Thursday, July 24, 2008

Why are engineers such poor writers/speakers/communicators?

I had my performance appraisal meeting with my boss about a week ago.

He complimented me on the quality of my report writing, saying "it's a real pleasure to be able to read someone who can express his ideas clearly", or something to that effect.

I thanked him and said half-jokingly that "(poor writing by engineers) is a stereotype that I labor everyday to overcome".

Can someone please tell me why engineers are in general, such poor writers, speakers and communicators?

It's been bandied around so frequently that it isn't even funny anymore.

I remember a talk I attended way back (ok, not that way back) during my undergraduate days at Hopkins. It was a talk by a biomedical engineering professor on applying to med/grad school, and naturally, the biomedical engineers (of which I was one) were out in full force.

The talk turned to personal statements, and the professor said that most engineers were "hopeless" at writing. And the audience agreed, if the chuckles were anything to go by.

I didn't really believe it then, as I considered myself to have pretty good writing skills. This was corroborated by just about everyone who had read my writing (professors, TAs, my grad student supervisor in the lab).

The mistake I made was in believing that I was the norm. Then I started working after returning to Singapore.

My god. Seriously. My god.

I had thought that poor writing would be marked by inappropriate sentence structure, weak vocabulary, or lack of coherence. Instead, I found myself battling with bad grammar: verb-noun disagreement, inconsistency in tenses, punctuation errors and the perennial problem of bad spelling (inexcusable in this day and age of spellcheck).

I found poor quality writing to be pervasive. Everyone I work with has a university degree, but I wonder how is it that after 16 years of education, only a vanishingly small minority of graduates can speak and write well.

Of course, it doesn't help that as engineers, some of the ideas and material that we work with are so complex  that poor quality technical writing doesn't help ease understanding of the material at all. Quite the opposite, it's actually painful for me to wade through someone else's writing. I find myself itching to correct every other sentence.

Sometimes I wonder whether it's a failing of the educational system. Other times, I wonder whether I'm confusing cause and effect. Perhaps it's not that engineers are poor communicators; it's that the people who are good at science and math but poor at language skills who choose the engineering profession. [You could make a similar converse argument for lawyers.]

In any case, I'm a firm believer that communication skills, particularly technical communication skills (writing, speaking, presenting) are highly trainable skills that can be cultivated like any other skill. [They also happen to be important for any career, and for life in general.]

That thought gives me hope. I just wish that every engineer out there thinks the same way and actually puts in the effort to learn to articulate their ideas better.

1 comment:

Palimpsest said...

Engineers do not have the market cornered on bad writing, I encounter bad grammar, spelling, and sentence structure on a daily basis at work and otherwise. I think it is endemic in Singaporeans with transgressions being committed across the majority of industries.

I have often pondered after the reasons why as well and always put it down to growing up in non-English speaking home environments or simply pure laziness and learned bad habits. I am of the opinion that people who write well have a certain respect for the English language and have perfectionist tendencies.

I can SO identify with your "itching to correct every other sentence" - I have often given in and returned emails with corrections and comments. I am also guilty of crossing out offending words on restaurant menus and public posters and correcting them, sometimes with red ink. My friends and colleagues have branded me the "English teacher", amongst other things.

Like you, I work in the biomedical sector, though as a clinical researcher, but I don't think poor language skills are more prevalent in the science and engineering professions, especially in Singapore. In dealing with my HR, compliance/legal, sales and marketing, and finance departments (just to name a few), I have found that same poor quality of writing you encounter. And of course, they are all graduates, some with MBAs.

So really, you are the anomaly, not the norm. In the bell curve of life with respect to writing, your data point lies within the tampering tail.