of which, telling people "words" like 'alot' aren't really words would also be a handy thing to do.

    The state of English teaching today is atrocious, with many *teachers* not really knowing fundamental rules like when to use apostrophes, etc. Modern teaching philosophies like "as long as the message is communicated" and "it doesn't matter if you make mistakes, as long as your attempt is reasonable", combined with the steady downturn in reading (of "good" writing) and the increasing number of children (and many young adults) who are (/were) brought up with the TV as a babysitter are the prime culprits IMHO. The increasing pervasiveness of IMing and SMSing are only going to exacerbate an already bad situation. We've reached the point where even remotely correct English is unusual to see outside of carefully proofread professional documents and I, personally, am at the point now where I notice it more if someone spells "you're" _correctly_, rather than it's ubiquitous erroneous substitute, "your" (particularly on the web) .

    The best way for people to improve their writing is to read, read, read. Not web pages and blogs (which are likely riddled with errors - particularly if they're written by, or targeted at, younger people - and just create a feedback loop of bad habits) but professionally published books and journals. Steer clear of low-end/populist magazines and tabloid-style newspapers, as well, as they are likely employing youger writers who will be making the same mistakes I'm talking about above - even if they *have* a degree of some sort.

    The kind of attitudes you need to instil in your students are "close enough is *not* good enough", "just getting the message across os *not* sufficient" and "written language has rules, just like engineering, that should be followed to remove the possibility of ambiguity".

    I have no doubt that I have also made technical mistakes just writing this, however, my point is that the level of basic spelling and grammar is so poor these days, that you don't need to be teaching complicated grammatical constructs to improve people's writing, you just need to be teaching the basics.

  • Most places I've worked have had their fair share of people who were not good writers. My own set of criteria for making that call center around the following few points:

    * Does the person consistently write documents which have a high number of ambiguities, requiring extended clarification and 'back and forth' time?

    * Do the documents from this person raise more questions than answers?

    * Do the documents generally lack a traditional 'beginning-middle-end' flow?

    I've lost track of the number of docs I've recei
  • And, if you can, some attitude adjustment. It's good that you've got these kids at the freshman level. It's even better if this is an elective rather than a required course, but obviously that's not something you'll have much control over. The only writing class required for my engineering major was a senior course where not-failure was the main goal of most of the students there. I assume they all passed, but I would have failed several of them. Most of the students I talked to didn't have much respec
    • Again, drawing on my own experience working on a team project for class, there's considerable need for practice crafting good sentences. Clear, concise, unambiguous sentences that further some goal. As our team's editor, I saw copious amounts of butchered verbiage, but it tended to follow the standard essay format. The problems were that individual sentences needed two or more readings to clarify, and some resisted my best efforts entirely.


      When my technical writing instructor wanted to get this across, she
  • In my experience, the best way for someone to learn to write English is to take a field in which they are an expert (or at least becoming an expert), and demand that they write about that field in a manner understandable to a member of the general public (or the English instructor). This solves two important problems simultaneously: First, because the general public does not understand technical language, it forces the student to stop hiding behind terminology; and second, because the student is writing ab
  • Strunk and White's and On Writing by Stephen King. Those two books have had more influence on my writing than any other two sources. Strunk and White's is an obvious winner. As for On Writing; it may seem counterintuitive to put Stephen King together with quality writing, but it is both approachable and informative. It has interesting narrative that holds the reader's attention while conveying many key aspects of successful writing. And while one may debate the depth of his writing, it is hard to contest hi
  • i think i may be getting a grasp on writing after 20 years. it is quite a bit like programming, there is nothing one can do but practice. write again and again, about everything. i read my first paper the other day and i was appalled. not just about the sentence structure, but the the presentation, the topic, and frankly everything.

    the difference about writing is that there is no illusion of correctness based on execution. it is all very subjective. i hated to read my own writing when i was younger. it was
  • The real issue is that technology is allowing us to write faster and faster. This means that less thought goes into what we are trying to say and how we are trying to say it. Look at the effect of email on people's ability to write business letters (electronic or otherwise), for example. None of these classes teach the most basic thing-- slow down and take time to make your point.

    To this end, nothing works better than learning caligraphy or spending some time writing with a quill and ink. Such will do w
  • Years ago I took a great class on technical writing. While the instructor didn't realize it because she wasn't an engineer, the process she described for writing technical documents was nearly identical to the process I used for writing software. This process isn't the best for creative writing, but for more informational type writing it helps a lot.

