Writing process and style

This page is part of a larger resource on technical writing for microwave engineers. Once you know what you need to write, how do you go about it? Some people just follow the outline from start to finish, writing crystal-clear paragraphs while adding enlightening figures for each topic. We hate those people. Other people start by writing down seemingly random thoughts, then use the cut-and-paste technique to build paragraphs that follow the outline. Do it any way you like, but if you don't get started you will never finish.

Once you think that your document includes everything it needs, waste some paper and print it out. Then, read through what you've written with a red pencil in your hand. Mark up your draft, correcting as many errors as you can find (if you don't find them, someone else will!) Repeat the process of editing your document as many times as it takes to make it a good read. What should you look for when editing your own writing? Check for accuracy, consistency, good grammar, and proper punctuation. And above all don't repeat yourself. And don't repeat yourself, or you will bore your readers.

After you've done your best, it is always a good idea to get someone else to read it for you (preferably someone that you know to be a good writer and is knowledgeable in the subject of your document and most importantly doesn't need a charge number). Just don't take it personally when someone offers you technical writing advice, we can all learn something.

Still unsure? Check for the following:

Make sure you're accurate

Watch out for passive voice

Avoid non-words

Beware of Humor

Staying Humble (by the UE himself)

Making sure you're accurate

Get one thing wrong, and the reader might not believe any thing else you've written. Be prepared to back up statements you make. Include references in the text, at the bottom of the page, or at the end of the document.

And, though we shouldn't have to say this at all, make sure you spell people's names right, especially if they are likely to read your document!

Instead of this... Try this!
Studies have shown... Cite the study by name
It seems that, might, could be, we think, perhaps, possibly, likely, hopefully Don't be wishy-washy. Use positive statements. If you aren't sure about something, don't say it.

Three times less than....

Ten times more than...


Three times less than doesn't make any sense at all. Ten times greater than something means that thing PLUS three more for a total of four. So ten times greater than 4 equals 44, not 40, which could confuse your reader. It's better to use hard numbers rather than relative gibberish (say 40 if you mean 40).

The dreaded passive voice

Passive voice occurs when the "doer" of a deed remains unmentioned in a sentence. So-called experts frown upon using the passive voice in technical writing, because it results in sentences that are longer than they have to be, it leaves room for interpretation by the reader (it isn't stated who actually did the action), and it makes the action in the sentence seem weaker than active voice. It might be tempting to use passive voice when you don't know or don't want to say who or what did something, or you may just be using it without even thinking about it. Some examples of passive voice:

  • These methods are described in more detail in Section 8.
  • Good results were achieved through extensive development of testing techniques.
  • An analysis of the unit was performed and an imperfection was discovered.

The same sentences, changed to active voice:

  • Section 8 describes these methods in more detail.
  • Extensive development of testing techniques showed good results.
  • Analysis of the unit revealed an imperfection.

The passive voice is the curse of engineering writing, you are damned if you use it and damned if you don't. Style manuals tell us to avoid using first person in engineering writing, then they tell us not to use passive voice. What can we do when we are the writing about stuff that we did ourselves, such as experimental results we achieved or reports about trips we participated in?

First of all, the passive voice is unavoidable when writing technical publications, so don't agonize over it when you are writing a paper for the next IMS Symposium. Second, you can always avoid both the passive voice and first person by resorting to the third person. A lab report example:

Passive voice: the receiver unit was torn down in an attempt to find the fault.

First person: I tore down the receiver in an attempt to find the fault.

Third person: the author tore down the receiver in an attempt to find the fault.

A trip report example:

Passive voice: a trip was made to the vendor to discuss schedule issues.

First person: we visited the vendor to discuss schedule issues.

Third person: representatives of our company visited the vendor to discuss schedule.

That gives you three choices for which case to use on your next report. Personally, we prefer the first person here at Microwaves101, rather than resorting to third person, and we don't care a hoot if we accidentally use passive voice. That means that this web site is not a technical report. Here are some suggestions for which cases are acceptable, depending on what type of document you are writing.

  • Technical report or presentation: use passive voice.
  • Trip report: use first person plural.
  • Resume use: first person singular.
  • Statement of work: use third person
  • Proposal: use first person plural ("we") or third person ("our company..."

Avoiding non-words and phrases

Try to use words that exist already, and use them in the way they are meant to be used. It makes communication much easier for everyone. Some words that don't exist (even though you may use them every day):

Alot is not a word. We see a lot of problems with this.

Heighth is not a word, but height is. It is amazing how many mechanical engineers use this word when they speak. Repeat after us, "length, width, height"...

Xerox? This is a company name, not a verb. OK, if you are writing an email to your coworker, go ahead and ask him to Xerox a report. In more formal writing like proposals or presentations it's better discuss photocopies.

Irregardless is not a word, regardless of whether or not you have a PhD.

"Plus-up" is stupid. The phrase "plus-up" was nearly predicted by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-four It is undouble-plus-good that it is used by Aviation Week.

"Flow-down" is used by engineers who create component specifications from system requirements. Sometimes we go the other way, and once in a while some joker tries to use the phrase "flow-up". This makes up throw up. Does anything in the universe flow up?

Think outside [of] the box is already overused. We work in cubes, do you have to keep reminding us?

