Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Writing and the Engineer

When I was in high school, I loved to read, but was never particularly concerned with developing my writing skills beyond reasonable proficiency, or what was required for the SAT subject test.  I always knew I'd be studying math or engineering, and because I was pigeonholed by some of my teachers as a "math" kid, I figured, why bother?  The fact that my undergraduate university was an engineering school that didn't even offer majors in English, History, or Literature but rather a broad and nebulous  "Humanities" department, just reinforced my apathy.  I impressed my friends by figuring out a way to work the system and fulfill my school's "humanities" major with a bunch of paper-free Economics theory courses.  Of course I opted for the non-thesis option in my major.  By midway through college, I figured I was home free.  Why waste time developing my writing skills when I could work on becoming a better coder or take another math class?     

It wasn't until I was an upperclassman in undergrad that I began to question my attitude.  At some point in junior year, I suddenly found myself suffocating under an avalanche of writing tasks.  Every opportunity I wanted to pursue -- from graduate school, to fellowships, to study abroad opportunities, to cover letters for jobs -- required thousands of words worth of essays.  As I delved more deeply into my undergraduate research project and my work became more sophisticated, I found that others expected to write up my own results for conferences, posters, and journals in complete paper form -- tasks I'd always assumed would fall to my supervisor.  I started to struggle with anxiety about applying for anything or pushing forth with various aspects of my education because I lacked confidence in my ability to express myself.  My weak foundation had become a liability.

As one of my college professors told me, "Even in engineering, what you say is often less important than how you say it."  Now that I am working towards a Ph.D., I see my professor's wisdom in action every day.  No matter how impressive your accomplishments, anyone reviewing your cover letter or essay making the case for your acceptance may be unable to look past poor syntax and grammar, or an unsophisticated vocabulary.   Similarly, incoherent writing that lacks structure, and even pretentious writing, can obscure the meaning of one's results, causing the reader to miss the essential point.  Once I realized how vitally important self-expression is, I took steps during college to strengthen my writing:
1) I started writing for various campus publications.  I wrote for a human rights publication and became an editor for my university's undergraduate research journal.  I found learning to deal with strict deadlines taught me to write in a time-efficient and focused way.  As a Penn student, you are in luck, because of the sheer number of extracurricular organizations that publish newsletters or journals offers myriad opportunities to get involved.  I believe that it really doesn't matter what you are writing, as long as your activity forces you to exercise your "writer's muscle." 
2) I took two first-rate writing seminars that greatly improved my written output.  The first was a course on reading and writing the essay, and the second was technical writing course geared towards students writing theses.  Having my writing critiqued by my classmates in an intimate setting was terribly intimidating at first, but knowing several pairs of eyes judging my work at close range motivated me to do my very best work each time.
3) I made extensive use of the resources offered by my school's writing tutors, course TAs, and writing center to review papers for classes and research write-ups before I presented them to my research advisor.  I have been told both as an undergrad and during my time here at Penn that these resources are consistently underused by engineering and science students, who either lack confidence in their work and feel going to the writing center would be an imposition, or just don't know about these sources of support.
4) I started a personal journal online in which I have kept a record of every major academic undertaking since college, which I still maintain.  Not only do I have a complete record of my important academic experiences, research progress, and life milestones to look back on, but I also have a consistent tool for improving my writing, even when I am not doing any formal writing for school.    

I have benefited immensely from these activities, not only as a student, but also during stints in the corporate world.  In my experience, good writing habits should be an essential part of any engineer’s tool chest, and we should all prioritize improving our writing.

Questions for Shaudi?  E-mail her at awe@seas.upenn.edu

No comments:

Post a Comment