Sam Holstein

To The Engineer Who Wants To Write

Engineers tend to think of writing as free form enterprise, without rules, especially when you consider the ruleless wasteland is the English language. Engineers who are learning to write treat writing as a departure from their logical, rule-abiding world to one of free-form association, do-what-you-want excitement, and ‘creativity.’

The truth is writing has rules. Lots of rules.

Admittedly, the rules for writing are inscrutable. No one person can say with authority “this is writing” or “ that is writing.” People have claimed as writing everything from the unwieldy Ulysses to the scribbling on a bathroom stall. But the complexity of the rules does not mean there are no rules. Without rules, writing would make no sense. Adding a few well-placed words to a barebones paragraph makes it a delight to read. Add too many adjectives, adverbs, and punctuation marks, though, and you will reduce it to gibberish.

The rules of writing are challenging enough to elude even experienced writers — which is great for an engineer. An engineer’s mind is trained to discovering, following and creating the right rules for creating excellent products. The operating principles of the English language are more complex than all but the most complicated software programs, and its exceptions are innumerable, giving the engineer plenty to study. The engineer usually regards writing as a foray into the wild lands of creativity, when in reality writing is a craft requiring close study of its rules.

“Most great writers break the rules,” you say. Some writers do. The greatest writers among us are almost all rule-breakers. Wallace uses run-on sentences so long they are sometimes paragraphs unto themselves. Coehlo can’t bring himself to write a sentence beyond the comprehension of a five-year-old. Great writers don’t break just any rules, though. Great writers break only a few of the many rules and strategically pick which rules to break in service of a greater artistic image. You have to know the rules before you can break the rules. Poor writers, on the other hand, break most of the rules without realizing there are rules at all. As an engineer who wants to write, your job is to learn these rules and choose which ones to break for your purposes.

“But what about style? If writing is nothing but following a bunch of rules, where does the art come in?”

Style is not something you consciously control. Style is a function of who you are, like personality. It is unlikely Wallace ever sat down and said to himself ‘I will now write extremely long winding sentences to cultivate my style.’ Wallace writes in such tremendously long sentences because he thinks in such tremendously long sentences. Nor did Coehlo sit down and say to himself ‘I will write using only a child’s vocabulary.’ To him, that’s just the way the story needed to be told. Students often complain about assignments to ‘interpret’ an author precisely because authors do not sit down and intend to write in the style that they do. If you worry about your ‘style’ and make changes to your writing to enhance it, all you will do is drive you further away from it.

To the engineer who wants to write — don’t think of writing as a freeform, follow-your-heart enterprise. It is not, and you’re not much good at anyway. Think of writing like engineering. Define what you want your article to communicate, then use the rules of the writing trade to deliver. You will find your style emerges along the way.