A math-based approach to writing for engineers

Article By : Richard Quinnell

Sentence algebra and document algorithms teach writing in a language engineers understand.

One of the skills that separates a good engineer from a great one is an ability to communicate ideas clearly, and writing well is a key component of that ability. Unfortunately, for many engineers, the mindset needed for good writing can seem disjointed from the mindset of engineering. There is now, however, a novel approach to learning to write that leverages math and engineering logic to bridge that gap.

An inconvenient truth of engineering centers on documentation. Creating an elegant, efficient, high-performance prototype is not enough for a design effort to be successful. A designer must describe their prototype’s design clearly and in sufficient detail so it can be reproduced, used, and maintained without the designer’s further involvement. Further, schematics and drawings and code are only part of what is needed for an adequate description. Ultimately, the designer must provide many explanations in text.

The critical importance of adequate documentation means that, perhaps surprisingly, writing is a key skill that design engineers should acquire to enhance their careers. Indeed, the value of that skill extends well beyond documentation. Consider the situation where you need to justify the cost of acquiring a new tool to assist during development. Dashing off a few sentences about why the company should spend, say, $10,000 for a test instrument may seem simple. Realize, though, that those 50 or so words work out to being worth $200 each in communicating your reasoning. A proposal soliciting funding for an entire new product development project may require even more valuable wordage.

Unfortunately, most books and instruction on writing target a liberal arts audience, focusing on mechanics of grammar such as the difference between a participle and a gerund and using only words to convey concepts about how to use words. Engineers, on the other hand, tend to think in terms of visual and symbolic descriptions such as flow charts and formulae.

The book A Math-Based Writing System for Engineers by Brad Henderson (Figure 1) aims to help engineers understand the elements of effective writing by presenting those elements using such visual and symbolic descriptions. Henderson’s novel approach stems from his experience teaching writing to engineers at UC Davis as well as his work as a mechanical engineer in the aerospace industry. To put writing instruction into terms comfortable for engineers, he expresses sentence structure as algebraic equations and the document creation process as flow charts. He also provides guidelines for the analysis and optimization of sentences.

photo of the book cover for A Math-Based Writing System for EngineersFigure 1 Brad Henderson’s writing textbook takes a novel approach to teaching engineers the basics of good writing.

Although designed as a textbook for a collegiate writing class, the book can form the basis of a self-study program. Henderson recommends that such readers first review the primers in Chapters 2, 9, and 14, which serve as an introduction to the text’s three main elements: sentence algebra, sentence optimization, and document algorithms.

Based on their comfort with the concepts involved, readers can zero in on the sections most appropriate to their need. Those with a basic grasp of sentence construction, for instance, might want to delve into the section on optimization to refine that skill further. Those with weak writing skills, or those for whom English is not their first language, might want to first start with sentence algebra to firm up that foundation.

Henderson’s math-based approach is intriguing but does take some getting used to. He starts, for example, by defining the “variables” involved, including subject and object nouns (NS and NO), verbs (V), and modifiers (M) for them both – adjectives (MN) and adverbs (MV). He then shows how to both analyze and build suitable equations (sentences) using these variables in an algebraic format. For instance, the basic sentence (B) “The robot safely carried the radioactive sample” might be expressed as:

B = NS + (MV * V) + (MN * NO)


NS = The robot

MV = safely

V = carried

MN = the radioactive

NO = sample

This notation may seem confusing at first, but the idea is that an engineer’s comfort with algebra will quickly allow the approach to yield a sound understanding of effective sentence structure.

For those who already know how to construct sentences, the third section offers guidance to stringing those sentences into effective documents. It provides algorithms in the form of flow charts for many types of documents engineers can reasonably be expected to create during their careers. Describing a design to a non-technical audience, for example, might follow the algorithm described in Figure 2. These algorithms can help engineers past the hurdle of getting started when faced with key writing tasks.

diagram for an algorithmic approach to writing tasksFigure 2 This algorithmic approach seeks to help readers get started on typical engineering writing tasks.

Like any school textbook, this one costs a bit more than the typical consumer publication, listing at $90 for an ebook and $120 for hardbound. Still, the skill it promises to help augment will prove invaluable throughout an engineering career. If conventional writing instruction isn’t working for you, this math-based approach may be just the key you need to unlock the secrets of creating effective written communications.

This article was originally published on EDN.

Rich Quinnell is a retired engineer and writer, and former Editor-in-Chief at EDN.

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