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How to write good

January 11th, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

typewriterI don’t think engineers early in their career appreciate the importance of writing well (yes, I know about the title:) If you were like me, you treated technical writing as skill of secondary importance while in school, focusing more on design and analysis. The reality is that design and analysis skills only count for at most 50% of what I do, and the rest is communicating. Thoughts have to be conveyed clearly and concisely to the client, because the design does not stand on its own.

I don’t claim to be a great writer, or even a good one (part of the reason I started this blog was to improve my writing), but I’d like to share tips I’ve picked up along the way.

The first tip is a cheat sheat for homonyms. With spell checkers built into your computer, there’s really no excuse to mis-spell anything. But it’s still easy to use the wrong word in the wrong place. From Online Technical Writing:

For some writers, their main spelling problem is similar-sounding words, for example, principle and principal or affect and effect. Here is a list of these commonly confused homonyms, with examples of their correct use:

accept, except

The construction firm accepted the offer to build the bridge.
Everything has been finished except for the paint job.

advice, advise

The construction firm ignored the engineer’s advice.
The engineer advised the firm to use single suspension walkways.

affect, effect

The effect of the increased oil prices has been devastating on our economy.
The increased oil prices have affected our economy drastically.

cite, site, sight

The consulting engineer cited a paragraph from the building code.
At the construction site, the workers carefully erected the scaffolding.
The collapse of the walkways was a terrible sight.

complement, compliment

The programmer has received many compliments on her new system.
The colors that have been selected for the room do not complement each other.

counsel, council, consul

She was appointed consul to the embassy in Beirut.
There was lenthy debate on the tax proposal at city council last night.
He counselled her to get a degree in technical communications.

its, it’s

It’s time to go home; it’s getting late.
The car has lost one of its headlights.

lose, loose

Your car loses power when it is out of tune.
I have some loose change in my pocket.
Don’t let Mamie get loose!

personal, personnel

They plan to take out a personal loan to build the deck.
Send your application to the personnel office.
The CEO wants to have a personal chat with all this company’s personnel.

principal, principle

The principal component of the solar panel is the collector.
Explain to me the principle of convection.

stationary, stationery

Use company stationery for company business purposes only.
The derrick may not remain stationary during the gale-force winds.

than, then

My utility bill higher this month than it was last month.
The hurricane reached the Texas coast; then it plunged right into the heart of Houston.

their, there, they’re

Their calculus course is much harder than ours.
Over there on the table is your calculus book.
They’re not taking calculus this semester.

to, too, two

Are they going to pave the street today?
It is still too rainy to pave the street.
Two hours ago, the sky was clear.

whose, who’s

Whose technical writing book is this?
There is the woman whose technical report won top honors.
Do you know who’s in charge around here?
He’s a man who’s not afraid of criticism.

your, you’re

Your technical writing book is on the table.
You’re going to have review Part 1 before writing that report.

Some programs have grammer checkers built-in, that can spot mistakes when you use the wrong homonym, but they don’t always work, so I don’t rely on them. I printed out this list and tacked it up next to my monitor, for easy reference.

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