The Engineer Who Never Learned to Write

This could be almost any engineer.  Nothing could stop you once you had that fine engineering education, society kept telling you when you were a student.  Then you began your first job, and it did not take long to learn those years of academic struggle left your engineering education incomplete, in fact with a gaping hole.  Nobody had warned you that in the world of work the engineer’s finished product is a written report.  And you never learned how to write effectively.

If it is any consolation, you are not alone.  In all professions, this failure must certainly be one of the most glaring in our education system today.  Few observers would disagree that one of the first things we expect of an educated person is literacy—at least reasonable skills in reading and writing.  Yet many young men and women leave our education system with not the slightest notion what is meant by a writing principle as basic as the rule that subject and verb must agree.

Executive skill.  Once past the “drafting table years,” the successful engineer is called upon to create ideas.  But he or she must realize that creating brilliant ideas is not enough. They must be transmitted to other people clearly and concisely; otherwise, the brilliance is lost.

The more advanced the employee, the more important (usually) are the ideas being transmitted. Furthermore, we are not talking about just engineering reports.  As any person’s career progresses, he or she is called upon to email customers, write proposals, trip reports, expense reports, procedures, instructions to subordinates, management reports—a potpourri of written pieces demanding at least a minimum of basic language skills.

Small wonder, then, that most observers consider writing the second most important skill professional skill—in almost all professions.  Almost every senior engineer can recall cases of colleagues passed over for promotion because they could not communicate well enough to meet the writing demands of the higher job.

Writing is so important a skill, in fact, that virtually every large company conducts some type of writing course to its employees.  Many have ongoing programs training thousands of executives and others who write the most important RFIs, RFPs, proposals, social media posts—basically everything worth writing!

Can writing be taught?  Some engineers, perhaps rationalizing, argue that analytical and creative skills simply do not mix, and those good engineers, therefore, are unlikely to have the creative talent to be a best-selling author.  That is the art of writing.  But most professional men and women do not need to write great novels.  They do need to be skillful at expressing their professional ideas accurately and concisely.  That is the craft of writing.

Why aren’t our schools doing the job? One can forgive students for not realizing how important writing will be in later life.  It is much harder, however, to forgive their educators for not telling them.  True, most professional colleges casually mention the importance of writing here and there, and usually, some writing course is offered.

But it is usually an elective and most students elect not to take it!

Consider these points:

  • The English Department is by far the largest department in every secondary school and almost all colleges or university.
  • Every U.S. student, regardless of how far he or she has progressed in our education system or in what field, spent more classroom hours studying English than any other single subject.

What, then, are all those English teachers doing with all that time?

Some of them are doing an excellent job teaching writing, to be sure.  But they are the minority.  Most teachers of English do not want to teach composition, do not know how to teach it, and admit it privately.  They are literature specialists;  that is what their own degree requirements forced them to become, and the tendency to be “literary” is usually the reason they chose in the first place to become teachers of English. Many look upon writing training as “vocational.”

True, complaints from society have forced more and more teachers to concentrate on composition in recent years.  But educators tend, in most cases, to over-complicate the language.  In spite of impressive successes by writing training companies teaching writing to the workforce, the lack of writing training/education by academia has spawned a multi-billion dollar industry serving an unfulfilled need.

By Paul Joseph