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Engineers Can Write!

Thoughts on Writing from Contemporary Literary Engineers

IEEE-USA E-Books Engineers Can Write! Thoughts on Writing from Contemporary Literary Engineers Tom Moran

Tom Moran

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Table Of Contents

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Engineers Can’t Write!

 

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Stalin’s Engineers of the Soul .

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Creating a Product

 

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A Familiar Process

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Getting Better (Much Better) .

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Integral to the Profession .

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Engineers Can Write! .

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Literary Engineers.

 

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Notes .

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EngInEErS CAn WrITE!

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Engineers Can’t Write!

O lean is a small city, barely 20,000 inhabitants huddled together beside the Allegheny River on the southern edge of New York state. Like most of western New York, Olean has seen

better times and empty storefronts with For Rent signs papered over their windows occupy many of the old brick buildings along the city’s main drag, Union Street. At the rear of the pub-

lic library, two blocks off Union, welded abstract metal sculptures have been pushed up against the walls of a small art gallery to make space for the crowd that has arrived to listen as David Poyer talks about growing up in nearby Bradford, just across the state line in Pennsylvania, jokes about the area’s cruel winters, and reads from his latest novel.

Poyer is a best-selling author who writes what is considered genre fiction. In addition to thrill- ers set in a fictional geography that resembles Olean and Bradford and the other small towns of the Allegheny region, he has written four underwater adventures, and is best known for a series of novels that follow naval officer Dan Lenson as he faces a succession of ever mount- ing threats to his life and career. Poyer has been hailed as the best living American writer of naval fiction and his work has been compared favorably with masters of the sea novel like Patrick O’Brian and C.S. Forrester.

Poyer’s work also includes three historical novels based on naval actions during the American Civil War. For the most recent one, a tale centered on the battle between the ironclads Moni- tor and Merrimack, his research included going over the original blueprints for both vessels, reading noted engineer John Ericsson’s notes on the Monitor’s design, and studying ships’ logs and crew diaries. The story is carried forward on a foundation of mid-nineteenth century steam, mechanical, and military technology and Poyer considers it his most technical book. “They say,” he tells the audience at the library, “that engineers can’t write.” He pauses for a moment to let the thought sink in, shakes his head to assure the crowd he does not believe a word of it, and begins to read from his novel.

Poyer, a graduate of the U.S.Naval Academy, belies any notion that engineers one and all can’t write. “We studied what was called naval engineering,” he recalls, “which is basically systems engineering with a focus on things like naval architecture, structures, systems, and things that would fit us for a career at sea.” The Navy gave him plenty of opportunities to hone his engineering skills, installing and debugging missile systems, testing prototype sonar systems, devising strategies to counter nuclear, bacteriological and chemical attacks, and taking part in a staggering number of training and support missions.

The refrain that Poyer echoed at the library, the claim that engineers can’t write, is a familiar one. When universities survey employers of their engineering graduates, writing and commu- nication skills are often high on the list of areas needing improvement. A number of training firms and independent contractors are able to stay quite busy offering short courses in writing for the staff of engineering firms, large and small. It could be argued that the profession of technical writing exists, at least in part, from a lack of trust in the writing prowess of engineers. And engineers, themselves, have openly admitted their struggles with writing.

EngInEErS CAn WrITE!

Henry Petroski, a professor of civil engineering at Duke University whose writing success and skill have earned him the accolade “poet laureate of technology”, tells a story of how after his first book, To Engineer is Human, was published, his wife encountered an English professor as she was leaving a local supermarket. “Why don’t you admit it?” the man asked her. “You wrote that book, didn’t you?” He repeated the charge several times and Petroski’s wife, who is an accomplished writer herself, was sure the man was dead serious. For that English professor, the idea that an engineer could write, and write well, was preposterous.

There are engineers who are poor writers, of course. For many English is not their first, possibly not even their second language. Others struggle with the elusive nature of language, finding far more comfort with mathematics, engineering formulas, laboratory exercises, and computer simulations than with gerunds, appositives and semi-colons. And some decline to invest effort in gaining proficiency with written language, feeling, perhaps, that their success will arise from solving problems, not from writing about them.

Many engineers, however, are excellent writers, adroit at taking on technology’s toughest challenges and using language to clearly and cogently describe what they have learned. From Vitruvius’s De Architectura, Frontius’s The Aqueducts of Rome, and Agricola’s De Re Metallica to Rankine’s Steam Engine and Herbert Hoover’s Principles of Mining, engineering’s history has been marked by important works written clearly and competently by engineers. In the last half of the 20th Century, well crafted books like Samuel Florman’s The Existential Pleasures of Engineering and The Introspective Engineer gave a broad audience an appreciation of engineers and engineering. Henry Petroski’s books continue to do the same today.