Commonly misused words

Effect is a noun--you can have a large effect, a small effect, a profound effect.
Affect is a verb--it shows an action that happens to something (errors affected the results; the snow storm affected the commute).

Data can be considered a singular or plural noun. It was not always that way, it used to be only used as the plural of "datum". You would have to say "the data were examined", instead of "the data was examined". Guess what? Data is a word that has been dumbed down to mean both the singular and plural noun, and anyone that doesn't feel that way needs to get over it. This argument is like the stupid argument that January 1, 2001 was the start of the millennium. Anyone who argues that trivial point probably hasn't been invited to a New Year's Eve party in many years.

To assure is to give comfort. The salesman assured us the part would be on time.
To ensure is to make certain that something happens. The safety inspector ensured that the part would not blow up.
To insure is to indemnify against loss.

All squares are rectangles. Not the other way around. Ever see the IDEO video? The commentator actually says "designers are the reason that television screens are square". And we are supposed to be impressed with this pack of Bohemians?

Since refers to passage of time. I've been working in the lab since 7:00 am.
Because denotes cause and effect. I missed the meeting because I was in the lab.

Which versus that is usually caught by Bill Gates's crude spell checker. Which requires a comma in front of it, that does not.

The Principal is the guy that used to call your parents after school (your "pal" is a great way to remember him). If you were like the Unknown editor, you were the principal cause of the problem on the playground. Here at Microwaves101 we teach the principles of microwaves. That is because the Unknown Editor is a very knowledgeable Principal Engineer.

Here is a word that causes problems with microwave engineers. When you mathematically remove a test fixture from measured data, you de-embed it. This is not spelled de-imbed! And data that is not deembedded is not UN-de-embedded, it is embedded data, OK?

"Where we are at" is hillbilly speak for "where we are". Would you say "we are at here", unless you are are intellectually challenged?

A reticle is the pattern that is repeated over and over on a semiconductor wafer. A reticule is the eyepiece that you use in your microscope that has a scale built into it. It is often called a graticule.

Zero-value words

Clear writing means that the reader understands what you've written. After all, that's why you are writing, isn't it? Eliminate unnecessary words and shorten phrases where possible. Break up excessively long sentences. Your reader shouldn’t have to reread a sentence several times to understand it. Most adverbs (words ending in -ly) should be removed because they don't add anything to most sentences. Notably, however, and in fact furthermore, are all words that will make you sound lame.



In fact
If you will
As such
In theory
In reality
It is known that


Upgrading "little" words

Some words will help you appear to have the intellect of a second grader. Put (insert), do (perform), find (determine) pick (select)

When you create a frequency plan, you select the first LO frequency. Hopefully, not while you pick your nose.

Double negatives

Don't say "the performance wasn't bad" when you can say "the performance was good"

Overused Words and Phrases

Cutting-edge technology: what are we making, a Popeil's Vegomatic or a cell-phone amplifier?

Paradigm: no word says "phoney intellect" as well as when you use paradigm.

On the cusp: cusp is a term from geometry. You didn't know that? Stop using it!

Bottom line: use result or effect instead.

State-of-the-art (or even worse, SOA, SOTA): Your crummy experiment was SOA five minutes ago. Get over yourself, or you will be SOL.

Worst-case scenario: no matter how bad you think something can be, someone can probably think of an even worse case. Even by itself, "scenario" is overused.

Emotional and double-entendre words and phrases

Engineering is no place for emotions. Albert Speer would attest to that, if he wasn't enjoying a long dirt nap. Don't use these words and phrases:

  • Hopefully
  • We fear that
  • anxious
  • eager
  • Intimately familiar
  • The diode was biased "hard on"... don't go there.
  • The "main thrust" of our efforts... OK, this takes a dirty mind, but nine out of ten engineers would have that box checked on the reader service card if there was one.

Adjective Dog Pile

What we mean by an adjective dog pile is when you just keep slathering on words in a feeble attempt to create a new superlative. Examples:

Abundantly clear: It’s either clear or it isn’t. As bad as abundantly pregnant.

Quantum leap: A tiny hop for mankind. Definition of quantum: “Any of the very small increments or parcels into which many forms of energy are subdivided.”

Future follow-on: as opposed to a past follow-on?

Almost never: seems like the inverse of almost infinity. Try using "seldom" or "rarely".

Wide variety. Sad commentary. Cruel hoax. Highly effective. Step up. Answer the bell. It goes on and on.

Humor and humility

Engineers often have a dry sense of humor, don't discount using it to make a point. We here at Microwaves101 believe humor has its place: just don't try to be funny when writing IEEE papers or government proposals.

Remember, the penalty for self-love is blindness. You may think you are hot s***. but the rest of us will always be skeptical.

Here is a stupid sentence: "I was very impressed with the way my circuit model fit the measured data". Try: "Figure 1 shows the accuracy of the model to the measured data."

Here is a stupid premise: "Our company is uniquely qualified to do the work
because" ... First of all, there are plenty of companies out there that do the same stuff you do. Second, "unique" doesn't mean that you are the best. Everyone has a unique fingerprint, but we are all created equal, right? So we are all "uniquely qualified to do the work..."

Think you're done now? You still need to check your grammar, spelling, and punctuation!

Author : Brenda