The Writing Process: What Engineering Can Teach Us about Writing

P.E. ROWE

 
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You might recognize this guy: he’s Mark Rober, former NASA engineer turned world famous YouTuber. He’s probably best known for incredible creations like his snowball fight machine gun, his robot domino setter-upper, the world’s longest field goal machine, the toughest trampoline ever, and his annual glitter bomb campaign against the porch pirates of America.

 
 

You might be asking yourself, what does Mark Rober have to do with writing?


In addition to being an engineer, Mark regularly teaches engineering courses, and one of the most important things he teaches his students is that every engineering build needs to follow a consistent process. He lays out his basic process in a video he made while building a rock-skipping robot for his nieces and nephews:

 
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And consistently following this process for every build helps Mark and his students to make their very inventive ideas come to fruition in the real world.


Engineering and writing actually have a lot more in common than you might think. They’re both very complex. They both have a host of sub-skills that the engineer or writer needs to master in order to become skilled writers or engineers. And they’re both geared toward creating something—a physical or technological creation in the case of engineering, or a cognitive creation in the form of a document that communicates information in the case of writing.


We got inspired by Mark’s engineering process, which led us to explore how having a consistent process for writing could help writers, and we came up with these five phases of the writing process:

 
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All of these phases in the writing process are critical parts of writing well. Like engineering, writing is a multifaceted skill with a host of sub-skills, nuances, and conventions, and many of these conventions and nuances shift depending on the genre, audience, and writing situation. But understanding the phases in the writing process should help you to always be in control of what you need to do at each point in the process to effectively communicate your ideas in writing, whatever you may be writing.


Let’s take a closer look at what each of these phases entails:

 

Identifying:

Motivation, Writing Situation, and Audience

In most cases, the purpose of writing is to communicate a specific message to an audience for a purpose.


Or, if you’re the writer, another way to put this might be:


  • What am I trying to communicate?

  • To whom?

  • And why?


And what gets written is going to vary tremendously based on the answers to those questions.

 
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A lot of the times you write, the answers to those questions will be laid out for you. For example, if you’re an employee and your boss demands a quarterly report on your department’s progress, you already have the situation identified for you clearly. You’re writing because you were asked to specifically by your boss, and your task is to communicate your department’s progress in a way that will satisfy your boss’s expectations. Similarly, as a student, many if not most of your professors will lay out their expectations for their writing assignments, e.g., you will be writing a four-page essay about a specific topic due on a specific date, and your motivation for writing that essay is to learn the material and do well in the class.


If you’re unsure in the case of audience for your writing, it’s always a good idea to ask somebody who can answer. In the case of the boss and the quarterly progress report, you might want to know whether it’s just for your boss or for other higher-ups in the company to review as well. As a student, it’s always good to know whether you’re writing that essay with the expectation that your professor is the intended audience, or whether you’re writing to a more general audience while the professor grades your writing on your ability to communicate with that other audience. 


In all cases, you stand a much better chance of communicating your message clearly when you have a clear sense of the reason you’re writing, who you’re trying to communicate your message to, and why.


Once you have the answers to these important questions sorted, it’s time to start thinking about how you’ll go about writing the right document for your writing situation.

 

Preparing:

Planning, Thought, and Research

 

Once you’ve identified what you’re writing, who you’re writing to, and why, it’s time to spend some time putting your thoughts together. Writing is ultimately about sharing information that you’ve identified as valuable enough to communicate with others. For this to be successful, it usually takes considerable thought. What this phase in the writing process involves is going to depend largely on what you’re writing. Regardless of whether it’s a quarterly report, essay, or fictional story, every good piece of writing requires an appropriate amount of time in this preparation phase.


This is where you should spend time developing your ideas, doing research, and thinking about the elements to include and exclude, as well as considering how much time or space you have to communicate your ideas to your audience.


Depending on what type of document you’re writing, your preparation might be very different.


If you’re writing a scientific paper, this probably means reading many scientific papers on the topic you’re doing your experiment on. If you’re a news reporter, your research will probably be interviewing witnesses, experts, or public officials overseeing a developing situation.


If you’re writing a proposal or an opinion essay, you should spend considerable time in this phase examining your proposal’s merits or the points of your argument. Use this time to test ideas and challenge your position with as many counterarguments as you can muster so you can strengthen your case by anticipating counterpoints and pitfalls and reassuring your audience that you’ve considered the issues carefully.


