How to Write Well

Feb. 8, 2007
Knowing how to write well is a skill almost every business person needs.



Engineers, particularly, have a reputation for not writing clearly. We've compiled a set of guidelines taken from memos circulated to the MACHINE DESIGN staff. Most MD editors have engineering backgrounds and were taught these rules as we came on board.

Know your audience. If you are making a report to upper management asking for money for the BS project, you'd better explain that BS stands for Better Software. Don't assume they know your department's acronyms or that they are familiar with your projects. Explicitly define any terms that are crucial to understanding the report. And don't waste time explaining how the software "can mesh with 80,426 tetrahedron elements" when what you want to say is "the new software would let us analyze 3D models without building expensive prototypes."

Get to the point. Unless you are telling a story or writing poetry, your communications should have a point. The goal of technical writing in particular is to say what needs to be said in as few words as possible. Think of your writing as the opposite of a joke: Give the punch line first. Tell the reader up front why they should continue reading. For example, "The company could save $75,000 a year by buying a $10,000 software package" is a statement management might pay attention to.

Once you've made your point and caught the reader's interest, add supporting details. Now is the time to give some background on the problem, or reasons that led to the end result.

Avoid using passive voice. You know you're using passive voice when you see a form of the verb "to be" in your text. This includes "was," "has been," "is being," etc. Instead of writing "experiments have been conducted" say "scientists conducted experiments."

Proofread. Your computer's spell and grammar check should be an automatic part of your writing. But there are other common mistakes to look for. Don't use a big word when a little one will do. Try to avoid repeating key words. Don't use too many adjectives in front of a noun.

In a memo to the MD staff in the 1990s, Ron Khol, the late editor of MACHINE DESIGN, rewrote the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood as a news story. To read "Woodsman Saves Youth from Wolf," visit Vicki's blog and click on the post titled "Ron Khol's news report of a fairy tale."

Words and phrases to avoid
Some engineers think using big words and buzz phrases makes them sound intelligent. But your reader might think showy words are compensating for not knowing what you're talking about. Here are some words we frequently see and some substitutions.
Instead of
Try this
Due to the fact that
Function, functionality
Purpose, work, functionality serve, capability
In order that
Ease, simplify, speed

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