Introduction and welcome

Technical professionals write. Why? Is writing an unpleasant but necessary duty? Something your supervisor makes you do? A necessary chore that follows the excitement of solving problems? Or does writing empower your brain? If a map makes you smarter at finding your way, can writing make you smarter at solving problems? Is writing good if it obeys the rules? Or is it good if creates excitement about your ideas? If feeling powerful, smart, and exciting sounds good, welcome to The Engineering Method of Technical Writing.

I’m delighted to be teaching this course at Tufts. I hope to set you on a path to become a mature, effective, fluent writer. As a mature writer, you will use writing as a laboratory tool that supports and improves your research and development, in much the same way that a software engineer might use a sophisticated programming environment or a powerful computer. As an effective writer, you will produce texts that readers find clear and compelling. And as a fluent writer, you will produce these texts comfortably and easily, without the grinding difficulty or last-minute crunches that trouble many beginning writers.1

Don’t worry! You may not accomplish all this in the next year, or even necessarily before you graduate. You will acquire tools that enable you to become more effective and fluent right away, and with my help, you will create a plan that will enable you to develop into the writer you wish to be.

Command of writing supports a technical career in any field of endeavor. If you go into academia, your writing will represent you: you will write to become known, to get hired, and to get promoted. If you go into industry, your writing will connect you to your team and help you get the resources you need: you will write to help plan current projects, to document successful projects, and to build support for new projects. And if you become an entrepreneur, your writing will support your company’s success: you will write to attract employees, to get funding, and to let the world know about your great product.

What will we learn?

I developed The Engineering Method of Technical Writing for scientists and engineers, and I use a science-and-engineering mindset. I teach techniques drawn from research and experiments on how texts and writers actually work—or don’t work. I support you in your own experiments. And I teach not many seemingly arbitrary rules and prescriptions, but rather just a few simple techniques which are known to work. These techniques are founded on two big ideas, both of which have been confirmed by research:

These big ideas should stay with you long after the course is over. If you apply them to your professional writing, you are bound to succeed.

Most books and courses about writing focus only on the text: the words on the page. We will study writing more broadly. You will advance your understanding not only of texts, but also of writers, and ultimately of yourself as a student:

  1. You will master fundamental editing principles that you can apply to the texts you write about your own technical work.

  2. You will, through application of the scientific and engineering method, develop working practices that enable you to write productively, comfortably, and fluently.

  3. You will assess your own progress and formulate a plan for your future development.

In all three of these areas you will exercise your own judgement as supported by experiments which I will help you design. To demonstrate the level of your editing skills and the effectiveness of your working practices, you will keep contemporaneous2 records of your activities:

Expectations for the portfolio and the lab notebook are stated below.

In detail, what will we learn?

In this part of the syllabus, I enumerate all the objectives of the course. I do not expect every student to make the same degree of progress on each objective or to reach the same level of mastery of each objective. (For example, if you speak English as a second language, you may not progress as far as a student who speaks English natively.) I do expect every student to make significant progress on (or reach sufficient mastery of) some of the objectives, which I have dubbed “essential.” The essential objectives document what is important for you to know and do by the end of the course. The other objectives are worth being familiar with, but they are not essential.3

Essential objectives

Here are the essential objectives connected to your editing skills:

Here are the essential objectives connected to your ability to develop practices that work for you as a writer:

Here are the essential objectives connected to your ability to assess yourself and develop a plan for your future:

Other objectives worth meeting

The essential objectives represent my top priorities for your learning. But there’s more worth knowing. Here are some other skills I hope you’ll develop, starting with editing skills:

Here some more writing-process skills that are worth knowing:

What happens during class?

The Engineering Method of Technical Writing operates on a model that is a cross between a typical graduate seminar and a master class:

Why is class structured this way?

Compared with individual instruction, a master class is not only more comfortable but also more effective. You do not focus relentlessly on your own writing. You see other writing at your own level, and you see professional writing. In this context, you can evaluate the utility of the editing principles, and you can decide for yourself what does and does not work. Evaluation and choice of effective technique is the essence of the engineering method.

A master class also helps because it’s easier to improve other people’s writing before trying to improve your own. You will also learn when your work is read by the group. Sitting quietly, you will see where readers do not understand; where they miss the point; and where they feel distracted, bored, or confused. One reader’s reaction might be idiosyncratic, but when a whole group of readers reacts the same way, it is easier to accept that the flaw might lie in the text.

How heavy is the workload?

To quote a former student, unlike everything else I teach, The Engineering Method of Technical Writing isn’t a ton of work. Relative to other courses, there are a lot of things to do, but each individual thing is small. And because the course is spread out over a full year, you have time to learn without disrupting your other work.

