Writing for Structural Engineers

an Editorial by Milo S. Ketchum, Editor
Structural Engineering Practice - Volume 2, Number 1, 1983

In the last issue, I discussed the problem of creativity in structural engineering and made an analogy between creativity in writing and creativity in structural engineering. It seemed natural in this issue to discuss some of the problems involved in writing and its importance to the structural engineer.

When I was teaching, I often made the remark to my students that all this technology is very important and necessary, but ultimately they will get ahead in ratio to their ability to communicate, both verbal and written. I am not going to say whether I think structural engineers communicate well. That is and empty question. No matter how well you perform now, there is always room for improvement. One of the road blocks to good writing is a preconceived notion on the part of the individual that he "cannot write well". This is somewhat like the case of the fellow that was asked if he played the violin and said "I do not know, I never tried". It behooves as all to try, and it will improve not only our performance but just as important, our self image.

You hear from some authors that "writing is hard work" and they say they go through hell every time they pick up a pen. This is the wrong attitude. You certainly do not think that calculations are "hard work" because if you did, your performance in that capacity would suffer. The statement should be amended to "sometimes writing is hard work" just as calculations are. The more and more you write the easier it becomes and the more satisfaction it generates, just as any other skill.

In the last editorial, the subject of creativity and its relation to criticism was discussed. It was pointed out the these are two separate functions and for a novice they should not be mixed. Create first and then criticize. A good author can combine both functions at one time. So write what come directly out of your head first. Do not worry about whether it is good or bad, grammatical or ungrammatical. After you have expended yourself on this orgasm, then go back over your writing and do constructive criticism. Is this the idea you had in mind? Does the text say what it means and mean what it says. Is it punctuated correctly? To a novice, this is the hard work, but it is very rewarding and makes the difference between good writing and excellent writing.

The road block to the proper performance of this last task is the shear work of rewriting and copying parts of the text, and it may be necessary to cut it apart and paste it together. I get writers cramp, my hand rubs against the paper, and I get a sore finger. Yet I know that it has to be done.

I bought a word processor to retype this journal so that it would look better, and I could get papers from engineers that they would not write if their manuscripts had to be retyped in a camera ready format. This equipment has made a tremendous difference in my writing, and it has become easier and more enjoyable. If the writing is difficult, then the original manuscript is written, as before, in pencil or pen, and then typed on the word processor; adding or changing portions as new ideas or insights are developed. This first effort is only a rough draft, and as I type, words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs are added or subtracted. The manuscript is reviewed for punctuation and errors as each paragraph is written and again at the end. Any one who expects to do much writing should use a word processor and then writing will become easier and more enjoyable.

Many of my colleagues say that typing is for secretaries and that they are too busy. I tell them just try it one time and they will be convinced.

You should never write a very detailed outline of what you intend to write. This completely kills the creativity. List a few topics that you plan to discuss but go no further. The secret of writing is to fill yourself up with all the ideas about a subject that you can find. If you feel the need, take notes and collect references. Continue this until you have all kinds of information bulging out of your brain. Then some day sit down and write. First, the title and author. Then, perhaps, on a separate sheet, a list of some of the topics that you intend to discuss. if you have made these preparations diligently and enthusiastically, then you can start to write and it will flow from your pen. Your brain will do all of the correlating and outlining without any conscious effort on your part.

After you get through this phase, then go back and revise. At this point you may want a detailed outline. Test every idea and every sentence. If you get stuck, try to let the manuscript mellow awhile and then come back to it. Go over the punctuation carefully (you may need some review of grammar).

Then there is the problem of having someone review your manuscript. Remember that everyone writes in a different way and do not let anyone try to change your style completely if you think it is good. Any criticism should be constructive and not destructive. Build on what you have already written.

Keep your writing simple and direct. Talk to your reader in personal terms and involve them in the discussion as much as possible. If you are a good writer, the reader will become so absorbed that time will pass without this being aware.

The English language is a marvelous instrument if properly used as is testified by its wide acceptance. There are actually two languages, the residual debased, Anglo?Saxon, the language of the common people for 300 years after the Norman Conquest, and the French of the aristocracy. The latter has, of course, many Latin roots. There are usually two words for each object or concept. The first (Anglo?Saxon) is pugnacious, dynamic, and often brutal, and the second (French) is cultured and refined. Every time you look up a word in the dictionary, you should look up its origin to see how it should be used. An example in structures are the words "bending" (Anglo?Saxon, bendan), and "flexure" (Latin, flexura).

Many working structural engineers do not do much formal writing but one task that many of us do every day, and that we can improve, is the preparation of our structural design calculations. Many of the same rules apply. If calculations are difficult, I always do a rough draft first and then rewrite and revise for a final set. They should read like a book with everything explained, so the next reader (who may be you) will properly understand just what has been done. This is a very good place to start improving your writing skills.


I hope that some of your will take the above advice to heart and write something for this journal. It need not be elaborate or particularly original, but should be some suggestion or idea that will improve structural engineering practice. One easy way to get yourself published is to select some structure that you have designed, and write a description for submission as an "Innovative Structure". Remember that it is easy to submit manuscripts because they are all retyped, so they need not be in mint condition. If you have some ideas, then I will be glad to work with you to get them written.

Happy writing.

Milo S. Ketchum

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