Readers of writing about engineering topics, as with nearly all non-fiction, generally choose a book because of its content. They want to know more about the subject matter and may be willing, if they must, to abide with writing that is functional although possibly less than stellar in order to gain that knowledge. In the world of creative literature the writing itself is central. Good writers, in fact great writers, have been acclaimed where the content – the plot, the meaning, the events described – may be opaque, elusive or even altogether missing. Even in genre writing, where story is paramount, a stylish writer can find praise and a happy readership with only the slimmest of plots.

In the following pages you will meet some engineers, engineers of every stripe, who are also award winning and much lauded writers of poems, short stories and novels. Like David Poyer, each of these engineers has been successful in the world of literature and their competence with language undermines any claims that engineers can’t write. They will explore the differences and similarities found within writing and engineering, offer some thoughts on how engineers can conceptualize their writing to improve their reports, articles, proposals and other documents, and, hopefully, show why engineers, one and all, should be able to write and write very well.

EngInEErS CAn WrITE!

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Stalin’s Engineers Of The Soul

L ate in October 1932, fifty prominent soviet writers gathered at the Moscow home of Maxim Gorky, a famed Russian social realist author. Josef Stalin, the Russian Communist

leader, attended the event and praised the writers. “I raise my glass to you,” he said in a toast,

“writers, engineers of the soul.”

This was, of course, Stalin’s attempt to show the writers that he considered them important workers, and perhaps propagandists, as he began what was to be a brutal reshaping of Russia’s agricultural, industrial and social fabric. Engineers of the soul might be a stretch but there is no doubt that the work of many fine poets and novelists is able to evoke deep responses from its readers, bringing new appreciations, understandings and visions of our times, our culture and our lives. That, of course, is the task of great literature. And, it might be argued, that most readers will find those results highly useful, a hallmark of good engineering.

Engineers, it turns out, have made some indelible marks in the literary world. Fydor Dos- teovsky, the great Russian novelist, started his career as a military engineer. Robert Louis Stevenson, known for adventure novels like Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, came from a family of distinguished engineers, helped his father construct lighthouses on treacherous isles off the coast of Scotland, and studied engineering before his career veered off towards law and eventually writing. Essayist and poet Henry David Thoreau was a surveyor and inventor who appended the title “civil engineer” when he signed his name.

The Austrian novelist Robert Musil, winner of Germany’s prestigious Kleist Award for literature in 1923, received his diploma (staatsprüfung) in engineering from the German Technical Insti- tute in Brno. Carlo Emilio Gadda, an Italian engineer, practiced in Italy and Argentina before turning to writing in 1935, and is best known for two books that have been translated into Eng- lish, Acquainted with Grief and The Awful Mess on Vis Merluna. Freeman Crofts, an accom- plished Irish railway engineer, wrote more than 30 mystery novels; those featuring his character Lieutenant French were extremely popular during the 1930s and 1940s.

Eric Ambler, an engineer for Edison Swan Electric in England, found great success writing excit- ing tales involving con-artists and espionage such as The Mask of Dimitrios, the Edgar winning The Light of Day (filmed as Topkapi) and The Levanter. During World War II a pair of engineers who also wrote science fiction, Robert Heinlein and L. Sprague DeCamp, worked together at the Naval Shipyard in Philadelphia. Heinlein, a graduate of the Naval Academy, is best known for his novel Stranger in a Strange Land. DeCamp, an electrical engineering graduate of Cal Tech, wrote award-winning stories of time travel and adventure, including several books star- ring a character called Conan the Barbarian.

EngInEErS CAn WrITE!

Perhaps the most widely known engineer writer of the modern era was Nevil Shute, author of On the Beach, a story of apocalyptic nuclear conflict that was a best seller during the Cold War and made into a popular film that starred Gregory Peck and Rita Hayworth. Shute graduated from Oxford and worked for de Havilland aircraft before forming his own aerospace company, Airspeed. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society for his advances in the design of aircraft landing gear and the title of his autobiography, Slide Rule, clearly reveals Shute’s passion for engineering.