The course is designed for people who need to write for their jobs. Maybe you are writing a conference submission, a senior thesis, software documentation, grad-school applications, or a doctoral dissertation. Whatever. You will work on your outside writing using the techniques you learn here. I don’t count those hours against your workload. For many students, the time they spend on this course is time they wind up saving on their writing projects. If you are working on a big project like a dissertation or a first-author paper submission, you can expect to save more time on your outside project than you spend on The Engineering Method of Technical Writing.

Over the course of the year, your workload (not counting your outside project) should average just a few hours per week. Your workload will be highest in the first six weeks, when you are both reading about and practicing new skills. During this time, expect to spend about 4 hours per week outside of class. After six weeks you will have the basic readings under your belt, and you can expect your workload to drop to a baseline of at most 2 hours per week. (If you are a non-native speaker, your baseline workload may be a bit higher.) Two or three times during the year, you will write a one- or two-page essay about your working practices; depending on your skills, preparing an essay may take several additional hours. And at least twice, you will demonstrate your editing skills; preparing a demonstration will also take several hours. Finally, at the end of the year, you will deliver a reflective essay that assesses your progress and your learning and that proposes a plan for your future development. Think of the essay as something you spend a couple of weeks on in conjunction with three or four other courses; that is about the right workload.

What does the workload consist of?

Here are the kinds of work you’ll do during the course:

How will everyone be evaluated?

My evaluation of your work, and your final course grade, will be based on your final self-assessment (which will demonstrate how well you have met the essential learning objectives for the course) and on your class participation. In detail, here is what I expect:

Here’s how you will not be evaluated: Nobody’s learning is going to be compared with anybody else’s. Not everybody is starting from the same position, and not everybody speaks English natively. I expect that you will have achieved some learning that is significant for you, and that you can continue to learn and improve going forward. Whether your progress is greater or lesser than the progress of any other student is not relevant and has no bearing on your course grade.

Nobody is going to be evaluated on how long it takes to reach mastery, or on how many tries it takes to demonstrate mastery. If your first demonstration shows only “beginning mastery” of a skill, you are welcome to submit another demonstration, and as long as I can keep up with you, you can keep on submitting until you reach full mastery—or whatever level you wind up reaching. You will be evaluated only on where you end up, not on how you get there.

Finally, here’s how I expect you to evaluate me:

What should my lab notebook look like?

You keep a lab notebook in order to know what you can do and to know what is and isn’t working for you. Ultimately you will use your lab notebook to show me that you know what you can do and what is and isn’t working. You lab notebook should record your everyday activity involving any sort of writing. If you sit down to say “now I am going to write for observation in my lab notebook,” you are making a mistake—and you are not getting good data.

Each entry in your notebook should answer these questions:

Techniques to be applied depend on what stage of writing you’re at; many techniques apply to prewriting or editing, but fewer techniques apply to active waiting or drafting. Similarly, the units of production are different at each stage: active waiting produces thoughts and ideas; prewriting produces outlines, scribbles, notes, index cards, and a variety of other tangible artifacts; drafting produces sentences or paragraphs; and editing produces both analyses of existing texts and sentences or paragraphs revised.

The list of questions may look long, but you’ll quickly develop your own shorthand. To make it easy for you to use the lab notebook, you’ll design an entry format to your own taste. You decide whether you prefer a paper notebook or an electronic one, and you decide what you want the entries to look like. Here are some expectations and guidelines:

  1. Each entry describing your work must be made at the time the work is done, or immediately afterward. (This is what is meant by contemporaneous.) Do not let hours or days elapse.

  2. Say when and where you have worked, for how long, and with what materials. To record places, times, and materials that you use frequently, think about shortcuts or abbreviations.

  3. Say what project you are working on and what principles or practices you are experimenting with, if any. When you are working with a particular goal in mind (e.g., start each sentence with familiar old information; understand how thoughts affect my productivity and satisfaction), say so. A goal could be as simple as a stage and a project (e.g., prewriting the introduction to my paper) or you could have a more specific production goal (e.g., revise first paragraph of Section 3 according to the “Who did what to whom” principle).

  4. When thoughts or feelings affect your fluency and productivity, that’s valuable data! Record it.

  5. Very briefly, record what you produced, e.g., “drafted one paragraph,” or “sketched diagram of experiment.”

  6. Close each entry with two very short assessments:

    These assessments will provide data that you will use at the end of the course, where they will be vital. But you needn’t make them long—with a little experience, perhaps you will develop a tiny scale on which to record this data.

