Electronic Design

It's High Time We Bring Back The Profession Of Engineering Writing

Many career paths in the field of engineering are well marked and widely acknowledged, such as designer, manager, and academician. But for the engineering writer, this isn't so. In fact, those of us who have chosen engineering writing as a career have noticed that the banner "Engineering Writer" has vanished from the "Help Wanted" sections of newspapers and professional journals.

Why is this, given that capable engineering writers are sorely needed? Part of the answer may be that attaining writing skills is seldom a corollary of acquiring engineering skills.

"Technical writer," the term used today, identifies writers both with engineering degrees and without. But it's mostly without. Since there are virtually no degreed engineers who have chosen writing as a profession, why bother advertising for one?

A personal experience reinforces what I am talking about. I was writing for an OEM and reporting to its vice president, who was quite pleased with the compliments customers were giving my work. He resigned to join another firm, however. The president later called me in to say that the company planned to employ inexperienced hands in the future and that my services were no longer required. A proven and experienced engineering writer wasn't of much value, at least to him.

There are far too few degreed engineers who enter the writing profession. Unfortunately, there's also a bias in the industry that considers writing a last resort for those who can't quite cut the mustard in design.

That's nonsense. Good writing is a craft worthy of recognition.

My own career path was a rather odd one. After receiving a bachelor of arts degree, I trained for three years in a really fine technical writing firm and went on to earn a degree in electrical engineering. I then spent six years as a design engineer and project manager with a microwave systems manufacturer before returning to engineering writing.

Why did I return to writing? Despite the fact that I had received fine reviews as a designer and project engineer, writing was in my bones. It's what I have always liked to do best!

Among the legacies of World War II and the decades following it are the fine writing styles that were based on excellent military specifications. Examples include the U.S. Army Signal Corps 730-9 specification and the outstanding in-house writing accomplished by groups at Grumman Aircraft in Bethpage, Long Island. These manuals contain some exquisite work, and in particular, some superb illustration techniques.

During the last decade, I spent a year writing for a large OEM in Silicon Valley. It was my first experience writing for an OEM with a good-sized writing group in a long time. I was struck right away with how poor its illustrations were. I began using some of the illustration skills that I had acquired over the years, receiving favorable comments from design and marketing managers. When I suggested to one of the writing managers that I give a presentation outlining these techniques, he simply wasn't interested.

That's a shame.

Let's bring to engineering writing the dignity that it deserves. Before it's too late, let's recapture the skills developed over the years in textbooks and postgraduate courses for engineering writers. Our colleges and universities have exceptional programs for training design engineers. Let's raise the instruction of engineering writers up to a comparable level of excellence.

Are there master's programs out there for engineering writers? I don't know.

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