Engineering your best writing

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: an English major and a mechanical engineering major walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Is this some kind of joke?”

Okay, so you’ve probably never heard that one before. You also might not have thought it was all that funny or even all that realistic. Most engineers that I’ve met would be the first to tell you that writing papers is not their thing and that there is no such thing as reading for pleasure.

Even so, an engineer isn’t an illiterate machine, able to process only math and science. In fact, writers and editors could learn a thing or two from engineers. Yes, even the ones who don’t much care for creative writing or crafting a ten-page literary analysis.

Writers, editors, and publishers have a lot to worry about. The publishing process is long and can be complicated. For some, it’s complicated enough to warrant a flowchart.

Terribly long, terribly comprehensive, terribly daunting for any author/editor/publisher. (Source: Mariah Bear, weldonowen.com)
Terribly long, terribly comprehensive, terribly daunting for any author/editor/publisher.
(Source: Mariah Bear, weldonowen.com)

The flowchart is a humorous and largely accurate look into the progression of an idea into a book. It’s also pretty complicated.

For as complicated as engineering may seem to a non-engineer, simplicity is key in an engineering project. Take, for example, the engineering design process. It’s seven steps that should be repeated until the desired product is produced.

The engineering design process isn't just for engineers anymore. Writers, take note. (Source: TeachEngineering)
The engineering design process isn’t just for engineers anymore. Writers and editors, take note.
(Source: TeachEngineering)

For writers, the first five steps of the engineering design process are what should guide your first draft. Think of your first draft as your prototype. The best news is that the first step is easy: if you have an idea that you’re itching to put on paper or have been assigned to complete, you’ve identified a need.

The next step is a little more intensive. Now that you’ve got your idea, it’s time to research it. You’ve got to make sure what you’re writing is original and if you’re writing something academic, you have to make sure you actually have sources to back you up.

JK Rowling's planning spreadsheet for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. See, even the pros make a plan! (Source: JK Rowling)
JK Rowling’s planning spreadsheet for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. See, even the pros make a plan! (Source: JK Rowling)

The third step is the one most of us are used to. Here’s where you start dreaming up scenes, sections, and strategies on how to put everything together. Step number four goes right along with it. Now that you’ve got a whole collection of ideas, you need to come up with a plan. Some writers just use a basic outline while others go a little more in-depth. Other writers totally reject the idea, but hey, writing out a plan worked pretty well for JK Rowling.

Now that you have a plan, you’re ready to move on to step number five. “It’s impossible to perfect your ideas until they’re tangible. Right in front of you,” says Adam Bays, one of my favorite future engineers. He was talking about prototyping a quadcopter frame, but I think it still works for writers. It’s too easy to get worked up about making your writing perfect the first time through. Instead, focus on getting it all out so you can get to the next step.

Step number six is where you start to edit your first draft, your “prototype.” Adam gave me another piece of engineering wisdom that I think is applicable here: “Never trust anything that ‘works right’ the first time.” It’s easy to fall in love with what you’ve already written, but it’s important to accept that some changes will probably need to be made. It’s also a good idea to have someone else look over what you’ve written.

Wisdom from Avatar the Last Airbender. Who says cartoons these days are a waste of time?
Wisdom to live by. (Source: Komic Korra)

The last step in the process is to actually make those changes. I know, taking criticism is hard. Without that criticism or advice from others, it’s hard for any writing to improve. Find what works, find what doesn’t, and begin the cycle once more.

While most engineers probably wouldn’t call themselves experts on writing, there’s a lot to learn from them. The next time you have to write something, I challenge you to think like an engineer. You might just find a new appreciation for the engineering process (minus the complicated physics, of course).

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