Writing as Engineers
A Guide to Written Communication for Engineering Students
The quality of your design or idea will be evaluated based on your
ability to communicate it.
Many excellent projects were never accepted because they were poorly written.
Language, to an engineer, is a tool as important as a calculator or sophisticated software. Engineering is collaborative. Effective cooperation between team members requires precise understanding. Careless use of language and weak application of professional practice (convention) may render otherwise gifted engineers isolated and helpless in a world of complex cooperation.
Poets and novelists are language artists. They are driven by the beauty of words and the flow of passages. They communicate in a figurative reality.
Engineers are language craftsmen. They are precise. They strive for accuracy. Wasted words interfere with clarity, and passages without logical connection result in inefficiency in completing projects.
Engineers are writers. On the job, they prepare reports, submit proposals, create guides and manuals, and distribute information in letters and emails. Engineers may spend as much as 60% of their working hours writing to diverse audiences to achieve a variety of purposes.
Each document written by an engineer is produced to achieve a specific purpose. Each document is targeted to a specific audience who plays an essential role in a project in progress. Engineers who are skilled at using language as a precision tool enhance their potential for successful careers.
Engineering Handbook Sections
Click on the links to navigate to the section of interest
For many reports, the cover letter may act as an abstract or executive summary. The letter introduces the topic of the report. It summarizes the report and should follow the organizational scheme of the report.
The following example letter illustrates the standard business letter format and describes the basics of what is included and how the letter is formatted.
know your audience
All writing, including creative writing, is done with a specific audience in mind. In professional practice there are two distinct super-groups for which one is likely to write: an internal audience and an external audience. An internal audience is a group or person within your own organization, such as a boss, coworker or professional workgroup. Internal audience share common vocabulary, points of reference, and values with the author. It is acceptable to use local terminology, acronyms, and shared biases. External audiences are typically clients (or prospective clients), but can be any group or individual from outside your organization. They do not have the inside information or background shared by internal audiences. Avoid using jargon, spell out acronyms, and use terms that are easily understood. Provide necessary background information that would not be necessary when communicating with internal audiences.Page Numbering
● All pages in the report are numbered, excluding special pages like the title page, front and back covers.
● In contemporary design style, all pages use Arabic numerals.
● In traditional design style, all pages before the introduction, the first page of the body of the report, and after the last page of the report, use lowercase roman numerals. Arabic numerals are used in the body of the report.
● Page numbers are usually placed at the bottom center of the page (to be easily hidden). If page numbers are placed at the top of the page, numbers must be hidden when a heading or title is at the top of the page.
● For longer reports, double-enumeration page numbering is used to make adding and deleting pages easier. For example, pages in Chapter 7 are numbered 7-1, 7-2, 7-3, etc.
List of Figures and Tables
Create a new page with a list of figures, tables, illustrations, diagrams, and charts that are in the report. For shorter reports, lists of figures and tables are combing in one list and organized in the order of appearance in the report. In longer reports, create a separate list for figures and tables. Both lists can be placed on the same page. The title of the list and figure is left justified and the page number of appearance is right justified.Abstract
The abstract is a summary of the report and should be less than 5 percent of the body of the report. Most readers read the abstract to extract useful information rather than reading the entire report. Abstracts should summarize and identify the purpose or goal, the rationale behind the purpose, the most important data, findings, and brief interpretations of data and findings. Do not include references of quoted/ paraphrasing information. The abstract should begin on a separate page and be no more than 150-250 words.
The executive summary includes key facts and conclusions made about results or findings. For reports 10 to 50 pages long, the summary is 5% to 10% of the length of the report. For reports longer than 50 pages, the summary should not exceed three pages. The summary is similar to the abstract, but it is longer and has more details. The abstract, summary, introduction might seem repetitive, but this will allow the reader to pick up on all details, because most people do not read the entire report and skip around from section to section to pick out information.
The introduction gives the reader background information, history, statistics, and general purpose. Less than one-third of the introduction should cover background information and history. This will gain the reader's interest in the subject and provide context. Background information should be revealed to the report rather than general. Include brief overviews and background information on both topics covered and not covered in the body of the report. Any information the reader will need to understand the report is stated in the introduction. The introduction should be less than 10 percent of the body of the report.