    The usual steps for writing software include get requirements, design, prototype, implementation, testing, alpha release, beta release, etc. There are steps f
  • Always use a spell checker on whatever you write in a business context. Especially your resume.
  • A well written document is an essential part of the engineer's responsibility. The engineer must write clear documents that effectively communicate important ideas to his audience.

    During the writing process, the engineer must focus his writing to the target audience. An overly technical document will be frustrating to the reader that is not experienced in the subject matter. Similarly, writing for the "layperson" will be frustrating for readers with a lot of experience.

    Have the students study and "revers
  • Pictures. Taking a picture of some setup can be worth a page of words. You'll need to explain the context and maybe annotate it, but its just so much easier to show someone a screenshot or picture instead of using tons of words.
  • "The best strategy on those fronts is a habitual reading of clearly-formatted texts..."

    I think that musings found on Slashdot are not prime examples of clearly-formatted texts.

    Really, you must understand that literature in the classical sense of the word accounts for a small percentage of the media that is consumed by a majority of people in the age group you are addressing. It is an entertainment-oriented lot, who find themselves visually stimulated by the products of others' imaginations -- from televisio
  • One of the most useful exercises that I have had in a writing course was given by my first semester composition professor. On the first day of class he told us to spend 30 minutes writing about some topic (I can't remember what it was now, something like why we decided to enroll in higher education or something like that). At the end of the class he told everyone to stand up, take their paper, wad it up, and throw it in the trash.
    The point of this exerciese, he explained, was to get people used to throwi
  • Better make the distinction between "good" writing and valuable techincal writing. From my experience, any manifestation of literary skill (beyond good grammar and concise description) is not valued in the technical world. The audience is of mixed background (in terms of native language) and struggles to comprehend more than simple sentance structure and very direct, unambiguous language.

    Now if you're asking how to teach engineers to write well outside of work, then bravo & I'm all ears...
  • You can improve your grammar by reading books with lots of words and no numbers. I recommend the classics, HG Wells and the Sherlock Homes novels will keep you busy for some time.

    Posting on forums is one thing, everyone is lax with structure. Being able to write a business plan and present ideas and reports in an attractive to read format will make a very large difference in your career.

    All the school in the world won't help you if you don't read though. My $0.02.
  • I've been recently hired by a company to rework their user manuals. Up to this point, they have been written by the same people who developed the technology, and they were largely ignored by the company's first customers, also serving as beta testers. Recently, however, support calls started to multiply, as new customers had problems understanding the manuals. I found them beyond horrible, and I already started working on completely rewriting them. Here are some of the mistakes I observed over and over
  • I heartily agree (at least for the moment) that the chief virtue of writing is clarity. And what has most inspired me to strive for clear writing is seeing good writing contrasted with bad writing.

    For example, I genuinely enjoy reading The Economist Style Guide [economist.com], just for fun, because it shows tons of examples where phrases we use every day are wordier than necessary. To me, the thrill of engineering is striving for the most elegant and powerful solutions to a problem. Demonstrating that writing has the s
  • What a redeculous question -- to think slashdotters might need help writing.
  • The biggest benefit to my writing ability is from what I have read. Reading a lot has helped me to improve my grammar and build the vocabulary necessary to write eloquently.

    My most enjoyable and rewarding writing experience was from my freshman composition professor at the University of Central Florida, who tailored his curriculum towards engineering technical writing (as our class was entirely engineering students). The class was also linked to a humanities and a calculus class, as each student was in th
  • The most pressing problem for most engineering and science students regarding writing is that we simply do very little of it at all. Unlike the humanities and social sciences, many courses don't require any writing whatsoever, and those that do are mostly in the form of lab "reports", where, if the figures and results are fine, it simply does not really matter to anyone if the language is good (or even makes any sense). I had classmates that had never written a whole, uninterrupted page of normal language a
  • Aasimov was both a scientist and a prolific writer. Some of his short stories are essentially in the form of 'reports'. I think that they might make a good example to start with. The fact that "I Robot" came out as a movie last year would help pique at least some people's interest.
  • What has made you more comfortable with your writing, or eager to improve what you've written?

    The idea that someone might actually read it, and not just inside of a classroom context. I am one of those people who has trouble learning or producing something unless I am either interested in the topic or someone else is going to use it.

    When I was in my technicaly writing class in college we had to write instructions on how to do something (I chose the installation of a Half-Life Dedicated Server). The paper wa

  • In a setting like this, I think you'll want clarity of communication over clarity of writing per se. One of the best ways to do that is constant peer review, and one of the best ways to get that is in a public speaking course, instead of a writing course.

