My technical paper made its way to the Russian translators on Friday (see writing carnage above). This paper, I am proud to say, will be presented in Moscow, Russia at the end of October for the Geomechanics portion of the program. From the mouths of engineers I hear how difficult writing is for our kind. I think this is true for a couple of reasons.
First, technical writing is challenging because it is not common. People write closest to that which they read. Meaning, the reading habit the informs the writing style. It wasn’t until after 30 years of reading and writing that I started reading technical papers, never mind the writing.
Second, like all skills, writing takes practice. Biographical or fiction writing can start early in life and continue on a consistent basis. The need for apt technical writing skills does not arrive until much further in one’s academic career. My technical writing strikes me as flat, uninspired, clunky prose. This new language is still too foreign for me to write comfortably and fluently. So I practice.
What are three ways to improve technical writing?
1. Read Good AND Bad Writing Stephen King reads 70-80 fiction books a year. In his memoir, On Writing, he is very specific about the importance of authors reading to improve their craft. His craft is fiction, the kind I am too tender-minded to read, but his writing memoir told me three things about his writing habits: write every day, read every day, and edit out 10% of your material before sending it on.
In this season of my life my craft is technical writing. To that end, I download technical papers (some good, some bad) and try to read one per day. I am slowly making my way through technical books on geomechanics, the compaction of argillaceous sediments, and discrete fracture networking. Read what you want to write.
2. Write, Write, Write In her writing memoir, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott suggests starting by writing 300 words per day. Depending on the day, she may hit 500-1000 words, but if it takes her all morning to get to 300, then so be it. Stephen King writes a minimum of 500 words per day 7 days a week.
The liberation is in the discipline. If you or I know we are going to sit down daily and write — it does not have to be great — then there is victory. Knowing ahead of time that material will be marked out, rearranged, edited beyond recognition brings freedom.
3. Have Your Writing Critiqued In college my senior year roommate and I were not getting the grades we wanted on our papers. B’s, B+’s, maybe an A-, but never the A. We swapped papers and gave them a read through to figure out the hang up. Not a great deal of editing was needed, just some grammar and structure. After hearing my comments she asked me with alarm, “Wasn’t there anything you liked about it?” Of course! I just had not told her.
My three layer process for critiquing papers: start with the overall aspects I appreciated, then comment on where the writing can be improved, and end with specifics that I really liked and should be left alone.
Sharing one’s writing is a precious vulnerability.