This Body of the Report is the main section. Depending on the type and length of report, subheadings are used to denote different sections or topics. For example, an experimental report will have a “Theory/Methods”, “Results”, and “Discussion” section, whereas a project proposal may have headings such as “Overview”, “Timetable”, and “Budget”. Subheadings allow the reader to skim the report for information important.
Most reports include graphics and tables in the body. Any table or figure included in a section of the report must also be referred to in that section. For example: “The slope of the tangent line was used to determine acceleration after 3 seconds (See Fig. 2).”
Any table containing raw data which cannot be reasonably referred to within the body of the report, should be placed in an appendix. Graphics and tables should be presented professionally, and be labeled clearly and accurately. For further information, see “Appendix B: Equations, Figures and Tables.”
Depending on the information contained in the body, bulleted, numbered, or columned lists may be used to help emphasize key points, make information easier to follow, and break up solid blocks of text. The body may contain symbols, numbers, and abbreviations; the grammar rules about writing out numbers 0-10 do not apply to engineering reports. Remember to define acronyms or abbreviations the first time you use them.
Technical information full of numbers and symbols can become tedious to wade through. To assist your audience, organize your paragraphs into a logical sequence. Group small paragraphs with related information together and add short overview paragraphs at the beginning of subsections.
Check your grammar, word usage, and punctuation. Poor grammar and punctuation can lead to confusion in an otherwise good paper. Write clearly and concisely. Passive voice can be unwieldy and awkward, so use the active voice. Avoid redundancy and leave out unnecessary words and phrases.
The conclusion is similar in length to the abstract. In it, you present conclusions as they relate to your experimental objectives. The conclusion relates back to the introduction by providing general information on implications, applications, and possible future developments on the topic. However, where the introduction provides information from the body of knowledge available on the topic before this report, the conclusion must expand on those areas based on the new data or information presented in this report. No new information is presented in the conclusion. Instead, summarize the key points of the report, draw logical conclusions from the preceding discussion, and give the reader a sense of closure.References
Citing sources protects the authors of the information, and allows them to receive credit and acknowledgement for their work. It also protects you from being accused of plagiarism. Citing demonstrates to the readers that you have done research, you are aware of recent developments, and you give the readers information where they can find the information to read it themselves.
Fundamentals of Using Sources
● Summarize the most important and relevant information from the source.
● Use research to influence and support, rather to controlling your thinking and writing.
● Incorporate sources into the context of your work.
When Sources must be Cited
Always cite the following:
● Quoted or paraphrased quotations, opinions, and predictions.
● Another author’s statistics, theories, and visuals.
● Another author's direct research procedures, findings, experimental methods, or results.
Reference Page Format
● List sources in the order they are cited in the text, not alphabetical order.
● In the IEEE system, only the author's initials first name is given. The titles of journal articles are in the form of a sentence not a title.
● Single space individual references and alight the second or third with the first.
● Double space between separate references.
● Use common abbreviations for journal titles if there is one. If not, give the full name of the journal.
● End each reference with a period.
● If a source is referred to more than once in the text, only list the source once in the reference page.
Integrating Sources in the Text
● Only use sources if it is absolutely necessary in the introduction and conclusion.
● Use sources in the middle of the paragraph, not the beginning or ending of the paragraph.
● Integrate sources within the paragraph to blend your ideas with the ideas of the source's.
Links to Helpful Websites for Citing and Listing References
Appendix A: Symbols, Numbers, and Abbreviations
● Temperatures in Fahrenheit, Celsius, and Rankine are expressed using the ° symbol instead of the written word. For example: "The water is 22°C." Temperature in Kelvin is expressed as 32 K.
● Measured quantities, such as decimal points, dimensions, time, money, frequency, weights, degrees, etc. are expressed in Arabic numerals.
● Avoid starting a sentence with a number. If it is unavoidable, write out the number.
● When using acronyms or abbreviations for the first time, write out the complete name and then place the abbreviation in parenthesis following it. After this is done once, the abbreviation can be used alone for the rest of the report.
Appendix B: Equations, Figures, and Tables
Formulas and equations are used to efficiently communicate ideas to the other engineers. Equations should not slow down the reader and must be appropriate for the audience.
