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Dec. 1, 2004
Senior Technical Editor Rich Merritt offers advice to high school and college students that if you can learn to write clearly, it will put you head and shoulders above your engineering colleagues.
  By Rich Merritt, Senior Technical Editor


wo years ago, my nephew Danny asked me for some career advice. He was a junior in high school, getting ready to study engineering in college. I didn’t even have to think twice: “Take all the writing courses you can in high school and college,” I said. “If you can write clearly, it will put you head and shoulders above your engineering colleagues.”

Being able to write helps in college, of course, but it will be even more valuable when he gets a job. Danny’s memos, reports, proposals, business plans and documentation will be much better received and understood because they will be written well, have no grammatical errors, and make sense.

Danny is in college now, majoring in mining engineering, and he thanked me the other day. He said that was the best advice he had received from anybody, including professional counselors. It was really paying off, because he was getting excellent grades on all his papers. More important, he could see the vast difference between what he wrote and what others wrote.

In my opinion, many people are borderline illiterates. From high school students to engineers with advanced degrees, some people can’t spell, put together a simple declarative sentence, or write a paragraph that makes sense.

"If high schools and colleges are unable to teach English grammar and composition, I think we need to take it upon ourselves to fix it."
Just the other day, I spotted what I thought were two egregious spelling errors in a document: “sticktion” and “fieldbusses.” The correct spelling of these words are “stiction” and “fieldbuses.” I was prepared to browbeat the miscreant, until I ran a Google search. To my horror, Google turned up 609 examples of “sticktion” and 778 examples of “fieldbusses.” It’s hard to criticize someone when literally hundreds of other engineers make the same mistake. Actually, I should not be surprised. As an editor, it is my job to rewrite and revise a manuscript or news release so that it appears in print without errors. Sometimes we editors call this procedure “making chicken salad out of chicken … er … manure,” because the original documents are so badly written. For example, I recently got a new product release from one of the biggest motor drive manufacturers in the world. I did not understand any of it. Oh, I understood the words, all right. But I did not understand what the PR people were trying to tell me about the company’s drives. It was definitely chicken manure. A news report on NPR said that only 23% of today’s high school graduates are prepared for college. Based on what I see on the Internet, I believe it. If high schools and colleges are unable to teach English grammar and composition, I think we need to take it upon ourselves to fix it. We can put peer pressure on those who have engineering degrees but can't write a simple declarative sentence, and we can work to improve our own writing.When I was an illiterate computer programmer, I started my writing career by sending stories about sports car rallying and SCCA races to enthusiast publications, such as Motoring News in the UK. “Write what you know,” is the classic advice for new writers, so I did. My first stories were terrible, but my wife, Linda, corrected all the grammar and gently steered me in the correct direction. Linda said she learned everything about grammar in the 6th grade from a nun. I have not had the benefit of such a rigorous education, so I don’t know the difference between a dangling participle and a hanging curve ball. Nevertheless, I know when something isn’t written correctly, even if I don’t know the particular grammar rule that applies. Learning how to write properly is no more difficult than figuring out DeMorgan’s Theorem in PLC programming class. So, my advice to you is the same as I gave Danny: Take writing courses. To practice, write about what you know, whether it’s process engineering or drifting a 240SX. Learn to write well, and you’ll stand out from your colleagues. And maybe the boss will pay more attention to your next proposal or business plan.

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