Notebook entries in this form enable you to meet a number of the essential learning objectives of the course:

If you have trouble designing a structure for your lab notebook, I can show you a sample entry. And once everyone has had some experience, we will devote a class session to effective use of the lab notebook.

What should my portfolio look like?

Your “portfolio” is actually a “writer’s portfolio,” which is not the same thing as a “learning portfolio.” It contains nothing but copies of your work, and its structure is very simple:

Why have a lab notebook and a portfolio?

Keeping both a lab notebook and a portfolio might seem like a bit much. Why not have just one thing? Because these two instruments are created and used in different ways and for different purposes:

The creation, value, and use of the lab notebook and portfolio are so different that they are best kept separate.

How does self-assessment work?

In gradual, easy steps, you’ll work your way from preliminary self-assessment to a complete, final assessment of your own work.

You’ll demonstrate mastery of one editing skill at a time. You’ll choose a short text from your portfolio, choose an editing principle from the handbook, revise the text according to the principle, and narrate an explanation of your revision.
Your original text, revised text, and explanation will then undergo three stages of review: self review, peer review, and instructor review. These stages are described in detail in the handout Self-Assessment of Editing Skills. In my instructor’s review, I’ll give you a summative assessment:

If after the assessment you believe you can improve your mastery, I’ll encourage you to repeat the process with a new text and a new peer. You keep going until you demonstrate the results you’re capable of. And at the end of the second term, your accumulated demonstrations will form your self-assessment of writing principles.

For writing practices, I’ll provide detailed instructions on assessing each individual practice. The evidence for your self-assessment will come from your lab notebook.

What books and such do I need?

The following materials are required reading for the class:

Please buy both books. Although out of print, Williams is available through the usual channels.

There will be a few other short readings which will be handed out in class. If I can do so without violating copyright, I will also put these readings on the web.

What do I need to pick up on my own?

As in every class, there is material that you need to complete the class successfully, but that is not actually covered by the readings or the meetings. Most of this material would probably be considered a prerequisite for a high-level writing class, but if you’ve missed any of it, you will need to pick up on your own. Here’s what I expect that you know and can do:

If you want help with anything, just ask.

What else can I do to succeed?

My past students have some advice for you. Here’s what they say, liberally paraphrased:

Advice from my most successful students

One of my most successful students advises you as follows:

Another highly successful student says,

Advice about mindset

On how to think about being a student in the class:

Advice about preparation

On ways you might wish to prepare:

Advice about class sessions

On the class sessions themselves, and the role of your work and your classmates’ work:

Advice about the lab notebook

On the lab notebook:

What to do between classes

On what you do outside of class:

What else have past students said?

When I asked my past students for advice, they had not only narrow advice, but some broader reactions to the class, as well as ideas that go beyond what we can cover in class. Here are some of those broader reactions:

And some ideas beyond class:


I owe thanks to the former students who provided advice for you or who helped me refine this syllabus: Noah Daniels, Andrew Gallant, Connor Gramazio, Sarah Nolet, and Nathan Ricci.

The design of this course and its syllabus have been heavily influenced by the methods I learned at the Course Design Institute offered in January 2014 by the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching at Tufts. The institute was taught by Donna Qualters, Alicia Russell, and Annie Soisson. I learned some additional techniques from Annie Soisson in her workshop in writing a syllabus. I also found much that I wished to emulate in J. H. Verkerke’s syllabus for Contract Doctrine, Theory & Practice at the University of Virginia.

  1. The word fluent is often used to describe language speaking skills; fluency is sometimes characterized as the highest level of proficiency a non-native speaker can achieve. But for a writer, fluency means something quite different: to paraphrase Webster’s 1913 dictionary, you are a fluent writer if you are ready in the use of words, if you have words at your command, and if you can put words in a row with facility and smoothness. This sense of fluent is connected to the Latin root meaning “to flow,” and I plan to teach you skills that will help your writing flow smoothly and easily.

  2. Exactly what I mean by contemporaneous is explained in the part of the syllabus that describes your lab notebook.

  3. The objectives refer to readings by Beck, Becker, Boice, Landes, and Williams. These readings are described in detail in the course handbook.

  4. NR: A good path toward constructive criticism is to make sure that anything you say about the text is absolutely verifiable by a decision procedure. For example, you can say “the technical term exfoliation appears in the third sentence in the position of old information, but this is actually the first time this word is used in the text.” Anything else you say should be not about the text, but about your reaction to the text.

  5. This technique is closely connected to the “Where’s the point?” question that Williams discusses in Chapter 6, which we won’t be reading. —NR