● Short, uncomplicated equations can be included as part of the sentence without special spacing.
● If the equation is in the sentence and is too long for a single line, break the equation before an =, +, -, or x sign, use these signs to start the line and then continue the equation.
● Longer, more complicated equations should be centered and set off on a new line.
● When centering an equation, skip one line above the equation and one or two after the equation.
● Define symbols and members of equations just after the equation, by introducing them with the word "where."
● If possible, do not let the equation continue from one page to the next.
● If equations need to be referred to more than once, the equation can be numbered in parentheses at the right-hand margin. In the text the equation can be identified by the number of the equation in parentheses.
Figures and Tables
fundamentals for figures
● Do not label tables as figures. Figures are drawn or photographed pictures, charts, and graphs.
● Arrange figures from left to right.
● Label the axes of the graph with complete words and units in parentheses. Use "Temperature (Celsius) versus Time (Seconds)" rather than "T (*C) vs. t (sec)."
● Use line graphs to plot continuous variables such as time or temperature.
● Use bar graphs or pie charts for discontinuous variables such as percentages or sampling in intervals.
● Use photographs or drawings to visually present the materials such as a poppet valve or a built up diesel engine.
● Use flowcharts to present a series of events and outcomes.
● Use footnotes for additional or explanatory material such as “values are estimated” or “values are based on a study from 2003”.
Fundamentals for Tables
● Do not label figures as tables.
● The title of the table should be clear and explain what the data represents.
● Each entry in the left-most column (called a stub) must apply across the entire row, and each heading of a column must apply to all entries below it.
● Stub items are arranged logically -- smallest to largest, alphabetically, or categorically.
● Stub headings will include the units in each column or row, if necessary.
● Straight lines are used to separate the table's title from the column headings, the column headings from the body of the table, and the bottom of the table from the paper's text. Straight lines to box the table is appropriate to separate the table from the text.
● Construct tables so the reader can read down a column rather than along a row.
● Use footnotes for additional or explanatory material such as the fact that values are estimated or values are based on a study from 2003.
textual references to figures and tables
● Figures and tables are numbered consecutively, beginning with number 1. Figures and tables are numbered separately from each other.
● Capitalize the "t" in table and "f" in figure, when referring to a specific table or figure in the text.
● Introduce figures and tables in the text in logical places. "See Figure 3" can be written in parentheses at the end of a paragraph or at the beginning of the paragraph, where the paragraph will be written based on the figure.
● After the table or figure is presented explain and interpret it in the text. Avoid re-writing the information from the table or figure in the text, unless you interpret the information.
● When a reference to the table or figure is the subject of the sentence, use a verb like “shows” or “compares”, to describe how the figure or table works.
captions for figures and tables
● The caption appears below the graphic for a figure and above for the table.
● Bold or underline the word "figure" or "table" and the number in the caption. Present the caption in plain text with the first letters of important words capitalized.
● Write complete, descriptive captions for figures and tables, so it would make sense even if the caption was ripped from the paper. For example, instead of "Figure 4: Air Flow" use "Figure 4: The Air Profile of a Helicopter Above the Rocky Mountains"
● If the table or figure is the same or based on another author's, include the words "Adapted from" followed by the author's name in the caption.
● Always cite the table or figure when presented, using the same citation style as the paper. The citation appears at the end of the caption.
Appendix C: Common Jargon
Jargon should only be used when talking to people within a subject or particular profession because it allows communication to be clear and precise. Using jargon in papers where the audience is not familiar with the subject makes the writing imprecise, confusing, condescending, or intimidating to the reader because the audience is not familiar with the words and phrases. For instance, to the average person ATM means automated teller machine, but to an electrical engineer it means asynchronous transfer mode. Jargon is necessary for technical papers of specialized fields to provide clear and concise energy. There is common jargon between general fields in engineering, and within specific fields of engineering such as mechanical, nuclear, or electrical engineering. For instance, an electrical engineer would use words like "transient" "phasor" "conductor" to analyze a circuit.
