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Engineering Writing with Dr. Robert Lane [Video]

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MEGHAN: Howdy, and Welcome to Write Right. In today’s episode we are featuring an interview with Dr. Robert Lane about writing in the field of engineering. Dr. Lane is a professor in the department of Petroleum Engineering. He has 30 years experience in the petroleum industry, working and consulting for international production companies. First, I asked Dr. Lane how important writing is in engineering. Here is what he had to say.

DR. ROBERT LANE: Well that’s a really good question and one we don’t think too much about while we are in school. But quite frankly, how important writing is to you in industry and any technical field, especially in engineering, depends on what you want to do in your job. If you are content to stay in a backroom and work on a very small piece of the action and not really go too far in your career, well it’s not so terribly important to be able to write well. But if you do want to move in your career, you have to be able to communicate, communicate clearly, and succinctly, and get a message across to your management.

MEGHAN: I then asked Dr. Lane what type of writing engineers are asked to do.

DR. ROBERT LANE: Well there are seldom writing assignments per say, but you will have to do an analysis, let’s say in the petroleum industry, where I work, you may have an oil field that has a thousand wells in it, and two-hundred of those wells are closed or shut in for some problem that they have. You may do an analysis of those wells and determine that a certain number of them have similar types of problems, and there is no surefire technology out there to fix all of those, but you’ve got some ideas that could be tried out by doing a pilot test on a few of those wells. And if the technology works there, then it could fix all of those wells and increase the cash flow of the company by a huge amount of money. But in the petroleum industry and a lot of other engineering industries, risk aversion is very important. They don’t like to do things new, so if you’re going to do something new, you’re going to have to very clearly study what has been done, very clearly point out how to get to the next step, what it’s going to take to do that in the field, how much money it’s going to cost, and what the probability of success is. And you’re going to need to point that out boom, boom, boom, boom, very clearly, very succinctly, or you’re not going to be listened to.

MEGHAN: Next, I asked Dr. Lane what percentage of his day was spent writing in industry.

DR. ROBERT LANE: I probably spent 50% of my time writing. And I had one of the more fun jobs. I was in field operations engineering. I was going out in the field. I was spending a quarter to a third of my time in the field looking over the shoulders of the people who were actually turning the valves and pumping the pumps. Now if I’m in planning where I’m developing the five year plan for a project. In my case the project would be in oil-field management, but it might be a plant design, or plant maintenance schedule, or whatever for some other type of engineer. If I’m in the planning aspects of things, then I’m writing all the time. That’s what I do. I’m looking up information, crunching numbers, and writing it up. A lot higher percentage of your time will be spent writing in industry then it is here at the university.

MEGHAN: I then asked Dr. Lane how writing skills affect success in the engineering industry.

DR. ROBERT LANE: What was a shock for me-I’d been a pure academic before I went into industry-and the thing that was a shock to me is that yes we are all working for the same company, and yes you think we’d all have the same goals, but by golly we are all competing with each other for attention from above. And those who win in that competition for attention from above are the ones who are going to go places. And being able to get that attention from above is going to depend as much on your communication skills as it will on your technical skills. That was the big shock to me. I’m competing with my compatriots, and how well I communicate is just as important, if not more so eventually, then my technical abilities.

MEGHAN: Next, I asked Dr. Lane if engineers must write differently for different audiences.

DR. ROBERT LANE: If it is for your immediate supervisor, you can be a little bit more in the technical detail, a little less in the economics, a little more explanation because you really want him or her to understand the technical aspects of things. But as you go a level up from that, as you help him or her develop a presentation or report for higher management, you get a little bit farther away from the detail and technical aspects of the problem and look a little bit more at the economic impacts and implications of it and this will slide more in that direction the higher up you go in the organization. We make jokes about that of course that the higher up the person in the organization, the shorter their attention span. And the reason for that is that they have to make lots of decisions, and they have to do them quickly on just the important detail of the data, the take-home message. They’ve got to make that decision. They’ve got to have confidence in you that you are giving them the right stuff so that they don’t have to worry about wjether the information they is correct or not. It needs to be correct, and then based on our plan for the next period of time, we have to make a decision this way on that particular item.

MEGHAN: Then I asked Dr. Lane how important oral communication is in engineering.

DR. ROBERT LANE: Initially, as a starting engineer you are probably going to do more writing, and your supervisor is going to do the oral presentation. That supervisor has got to have confidence in what you’ve done in order to present it soundly. But once you start having some successes, you will have your turn to present, and again you have got to do it very clearly, very succinctly, very concisely, very quickly because you are going to be talking to people at higher levels, and their attention span is not nearly as long as yours is.

MEGHAN: Next, I asked Dr. Lane what type of writing issues he felt students struggle with the most.

DR. ROBERT LANE: I don’t know how much struggle–they probably don’t do enough struggling with–but getting grammar, correct grammar is very important, learning to write in the first person as opposed to the passive tense, which causes me and a lot of other people to just climb the walls. For example: ‘It was observed that…’ Better example: ‘We saw this’ or ‘We observed this.’  You can write a lot more succinctly in the first person and with  clear, short sentences, impact sentences. Get your message into the first sentence, and then flesh out the rest of the paragraph with the detail.

MEGHAN: Then I asked Dr. Lane what advice he has for students who hate writing and want to avoid it.

DR. ROBERT LANE: And if you want to be a Dilbert and stay back in your cubicle with your tie turned up the rest of your life, that’s the way to think. And at this point in the game you may think that is all you want to do. But I will guarantee you, you are closing doors on yourself if you take that attitude and you don’t put time into learning to write. I hate writing now. I hate creating from the get go with a blank page. It’s great that I have graduate students whose writing I can take and edit. It’s a lot easier to do that. And of course as you move up in an organization, the more your writing becomes editing and helping out your underlings, which is another reason for wanting to be able to write well and be able to move up in the organization, so you don’ t have to create it from scratch. It’s the creating from scratch part that is difficult–we all hate it. It’s one of the hardest things we do.

MEGHAN: Next, I asked Dr. Lane if he had any tips for students to improve their writing and speaking skills.

DR. ROBERT LANE: Spend as much time as you can up in front of an audience speaking and learning how to speak clearly. And don’t moan and groan when you have to do your capstone projects and you have to write reports, and lab reports, and these kinds of things. And take every opportunity you can to get up in front of a group and speak.

MEGHAN: Then, I asked Dr. Lane if he had any final thoughts on writing in engineering.

DR. ROBERT LANE: I may be overstating the case a little bit here, but basically I don’t think we as engineers realize how important writing is to us. We’ve got to document what we’ve done for the future and we want to move up in our career. We want to be recognized for what we have done and get rewarded for that, and if we cannot communicate it well both written and oral communication, then you can’t do it.

MEGHAN: Well that concludes our interview with Dr. Robert Lane on writing in engineering. Thanks for listening to this episode of Write Right. We’ll see you next time.

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