Good writing skills are in demand and improving your writing skills can enhance your employability, and your opportunity for advancement. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers latest employer survey, Job Outlook 2019, 82% of the employers that responded to their survey stated that writing ability is a job candidate’s most important skill.1 And EMSI, a company that provides labor market data, found that good communication was the number two most frequently mentioned skill in job postings for all U.S. employers over the last five years.2
If your writing skills are not as good as you want them to be, you should consider working to make them better. This article will help you do that by reviewing some of the most common mistakes I see engineers and other technical people make. I also provide easy tips on how to avoid those problems and improve your writing.
Let’s begin with homophones. These are words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings which is why they are rarely caught by spelling and grammar checkers. Most recently, I found a writer who used the word piece when he should have used peace.
For technical business writers, I mostly find there used in place of their, and they’re. There is used to indicate a place or time, while their is the possessive form of they. And they’re is a contraction of they are.
Other problematic homophones include your and you’re, to and too, hear and here, our and are, compliment and complement, capital and capitol, and principle and principal. But there are plenty of others to misuse.
Affect and effect are not homophones, but they are often used incorrectly. Affect means to influence something. An effect is the result of an influence.
More and more we hear impact used in place of effect. Impact is defined as one body striking or colliding with another. It is only by the third part of its definition that impact becomes a synonym of effect. Given a choice between using effect or impact, use effect.
The grammar rules for making a word possessive are reversed in the case of its and it’s. Its is the possessive form of it, and it’s is a contraction of it is. For example, “Attach the shaft to its coupler.” and, “It’s time to go.”
Have you ever mixed up the use of I or me when you are also speaking of someone else? An easy way to determine which pronoun to use is to drop the other person. For example, “I went for a walk.” and, “Sandra and I went for a walk.” Also, “Give me the tools.” and, “Give me and Dave the tools.”
Commas and semicolons are two useful punctuation devices that are misused frequently. Commas separate independent clauses or a list in a sentence. Do not use a comma to indicate a pause. But do use a comma with a coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor, but, for, yet, so) or a semicolon to join two independent clauses to form a complete sentence. “The spindle sat rusting, and even the engineer ignored it.” “The spindle sat rusting; even the engineer ignored it.”
The mechanics of grammar are useful to remember, and when combined with the following four steps your writing will improve:
1. Create an outline before you begin writing.
2. Fill in your outline with everything you can think of about your subject. Don’t worry about length; you will revise it later. This becomes your first draft.
3. When you have finished your first draft take a break. Go for a walk or even let it sit overnight.
4. Print out your work to review it. A hard copy is much easier to read and mark up for edits than doing this on your computer screen. Set your line spacing to 1.5 or 2 so you have room to make edits and notes. Use a highlighter and red pen for editing so you can easily see your revisions.
Here is what to look for when revising your work:
• Typos, homophones, spelling, and awkward sentences.
• Define industry and technical jargon the first time you use it. For example: Functional Failure Mode Effects Analysis (FFMEA).
• Does each sentence and paragraph make sense?
• Seek to create a logical progression of your thoughts. Does a particular paragraph make more sense in another section of your document? Move it there.
You should perform at least two revisions to your document. If possible, have someone else review your final draft. You will be amazed at how helpful it can be to have another person review your work.
If you are truly serious about improving your writing I have one last bit of advice. Buy yourself a good, scholarly dictionary and thesaurus, and a writing guide. Do not rely on the garbage you find on the internet which often is wrong. I use The American Heritage Dictionary and Thesaurus, which is sold as a two-volume set. You can find older copies on eBay, or try your local bookstore.
For a writing guide, I prefer the Practical English Handbook by Watkins, Dillingham, and Martin. It is a small book that presents a lot of information in an easy to find format. I’ve been using it since my college days and it has served me well.
Learning to write well is not something you do overnight. It takes practice and revision. So, have patience with yourself. And like all practice, the more you do it the better you will become.