There’s no magic formula for how much time you need to prepare for each type of writing. It’ll always be up to the writer to determine what’s appropriate, but it’s fair to say that good writing doesn’t just happen—the writer needs to spend time preparing to write good material.

 

Organizing:

Outlining and Narrative Structure

 

Once you’ve spent time researching what you need to know in order to communicate your ideas with your audience, you need to spend some time considering how you’re going to present those ideas to your audience.


There are two key questions you need to answer when organizing your ideas:


What type of message/story am I trying to convey to my audience?


And:


What order does my information need to be organized into to convey that message?


Because people can only read or listen to one word at a time, you need to figure out in what order you’re going to present your ideas to your audience. All your ideas will be processed in a linear fashion. Thus, one of the keys to good writing is putting your ideas into an order that makes sense to the audience; whether it’s a story, a company report, or a scientific paper, the reader or audience will need to have certain information in a certain order so that they can follow your line of thinking.


You don’t always have to have this part of the process perfectly mapped out before you begin drafting your composition, but it helps to have a solid plan for your draft in advance. This can save you a lot of time in revising your work, and it usually leads to a better draft.


We’ve developed a video on this topic for essays that we think you might find useful. Check out the link in the description if you’d like help organizing your writing:

 
 

Drafting or Composing:

The Writing Part of the Writing Process

 

We’re using the words “Drafting” and “Composing” here to a purpose. This is the part of writing that most people associate with the actual writing—this is you at the keyboard or with a pen in hand sitting down and putting words on the page. But really, every part of this process falls under the umbrella of the larger term “writing.” So we’re calling the writing part of the writing process drafting & composing.


Drafting also has its own connotations though. Sometimes people think of or even call a draft “a rough draft” and writers may use the term draft as an excuse to not be as precise or considered as they could be. Composing also has its own connotations, for instance composing might more readily conjure up images of generating a brilliant musical creation.


Depending on what you’re writing, though, the best way to think about this phase in the writing process is probably as a good first try. The better your draft is the first time, the closer you’ll probably be to a worthy finished product, so it stands to benefit you if you give it your best first try.


For some creative works, the first try may just be the beginning of multiple attempts at the composition that the writer eventually adopts. But for most writing situations the first draft should be a genuine attempt at the piece of writing you’re aiming to produce.

 

Revising:

Substantive Revisions (Major & Minor)
Proofing & Polishing

 

Once you have a good draft in hand, it’s time to make that draft the best possible version of itself it can be. This should usually take advantage of two different types of revision:


The first type of revision we could call substantive revisions. This is the big stuff. Does your draft make sense? Are your major points clear and in an order that makes sense to the audience? Is there any major reorganizing that needs to be done?


In addition to the major substantive elements, what other minor content issues need to be addressed? In an essay, it may be things like claims that need better evidence to support them or paragraphs that need topic sentences to make their point to the reader more clearly. In a story it may be making a character’s motivations more evident or believable.


In any case, this first category of revisions will almost always benefit from input from a trusted reader, editor, or reviewer. As the writer, you usually know what you’re trying to convey to your audience. But one of the most difficult aspects of writing is that what you intend to say and what the reader interprets from your words isn’t always the same thing. A second or even a third set of eyes can help us to catch any places where these gaps in meaning may be occurring. Try to get the best possible feedback you can and revise accordingly. When your writing is at its best, it’s time for the final step.


Now it’s time to polish your writing. This is the place where you should be correcting spelling and grammar, making sure your punctuation is in the right place, checking your citations (if applicable), and reviewing your formatting to make sure your document is as pretty as can be .

 

The Recursive (non-linear) Nature of the Writing Process

 

It’s important to remember along the way that this process isn’t always going to be consistently linear. Quite often when you’re drafting, you may notice a gap in your research that you hadn’t considered when you were preparing. This means that at some point, maybe then, maybe later, you’ll have to go back into the preparing phase and fill that gap by researching some more. And almost always when you’re revising, you’ll end up composing new elements of your writing. Writing is too complex an activity for it to always be a direct straight-line process. However, understanding the writing process will help guide you.

 
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Similar to an ambitious engineering project, having a consistent process for writing any type of document will help you to be a more consistent, confident, and capable writer. And knowing and following this process each time you write will help you to create writing that you’re excited to share with your audience, whoever that may be. So thanks to Mark for sharing his Engineering process and inspiring us to outline this writing process, which we hope will help you to create better writing whenever you set your mind to sharing your ideas with others.