Write to Find Out What We Are Thinking and To Learn

Engineers Can't Write - Right? - Wrong!

Engineers are often stereotyped as being poor writers. My experiences as a project manager, coach, consultant, and engineering professor taught me that engineers, like most reasonably intelligent and motivated individuals, can become effective writers. The “secret” is an old but powerful formula: high expectations and high support.

For example, over several years, I taught an introductory transportation engineering course to sophomore civil engineering students. Each student researched a self-selected transportation structure, facility, or system and wrote a major, formal report. Great latitude was allowed in topic selection. However, each student was required to address these aspects of their topic: milestones, technical challenges, legal requirements, environmental issues, safety provisions, financing, proponents, opponents, and lessons learned.

A product that was professional in appearance and content was specified (high expectations) and numerous but brief writing tips and aids were provided as the semester proceeded (high support). An early chapter was carefully critiqued near the beginning of the semester. In the vast majority of the cases, the reports received high grades even though I was very demanding. In many cases, the content and appearance of the products exceeded that of reports written at that time by engineering firms and government entities.

The first purpose of these writing assignments was to convey to students the importance of written communication. I frequently told them that effective writing is necessary for successful and satisfying professional practice. Management and leadership effectiveness is greatly enhanced by writing competency. The second purpose of the writing projects was to give students more researching, organizing, and writing skills while building their confidence as writers.

Writing to Clarify Our Thinking and to Learn

In retrospect, I had a third, but unstated purpose for those engineering class writing assignments. That purpose was to suggest that writing is one way, and a very effective way, to clarify our thinking, to illuminate the more distant recesses of our minds. As nicely stated by playwright Edward Albee, “I write to find out what I’m thinking” and by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, “The blank page on which I read my mind.”

On the surface, we probably think of writing as one means of communicating with others. And it is, along with listening, speaking, visuals, and mathematics—the five means available for interpersonal communication. But even more fundamentally, writing at least for some of us, is a powerful means of intra-personal communication, communication with ourselves. Writing about our concerns, questions, ideas, theories, and options helps one “part” of us communicate with another “part” of us. Maybe it’s our “brain” communicating with our “heart” or our “intuition” interacting with our “reason.” Perhaps writing helps our left or logical brain communicate with our right or intuitive brain. Effective intra-personal communication, achieved through writing, can be a powerful preparation for effective inter-personal communication.

One of the reasons for writing essays like the one you are reading, and it’s a selfish one, is to find out what I think—really think—about various aspects of professional life and beyond. Sometimes I am surprised. We should all do more writing, partly to refine our skills, clarify our thinking, and make us better communicators.

In addition to clarifying our thinking, writing helps us learn. This was the second stated purpose of those sophomore class writing assignments. “You learn as much by writing as you do by reading,” according to self-taught social philosopher Eric Hoffer. Writing to Learn is the title of William Zinsser’s book in which, as indicated by the title, this writer and teacher develops the idea that writing is a powerful learning process. He says: “Writing enables us to find out what we know—and what we don’t know—about whatever we’re trying to learn.”

Suggestion: Set yourself up for deeper self-understanding and for learning by focused writing. That is, select a subject of interest and commit to writing and eventually speaking about it. You will become an expert and contributor while expanding your network.

I realize that a blank sheet of paper or a blank screen can be foreboding. It strikes fear in some of us. However, as we begin to push our pen or tap the keys, our thoughts focus. Previous related experiences, good and bad, are relived. Lessons learned are recalled. Important questions arise. Accepted premises are challenged. We conduct some research. Creative juices begin to flow.

You get the idea. Write on! Right on!

Might you want to explore offering a writing and/or speaking hands-on workshop or webinar for your personnel? I have considerable “road-tested” material that can be tailored to meet your need. Click here for a summary of the business, government, professional society, and educational organizations that I have worked with.


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