Assessing Audience
Selecting Format
Crafting Style

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Before you commit words to paper in an engineering or scientific document, you should understand the subject matter that you are trying to communicate. In other words, you should not begin filling pages with sentences unless you have a general idea where those sentences are headed. Even after you have a general understanding of your subject matter, you still should not begin writing until you analyze your writing constraints, which are those aspects of the writing that you do not control. Constraints include your audience for the document and the format of the document--both of these constraints are discussed in this section. Another constraint, not discussed here, is mechanics, which comprises grammar, punctuation, and usage. Interactive exercises on mechanics can be found at the "Writing Exercises for Engineers and Scientists." Besides discussing the constraints of audience and format, this section also discusses the term style, which is that aspect of the writing that you do control.

Assessing the Audience

In assessing your writing situation, audience is your most important constraint. To understand this constraint, you must first decide who your readers are. Are they professors, managers, engineers, scientists, or technicians? You also assess what your audience knows about the subject. What terms will you have to define? What background information will you have to include? Another consideration for audience is why your audience is reading the document. This consideration is often referred to as the purpose of the document. Is the document supposed to inform or to convince? Finally, in assessing the audience, you assess how your audience will read your document. Will they read it straight through like a story or will they turn to specific sections?

Consider the example of the Sandia engineer [Carlson, 1982] who designed an implantable electronics device that delivered insulin to the human body. In documenting his design, the engineer had two distinct audiences. One audience consisted of electrical engineers familiar with the electronics, but not with diabetes. Another audience consisted of medical doctors familiar with diabetes, but not with the electronics of this device. Given the different backgrounds of these two audiences, the engineer had to define different terms for each audience. The engineer also had to provide different background information for each audience.

Not only were the audiences different in what they knew about the subject, but they also had different purposes for reading about the design. The electronics engineers were, for the most part, curious about the electronics design. The medical doctors, on the other hand, were interested in whether they could safely use this device to treat diabetic patients. Notice that this second audience had much at stake as far as whether they would actually implant this device into patients. For that reason, the engineer's report documenting the design had to be not only informative, but also convincing.

Finally, the engineer had to consider how his audience would read the report that documented his design. Because the engineers and doctors wanted to read different background information and were interested in different aspects about the design, the engineer realized that neither audience would likely read the report straight through from front to back. Rather, the audiences would move from section to section. For that reason, the engineer parceled the information into sections with descriptive headings so that the audiences could quickly find specific information.

Selecting the Format

Besides audience, another important constraint is format, which is the arrangement of type upon the page. The choice of typeface, the placement of headings, the method of citing references--these are aspects of format. For longer documents such as reports, format also encompasses the arrangement of information into sections. In engineering and science, there is no universal format. Rather, companies, journals, and courses select formats to serve their particular audiences, purposes, and occasions.

When your grade school teachers asked you to write something, the format was often simple: double spaced and front side of the paper only. However, in engineering and science, the formats are much more detailed. Why is that so? One reason is to make the reading process efficient. For instance, in a laboratory report, having all the information follow a specific sequence makes it easier for readers to locate specific information such as the results. In another instance, having all information in proposals placed under specified headings helps reviewers compare information fairly.

In your laboratory, design, or communication course, your instructor will select a format that helps emphasize the important information, that allows readers to find key information, and that allows evaluators to assess your work. These guidelines are designed to help your instructor communicate those formats efficiently and accurately to you. As stated earlier, no universal formats exist in engineering and science. For that reason, these guidelines present a number of common formats that your instructor can choose from or modify to serve the documents of your course.

In these guidelines, you will find formats for correspondence (letters and memos), formal reports (laboratory reports, design reports, and progress reports), and other documents (proposals, instructions, journal articles, and presentation visuals). Moreover, included in Appendix A are general guidelines for the typography, layouts, and reference citations of documents. Although the format guidelines presented in Appendix A are common in engineering and science, they are not universal. In fact, if you were to pick up a dozen scientific journals and look at the way headings were done or references were handled, you might very well find twelve different formats. Why are formats in engineering and science so varied? One reason is identity. A journal such as Scientific American formats its articles in the same way to distinguish the look of its journal from other scientific journals. The Palatino typeface, the descriptive summary in italics on the article's first page, the four columns for the article's text--those aspects give Scientific American a signature that helps readers identify the magazine even when they don't see the masthead. To a lesser extent, companies and laboratories often want their own "look" as well.

Table 1 presents some common differences found in just two format issues: the hierarchy of headings and the listings of references in the text. One reason that a format specifies a hierarchy for headings is so that readers can understand what information in the document is primary and what information is subordinate. The actual ways to represent these hierarchies vary considerably. Common ways are different type sizes for the headings, different amounts of white space surrounding the headings, different typestyles for the headings, and numbering schemes for different order headings. In still other cases, such as the default option of your word processor (header 1, header 2, header 3), the formats call for combinations of these variables. Likewise, the formats for assigning credit to sources vary a great deal. Some formats call for an author-year listing in the text, others call for a numbered listing, and still others call for an abbreviated listing. Each of these listing systems refers to a section, often named "References," where readers can find a full citation for the source. Note that the ways those full citations are written vary widely as well.

Table 1. Choices in Format for Heading Hierarchy and Reference Listings
Format Issue Purpose Options
Heading Hierarchy to help rank information Hierarchy by type size (18 points, 14 points, 12 points)
Hierarchy by white space (3 spaces, 2 spaces, 1 space)
Hierarchy by type style (boldface, boldface italics, italics)
Hierarchy by number (2.0, 2.0.1,
Reference Listings to give credit to sources [Author, Year]: [Jones, 1998]
[Numbered]: [1]
[Abbr. author, abbr. year]: [JON, 98]

Given the wide variety of format issues and the even wider variety of options for those issues, these format guidelines cannot possibly present every format option that you will encounter in engineering and science. Such a collection would be cumbersome and, in the end, not particularly helpful. What's important is not that you learn every format which exists, but that you realize a specified format will often exist and that you follow that format. For those situations in which no specified format exists, you should choose a professional format to follow that is appropriate for your situation. Appendix A presents a professional format that is commonly used in engineering and science.

Crafting the Style

An important, but sometimes hazy, distinction in scientific writing is between format (the way you place the type upon the page) and style (the way that you express a thought in words and images). Style comprises structure, language, and illustration. These guidelines do not attempt to discuss the many questions of style; rather, these guidelines focus on stylistic points particular to writing a few technical documents, such as laboratory reports, that you are likely to encounter. For an analysis of style in general writing, you should consult a guide such as Elements of Style [Strunk, 1918]. For an analysis of style in scientific writing, you should consult a guide such as The Craft of Scientific Writing [Alley, 1996].

Writing is an essential skill for the successful engineer and scientist. As an engineer or scientist, you cannot treat your writing in the same way that you treat fluid mechanics or organic chemistry. Scientific writing is not a science; rather, it is a craft. The game of golf provides a good analogy to the way you should view your writing. Think of your technical problems as your drives and iron shots. In your drives and iron shots, you want loft, accuracy, and distance. Now, think of your writing problems the same as you would a putt. Notice that the clubs, swings, and mental approach of driving differ dramatically from those of putting. The same is true for the differences between the solution or technical problems and the communication of those solutions.

Last updated 7/04