Teaching Technical Writing Using the Engineering Method
students at American universities have trouble with technical writing.
To help students over this trouble, we often use inefficient
These methods, like other aspects of graduate education, sometimes
remind me of medieval apprenticeships.
I have known smart, capable teachers who
were reduced to ``teaching a student to write'' by taking that
student's first paper and rewriting it from start to finish.
This booklet describes better methods.
Instead of spending most of my ``student time''
working on writing—teaching the same material
to seniors, graduate students, and postdocs—I now teach
to a group that meets weekly.
Teaching a group uses my time more effectively, and working in a group
that they are not alone in their difficulties.
The problems they have
are problems that everyone has, and
these problems even in published papers.
But we do not emphasize problems; instead we emphasize useful
principles and practices
that students can learn to apply to their
What both approaches have in common is that even a
can apply a simple test to see whether he or she is applying a given principle or
following a given practice.
This focus on testable ideas seems to work especially well for
- I emphasize principles that can be applied
successfully by a beginning writer.
Especially for students in science and engineering, a principle is
easily applicable when there is a simple, experimental way to
decide if the written words obey the principle.
(For example, I do not try to teach ``omit needless words,'' because
I know of no simple way to decide if a word
In this approach, I have been greatly influenced by Joseph
- I emphasize practices that have been shown,
again by experiment, to lead to productive writing.
For example, I explain the difference between ``binge writing'' and
``brief, daily sessions.''
In this approach, I have been greatly influenced by
If this kind of approach appeals to you,
you can explore materials
that I have prepared for both instructors and students.
The instructor's edition is available as
US Letter PostScript (316K),
US Letter PDF (216K),
US Letter TeX DVI (110K),
The student's edition is available as
US Letter PostScript (227K),
US Letter PDF (133K),
US Letter TeX DVI (60K),