On Writing Well: Part 4 – More Components and Process

Structure

Remember to treat writing as a system. Make your logical argument flow, building words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into sections, and sections into documents. Vary your constructions – they mark out the cadence of your writing. You can use cadence to convey your message. For example, a change in cadence can signal a change in thought.

Don’t bury your lead. When I was young my father was a plant engineer at a corduroy plant. One night he received a call in the wee hours from the guard at the plant. “Mr. Scott, we don’t have any lights in Plant 2,” he blurted out. My Dad asked if he had tried to start the backup generator. “Won’t start,” was the reply. “Why not?” my Dad inquired. “Shaft’s bent,” the guard reported. “How did that happen?” “I ‘spect it bent when it hit the wall,” he opined. Dad, now fully alert, asked how the heavy generator could hit the wall. “Probably happened when the water knocked over the stand,” came the next clue. “There’s water in Plant 2?” was the logical question. “Yes sir – ‘bout 3 foot!”

Only after lots of give and take did it emerge that the real issue was that the river had flooded quickly in a heavy rain and the guard was looking at a corduroy plant with two of its four buildings standing three feet deep in the newly-expanded river channel. Instead of “Mr. Scott the river flooded and we’ve got three feet of water in Plants 2 and 3,” the guard began with darkness as the problem of interest. In the newspaper business that is called “burying the lead.” Don’t do it. [more]

Resources

There are lots of resources. The following are some of the ones I find most useful. I have created a taxonomy of two for these references. First, I have listed the handbooks which I use as a ready reference as I write. Second, I refer to texts which are more readable in the sense of opening them up and reading more than a specific excerpt. I read and reread them to pick up nuances and pointers that continue to improve my writing.

Handbooks: It is important to avoid becoming a slave to rules. There are plenty of critics for any innovation. An early review of the organist J.S. Bach read, “If Bach continues to play in this way, the organ will be ruined in two years, or most of the congregation will be deaf.” The translation? Bach is not following the rules!

With that in mind it is important to know the rules and let your violations of them be made with purpose and not out of ignorance. Picasso and Gauguin did not paint in their distinctive styles because they didn’t understand perspective. They each had something to say that was better said by breaking the rules. Understand the rules and break them infrequently and in the service of clearer expression.

I use 3 basic handbooks:

The Associated Press Guide to Punctuation by Rene Cappon – a handy, quick guide that helps me to remember how to punctuate. It is also available for Kindle.

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) – This is pretty much the definitive guide and what we base our writing style on here at Vitech. It is also online at http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/ </>

The Harbrace College Manual – Easier to reference quickly than the CMS, I have used this one since my college days. Perhaps because I have used it so long I find it easy to access in the press of writing to a deadline.

Texts: There are many excellent resources in this category. This list rests entirely on my own preferences. I recommend them because they have spoken (and continue to speak) to me.

On Writing Well by William Zinsser – This is a classic that has provided solid guidance for over 30 years.

Elements of Style by Strunk and White – Clear, concise, and witty, this book surfaces near the top of any writer’s must-have list.

Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott – This is a book for those who would like to take their writing beyond the bounds of technical, expository work into a more creative realm. While it certainly does not scream “Engineer!” its advice and concepts can enrich your writing and might provide the color and vibrancy that allow you to set yourself apart from the pack.

I have not included these basic references in the two lists, but every writer should have a good dictionary and thesaurus. The online versions have steadily improved and are easily at hand. I particularly like the Oxford Dictionary (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/). It allows for the selection of American or British usage and its “More words in this category” section acts broadly like a thesaurus especially where the word you need is related but not as closely as a synonym. Merriam Webster provides a dictionary and thesaurus in one site. It is an excellent and usable resource (http://www.merriam-webster.com/).

Hopefully this series of posts has proven useful. While technical writing may not be as “artful” as some other genres, there is no excuse for it to be unorganized or ineffective. Systems engineers have the advantage of thinking in systems. There is no reason to lay it down when we start to write.

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