Writing. It’s never too late for you to improve
The Most Useful College Classes, Especially for Engineering and Computer Majors
Learning to communicate with non-techies places you far ahead of everyone else. Take speech and writing electives now.
- No matter your major, no matter your job title. You must be able to speak and write so that vice presidents, with limited technical background, will understand. You need to be able to sell your ideas!
- In my experience, programmers and engineers have problems doing that.
Be careful what you write
In my second job out of college, my manager, with an engineering background, sent long, wordy memos of many pages to senior management.
In one, he said that his secretary needed “interchangeable balls for her IBM Selectric typewriter.”
I didn’t read the last part of the sentence.
After the “interchangeable balls” phrase, I was laughing too hard.
The memo went to a vice president, who was also a member of the Board of Directors.
Needless to say, copies of this memo passed throughout the organization. Today, it would have hit the internet, or at least the company’s internal network, and gone viral. The phrase, “interchangeable typewriter balls,” would have gone unnoticed.
In one consulting company that I worked for, the programming staff were notoriously bad writers. Management requested to see everything before it went to the customer, not just for content, but for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. A few weeks after I joined the company, I was released from that requirement.
I gave them other problems, though:
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That skill keeps you from losing some of your best people. You will surely be frustrated. Knowing that someone has a…
Today, a product like Grammarly helps, but the writer still needs to recognize poor presentation techniques.
Don’t fool yourself
I thought I was a good writer coming out of college. Term papers usually saved my humanities grades. One typist said, “Your paper was much more interesting than most papers that I type.”
Then, in my third job, I wrote a technical article for publication in the company’s engineering magazine and gave it to my manager for approval. He sat down with two red pens to proofread it.
It looked like he had a hemorrhage onto the paper! I never realized there was so much to know about transition between paragraphs, among other things.
He finally approved the corrected copy and it was published with a small circulation to engineers and colleges. It was written and published before the internet.
My article sold over 10,000 reprints, which was probably a record for that magazine.
That wouldn’t have happened without my manager proofreading the draft and suggesting changes. For me, it was a humbling experience.
Make a good impact
Writing skills are so important everywhere, not just selling your ideas. You need them to:
- Write instructions for people you never speak to, like the help desk personnel, end users, or repair technicians. Maybe you have a technical writer, if you are lucky, but you still need to find errors. I never had access to such a writer in over fifty years.
- Write text for on-line help pages. Some will be non-technical, explaining the product.
- Put together presentations for conferences and classes.
- Write articles for technical journals.
I was ridiculed about four years ago, in my last job before retirement, for writing user instructions. However, one senior editor sent me this email when I returned from being out for surgery, “I didn’t know how spoiled I was until you were out.”
Take additional writing classes above the ones required to graduate. A technical writing class does not count.
Do it at any time in your life.
Even as a night class or conferences after you graduate.
That will provide practice for the real world. After all, you don’t want to write something like this famous example:
Let’s eat grandma.
Let’s eat, grandma.
And, you certainly don’t want to imitate my manager and the typewriter.
IBM Selectric typewriter pictures (typewriter and ball, i.e. typing element)