on November 15th, 2012

Dear Colleagues,

I think we are all subjected to written reports which are gibberish, unreadable and full of gobbledygook. Perhaps you even are guilty of writing like this? I know that I am.

An example of poor writing in a report on a problem with delivery

Technological problems and input product deficiencies combined to impact on the specified deliverable quality and estimated deadlines of the product. Extensive and unspecified (at this stage – pending further investigation) modifications will be made to bring the deliverables into alignment with the contractual requirements of the client specification JFHA/JHU/1909804 Rev5.0567…..

Why do we write like this?

I know you will exclaim that you don’t write like this; but this is an extreme example.

Engineering professionals often feel uncomfortable with writing and tend to focus with passion on the technical problem at hand. When they do write, I often find they use large jargon-rich words expressed in the third person in rather convoluted English. Naturally, the reader is often hopelessly confused about what the writer is trying to communicate. The situation is often worsened because engineering teams are composed of personnel from a range of cultural backgrounds where English is a second language.

A few Humble Suggestions:

1. Keep it short and to the point
Keep your sentences short and to the point. Use words which everyone can understand. Avoid technical jargon; or if you intend to use words which are going to be misunderstood – explain what they mean.

2. Express Action
Instead of:
‘Extensive modifications were made by the team to the product…’

Change to:
‘We modified the product…’

Instead of:
‘An extensive investigation was conducted into the problems with service by the team’.

Change to:
‘We investigated the service problems’

3. Avoid clichés and old tired language

Suggestions of well worn boring phrases include:
“jump the gun’; ’one in a million’; ’law of the jungle’…

Avoid these phrases and try an alternative simple expression.

For ‘one in a million’; you could say: ‘unusual’

4. We may have a boring subject but sex it up
A considerable amount of engineering reports are skimmed through and hardly read. Why? Because they are boring and no one can face ploughing through them. So why not make your report interesting, short and powerful? Design it so that someone will read it and commend you later for an enjoyable experience. I know some of you will roll around on the floor laughing at this suggestion; but I dare you to try…

I suspect Walter Bagehot hits the nail on the head with his remark: The reason why so few good books are written is that so few people who can write know anything.

Yours in engineering learning,


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