    One of the best classes I've ever had in my life was a Voice, Speech and Debate class, with emphasis on the Speech. The premise of the class? You're selected randomly to speak for three to five minutes on a topic selected randomly out of a hat. You have
  • I'm in a 2 network engineering program. I just finished the first year which had two technical writing courses. The first centered around things like writing instructions, formating and writing memos, proper resume creation and a relative merits report.

    Our second semester was focused solely on creating a proposal and report that was being done in another class. It focused on progress reports, formatting various sections of the report, working together in a team (it was a 20 page report worked on by 3-4 gro
  • by gte910h ( 239582 ) on Sunday May 07, 2006 @12:41AM (#15279845) Homepage
    There are two books that help endlessly in your life as a technical person:

    For everything but formal texts, you need you use the book (I think every Highschool Student should get a copy for free):

    Style: Towards Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams [amazon.com]

    For Formal Articles, Books, Papers, etc, you need you use this book:

    Clear and Simple as the Truth, by Francis-Noel Thomas [amazon.com]

    The first book teaches you how to write in a plain, eminently understandable style. It underscores how to structure writing, sentences, and even individual phrases to clearly get across the points you wish to communicate. It eschews proscriptive rules like certain other writing books do *cough* Strunk and White *cough* that get too much attention.

    The second book explains how to write in what is called classical style. This is a style of writing that you'll come across in documents such as the american Declaration of Independence, all of Descartes writing, and most of the writing of the Enlightenment. It is highly adaptable, and very comprehensible to anyone. Many popsci books go towards this style of writing, including some of Hawkings work, and most of Bronowski's. Classical style is more sophisticated than the plain style advocated in Williams, but some ideas are important enough to pay the cost of nuance at the expense of conscision.

                          --Michael
  • by KU_Fletch ( 678324 ) <bthomas1@nOsPAM.ku.edu> on Sunday May 07, 2006 @01:03AM (#15279920)
    In college, I was an English major and my roommate was an Electrical Engineering major (wacky hijinx ensued). Around junior and sneior year he began to take the remaining humanities courses he needed, and was now faced with having to write reports and other assignments. Like a lot of engineers, he wasn't that great at it. He had the basic functions of grammar, but he had no form. Getting him to break out of simple sentences and direct lines of logic took a while, but I tried my best to help him (and in return he paid for the beer). Here were some of the things I found helpful:

    1) Getting him to say things outloud first. If it was supposed to be a persuasive paper or some sort of analysis, I had him explain his argument to me outloud. This gave him an opportunity to explain his thoughts in complex sentences and think out everything he wanted to put donw on paper. Once, I even recorded it for him and made him listen to it before he wrote. This really helped his transition from thinking to writing without that pesky engineering filter killing his points.

    2) Writing for fun. Since I was taking numerous writing classes where I had to keep journals, I got him to start his own journal. I told him it could be anything he wanted, as long as he tried to write different things in it. In the end he started to write small poems, short stories, and a diary in the same spiral. More than anything, this got him used to writing in different form while still keeping his voice. It also made him into a faster writer.

    3) Red ink is painful, but needed. I loved my roommate like a brother, but I was more than willing to slam red ink all over his rough drafts. The problem with showing your rough drafts to peers in classes is that people fear reciprocation. If you say something negative, people might do the same to yours. So you get a lot of cursory comma markers and spelling errors, but nothing of real value. So I'd go through his and find everything I could think of that was possibly wrong. Jumps in logic. Grammar errors. Splitting paragraphs. Suggesting where sentences could be deleted or rearranged. At first he didn't like it, but he certainly went back and gave his papers a hard edit. After a few papers, I could just read it over and give him those same comments face to face while avoiding the little errors he already started to fix on his own. In a classroom setting, consider doing peer revisions anonymously, and explain that editing means more than comma splices.

    Those things really seemed to help him get out of his shell. To this day I don't think that Engineers are bad writers, they just have this wierd filter installed in their heads that won't let a lot of them write down what they're thinking about. They can explain it to you outloud, but not write down those same words on paper. Getting them past that hurdle is the best thing you can do.

  • by Llywelyn ( 531070 ) on Sunday May 07, 2006 @01:36AM (#15280016) Homepage
    There are two events in college that helped me more with writing than anything else. I attended an engineering university, and continued with scientific/engineering coursework after graduation.

