On Writing Well: Part 3 – Components and Process

Having used the systems approach to develop a solid design for writing, the writer must then turn his or her attention to the implementation. In the systems world this is analogous to putting together the very best components to do the job of expression.

Most readers will at once recognize this to be the familiar area of writing “tips” or advice. This is because writers, like their engineering colleagues, are prone to leap over or give too little attention to the high-level design and the logical architecture of their work preferring instead to immediately inhabit the world of components – words, phrases, and constructions.

But, just as in the world of engineering design, it is appropriate to begin the selection of the detailed physical components only after a logical architecture is in place. With that in mind we turn now to the implementation of the writing design.

Engineers enjoy a reputation for less-than-stellar writing. While this is not universally deserved, there is merit to visiting the techniques and tools of good writing.

I understand that I will get a number of protests of even this tempered suggestion that engineers need writing help. Some of that will also probably cite my own words back to me as “bad” examples. Be that as it may I will attempt to offer some suggestions. These are offered not as the sage to the “grasshopper” but as one beggar telling another where he found bread.


If I could write a 1-word post on the subject of writing well – and perhaps I should – it would say “read.” Reading good writing is probably the most effective way to improve your skills. Getting good writers in your mind enables you to model your own efforts.

There is lots of good writing out there – and lots of bad. You can tell the difference by reading and asking yourself what reaches you with its message. Since most of what engineers write is expository in nature, read expository writers. Read Daniel Pink, Seth Godin, and Chip and Dan Heath. Their style is clear and accessible. By reading their work you will not only absorb interesting and valuable content but you will hear their cadences and see how they construct their arguments.


Advice to writers is often laced with admonitions to use simple words. “Avoid the 50-cent words in favor of the dime and nickel versions,” is the standard mantra. There is much wisdom in this advice. After all, Einstein is reported to have admonished that everything should be made as simple as it can be. There is no sense in overcomplicating our message with inaccessible vocabulary.

But Einstein’s warning contained another clause. “Everything should be made as simple as it can be,” he said, “but no simpler.” In the quest for clarity we often trade accuracy and completeness for simplicity in expression. There is no substitute for the word that contains the exact meaning. In his usual pithy manner, Mark Twain observed, “The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

So, adopt a simple vocabulary but don’t sacrifice precision and the message on the altar of accessibility. There is nothing wrong with expecting something of your audience. Everyone has access to a dictionary, thesaurus, and encyclopedia. It is perfectly acceptable to send your readers to their references on occasion – in fact it is a good thing from the perspective of enriching the conversation. While we shouldn’t become T.S. Elliott with his obscure references, we don’t need to write like Dr. Seuss either.

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