Alternatives to common jargon words and phrases are in the list below:
Engineering Jargon Meaning
CAD Computer aided (assisted) design
CAM Computer aided manufacturing
CFD Computational fluid dynamics
CIM Computer integrated manufacturing
CNC Computed numerically controlled
DSP Digital signal processing
FEA Finite element analysis
IP Internet protocol
ISO International Organization for Standardization
RF Radio frequency
TQI Total quality improvement
Alpha particle Positively charged particle; consists of two protons
and two neutrons
Beta particle High-speed electron or positron emitted in
Conduction Transfer of thermal energy through a substance due to
a temperature gradient
Convection Transfer of heat from one region to another
Damping ratio Ratio of resistance in damped harmonic motion that is
necessary to produce critical damping
Decay heat Heat released as a result of radioactive decay
Electrical resistance Opposition of current flow
Equilibrium All conditions of a system are balanced
Engineering Strain Ratio of the change in deformation to the
Engineering Stress Force exerted per unit area
Fanning friction factor Dimensionless number used to study fluid friction in pipes
Half-life Time it takes for a substance undergoing decay to
decrease by half
Isotope Types of atoms of the same element with different
number of neutrons
Metacenter Intersection of vertical line through the center of
buoyancy of a floating body at equilibrium and
at an angle
Metacentric height Vertical distance from a ship's center of gravity
to the metacenter
Prandtl number Ratio of momentum diffusivity (kinematic viscosity)
and thermal diffusivity
Prototype An original, full-scale, working model of a product
Radiation Emission of energy in the form of rays or waves
Reynolds number Ratio of inertial forces and viscous forces
Jargon Word/Phrase Alternative
Additional Added, Other, More
Adjacent to Next to
Advantageous Helpful, Useful
Afford an opportunity Allow, Let
Alleviate Ease, Reduce
As a consequence of Because
As a means of To
As well as And
At present Now
At this point in time Now
At the present time Now
Basic fundamentals Basics
By means of By
Capable of, Capability Can, Ability to
Close proximity Near, Close
Comes into conflict Conflicts
Cutting edge Progressive, Leading
Despite the fact that Although
Due to the fact that Due to, Because, Since
Empower Allow, Let
Exhibits a tendency to Tends to
Facilitate Help, Ease, Make possible
Feedback Opinion, Reaction
For the duration of During
For the purpose of To
For the reason that Because
Foreign imports Imports
Forthwith Now, Immediately
Future prospects Prospects
Give consideration to Consider
Has a requirement for Needs
Holds a belief Believes
If at all possible If possible
In a timely manner Quickly
In addition to Also, Besides, Too
In close proximity Near, Close to
In order to To
In regards to About
In the course of During
In the event of If
In the majority of Usually, Most
In the near future Soon
Initiate Start, Begin
Input Advice, Response, Comments
Make an attempt Attempt to, Try
No later than By
On numerous occasions Often
On the grounds that Because
Parameters Boundaries, Limits
Personnel Staff, People
Pertaining to About
Possibly might Might
Postpone until later Postpone
Prior to Before
Provide guidance for Guide
Qualified expert Expert
Real-world problem Social (or Business) issue or problem
Refer back to Refer to
Regarding to About
Solicit Ask for
State of the art Latest
Subsequent to After
That being the case If so
The majority of Most
Thereafter Then, Afterwards
Until such time as Until, When
Vast majority Most, Majority
Wide range Range
Wide variety of Variety
With the exception of Except
Without further delay Now, Immediately
Appendix D: Headings and Lists
Headings and subheadings in technical reports should be in parallel form. Headings must be in the same grammatical form. For example, if giving instructions for a laboratory process requires a set of steps, each with a series of operations, heading for each step should be in the same form as other headings of the same level.
Pour the dirt
Mix the dirt
Dry the dirt
Weigh the dirt
Parallel construction is useful in giving directions within each step. In the example that follows, each action is described by an active verb followed by a description.
Turn heat to high.
Pour 1 gram of agarose solution into flask, forming a 100 mg sample.
Pour 100 milliliters of 1x buffer (TAE) into flask
Insert a magnetic stirring rod into flask.
Cover the mouth of the flask with cling wrap.
Pierce cling wrap, making a small hole which will prevent pressure build-up.
Place the flask on heat plate.
Turn on magnetic stirrer, ensuring that no clumps of agar form.
Wait for the agar to come to a boil.
Transfer flask to a water bath, preventing solidification.
Essential Skills for Academic Writers