    The first was an honors class that required me to write a paper ever week. The catch? It had to be under two pages. These papers covered a variety of reading material--short stories, essays, and books. I had to find something in the reading material to write about, and write two pages on it. This helped me an enormous amount--it gave me constant feedback on my writing, helped me be clear, concise, and precise, and it enabled me to write a two page paper with these characteristics very quickly.

    The second event happened in a class called, strangely enough, "Technical Writing." After I turned in one paper the professor handed it back to me and said "take this back and write it again in English. All of your sentences are inversions--70% of them should be Subject, Verb, Object."

    The biggest thing through all of it was practice, practice, practice with constant feedback.
  • by TrappedByMyself ( 861094 ) on Sunday May 07, 2006 @03:33AM (#15280288)
    u need to tellk them to practicr complainiing in teh internet it wurked for me!!!!+++++
  • Just Reading. (Score:3, Informative)

    by Razor Sex ( 561796 ) on Sunday May 07, 2006 @05:10AM (#15280464)
    I'm not an engineer, but I am a pretty good writer. I attribute it to reading. Since I was a little kid, I've always read for pleasure. I don't think it matters too much what you read, as long as the sentences are well-constructed. Which is virtually every author. Most sci-fi authors can't write worth a damn, but their fundamentals are fine. People don't learn language so much as acquire it (I'm a linguistics major), and so something like reading which is semi-passive (you're not paying attention to the words and structures - just the plots) is perfect for absorbing good writing skills.
  • by mc6809e ( 214243 ) on Sunday May 07, 2006 @11:00AM (#15281187)
    Anything other than a general interest topic (like the 1960s, ideas about the American West, or fairy tales) isn't an option.

    These are TERRIBLE subjects for engineers. Do you really want someone that enjoys deep, scientific analysis to suffer trying to analyze the 1960s, or the American West, or fairy tales?

    And analyze he will! Or fail trying.

    Some engineers simply won't put up with all the fuzzy thinking that's permitted in the humanities. They'll try to become social scientists first before writing the first sentence.

    Remember, they're going to be engineers designing million dollar structures and systems. People MAY DIE if these engineers make a mistake. They need to know the science first. They need to understand their area thoroughly before proceeding.

    Now you come along and ask them to engineer a paper about an enormous subject like the 1960s. Just how do you expect to them to be able to do that?So, in their desperation, they give you a mediocre paper back or nothing at all.

    Remember your audience. You're not dealing with poets.

  • Precision (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Auxbuss ( 973326 ) on Sunday May 07, 2006 @12:16PM (#15281457)

    Lots of good stuff has already been recommended, so I'll add what I haven't seen here, apart from joining the voices that recommend writing for your audience; never let that though leave your mind.

    Precision is key, whether practicing technical or creative writing. It is a truism that every word counts. Whether you are expounding about 'a thing', 'the thing', 'each thing', or 'every thing', you must be precise about which thingy you are on about.

    To be sure, precision is not an easy writing skill to learn; you need to be able to ruthlessly excise fluff from your scribblings, and reread your own words from the perspective of others.

    While I agree with the OP that grammar is not critical at the first stage, basic punctuation is essential - the well known 'eats shoots and leaves' example proves that point.

    Metaphor might be left aside in the early stages, but English is an idiomatic language and much of its colour comes from those idioms.

    From what you have written, you are teaching folk who will be writing from positions of professional authority. That being so, metaphor is unlikely to be an issue, but common faults such as tautology and cliches will be - their use diminishes the authority of writer in the reader's mind.

    Now to a specific point of personal pedantry: The clearest divide that I see between authoritative and also ran writing is in the use of prepositions.

    In your own case you said, "First, let's head a couple wagons off at the pass". In this case, the missing preposition after 'couple' is commonly seen on the internet - it's kinda slang brung over from speech - but would be edited immediately (both in the US and elsewhere). No-one would say, 'a pride lions' or 'a swarm bees'.

    That wasn't meant as an ad hominem attack, but it served to make my point. The list of abuse of/in/with propositions is long, but, used correctly, they add precision to a text.

    If I were in your shoes, I would want to make clear to my students that there is a broad range of topics to keep in mind when writing, but that mastery isn't necessary to communicate authoritatively. However, to ignore them will result in writing that never gains the air of authority and will thus be treated as such.

    One final suggestion: midmaps. For folk who find difficulty in moving their ideas from mind to paper, mindmaps are often a boon.

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