The Joys of Teaching Engineers to Write

An editing colleague saw that I specialize in teaching engineers and scientists to write, and she asked me some provocative questions, and then asked if I would turn it into a blog post. I would be happy to answer if you have any further questions—please find me on LinkedIn.

Q: Why would an editor want to teach engineers to write?

Because it’s so much fun! Engineers are extremely thoughtful, always looking at a problem from a number of angles, and challenging dogmatic ideas. This matches my own approach to life and to language, so I love discussing English with engineers.

Conversations with high-IQ people are great. You just won’t get the same level of analysis from a room full of literature majors, who have been trained in a completely different way of thinking.

I love the engineering approach to language. Engineers are taught to invent, to innovate, to question. And isn’t that essentially exactly the same process editors go through when they edit?

Ergo, if you ask me, editors and engineers are a natural match!

[Caveat: If you’re a dogmatic, authoritarian sort, who can’t stand to be questioned and to reasonably and scientifically debate why one word choice or text layout or document format is preferable to another, or give the reasoning behind your rules, then you might not like engineers—they want reason with their rhyme.]

Q. Wouldn’t it put editors out of business if all the engineers and others learned how to write better?

There is nothing to fear. We will never run out of work editing for engineers, because there will always be, in our lifetimes, a lot of work for engineers to do, and they need to write to report on the work that they do and communicate with clients, each other, and the public.

Good Reasons to Teach

Even if you mentor and teach some of your individual clients to be much better writers, even such great writers that they don’t really need you any more, fear not! There will be plenty of new engineers who will appreciate your teaching too.

And as we all know, one client who values you will often refer you to many more clients.

Another point that great editors know is that often, if you hold a class to teach all the engineers in your company how to do what you do ... the result is often that they value you more, because you are doing more, with a deeper background, to their manuscripts than they know how to do themselves, and that they previously understood that you were doing. Teaching classes about what you do will often result in people valuing your work more highly. Not everyone has a passion or a skill for editing.

Ergo, there is absolutely no need to hold back. It’s well worth it to share all our trade secrets with our clients, engineers or not. Mentor away! A more likely result of you teaching them better writing is increased appreciation for you, not a loss of work.

Benefits to Working with Engineers

Another factor at play in editing for engineers and scientists in English is that you will often get to work with plenty of brilliant people from all over the world, because engineers travel (and immigrate) a lot for work. Their English might not be perfect, but that might be because it’s their fourth, fifth, or sixth language!

And if the writers have romance languages as their first language, then you get to edit poetry. Sometimes I find it a shame to reduce the word count and eliminate the poetry into ruthless efficiency. Easier to read the science, of course, but slightly less beautiful, sometimes...

Q. How do you teach engineers to write?

This is a big topic, but here’s a start on what you need to arm yourself with if you are going to edit for engineers, and/or teach them something too.