Two top American writers of wild, fanciful, and highly creative fiction, Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon, although never true engineers are both often associated with engineering. Even the noted American writer Norman Mailer, famed for novels like The Naked and the Dead and non-fiction such as The Executioner’s Song, earned an aeronautical engineering degree from Harvard. The literary world captured Mailer’s attention while he was in college and it is doubtful he ever seriously considered a career in engineering.

Many other engineers have distinguished themselves as writers, some by creating works of fiction and poetry, many more by writing memoirs, histories, guidebooks, texts, and other works of non-fiction. These writers may not have received the enduring acclaim of Dostoevsky or Mailer, but each has demonstrated that engineers are quite capable of using language to evoke emotion, tell riveting stories, paint vivid descriptions, argue with intelligence and persuasiveness, help readers grasp complex ideas, and do all of the other things that can be accomplished with great writing. Engineers of the soul, perhaps not, but engineers who can write, most certainly.

EngInEErS CAn WrITE!

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Creating A Product

C ontemporary submarines are complex nuclear powered machines, longer than a football field, capable of operating over a thousand feet below the ocean’s surface, their range

limited only by the amount of food kept aboard. One of David Poyer’s tasks as an engineer at the Newport News Shipyard involved submarine design. “Before a ship was turned over to the Navy, all the engineers who designed it would take it out. We would take it to the Navy test depth and then we would take it a specified percentage past that depth, deeper than the Navy would ever be allowed to take it,” Poyer recalls. “Those were exciting little cruises. They kept us honest. So you can see we checked out all our calculations many times.” Exciting little cruises, indeed!

For Poyer and the other engineers aboard during those test cruises, the submarine was a product, the result of years of development and production effort. Poyer pictures his writing the same way. “Any piece of written work is essentially a machine created to convey informa- tion,” he explains. “Basically, you are building a machine that will communicate from one mind to another. The machine has to be designed with the same engineering principles we use in designing any kind of system. It has to do its job. It does it efficiently. It does it elegantly without any unneeded parts.”

Poyer now teaches in the graduate writing program at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania where he uses tools and techniques borrowed from engineering to help young novelists create well- designed written “machines.” He scrawls flow charts on the board in his classroom to depict plot development. He marks off the grid of a matrix and fills the cells with the names of a story’s characters, their traits and relationships. “You are constructing a very complicated piece of prose with many characters and lots of things happening. If you don’t clarify it in your mind in some manner, you will get lost.” It is, Poyer admits, a very right brain approach to writing, one that causes his colleagues who teach poetry to grimace when they step into his classroom. But, one that he finds very effective. “If you get lost,” Poyer tells the writers, “God help your reader.”

When Brad Henderson decided he wanted to try his hand at writing a novel, he took a systems engineering approach. First he wrote capsule biographies of all the characters he expected to use in the story. Then he taped together 8½ by 11 sheets of paper to form a blueprint-sized sheet on which he drew a graph to illustrate the plot line. Henderson, then a mechanical engineer at the Parker Hannifin Corporation designing fluid control devices, had never written anything as ambitious before. “I knew I needed a road map, a visual map of where I wanted to go in my writing,” he explains. “I derived it all independently, using engineering logic.” The result was a product, his first novel, Drums.

EngInEErS CAn WrITE!

In the opening chapter of his book Beyond Engineering, Henry Petroski compares the writing

of essays and stories to bridge building. A writer was “a designer of a bridge of words” whose work must answer readers’ questions and demonstrate the “soundness of his metaphorical

Like a sturdy, load-carrying bridge, Petroski points out, an essay, poem, novel or story

evolves from a process that is remarkably similar to elements of engineering.

It is not hard to see how professional writers might view their novels and books of stories and poems as products. It is what they do, create those products. But the concept of written products is equally applicable to the workplace communication and technical writing expected of engineers. Engineering documents are created to fulfill a need and precipitate some action on the part of their readers. Instructions and procedures ensure that test results will be meaningful and production lines run safely and efficiently. Specifications define and control projects and performance. Reports bring corrective measures, approvals, and follow on efforts. Proposals generate new business and changes in designs and processes. Technical articles lead to new insights and ideas. These written products may be short lived, ephemeral in that sense, but their results are contracts, statements of work, new opportunities, and changes with great impacts and lasting importance.

bridge.”

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Engineers who are able to view these workplace documents as products, not unlike the technical ones to which they apply their technological skills, will recognize the important and often-quite valuable functions their writing must perform. With that perspective they will cease to think of writing as an alien task, superfluous, unconnected to their experience and needs. Instead, they will immediately recognize the importance of applying themselves and their skills to make those written products as well engineered as possible.

EngInEErS CAn WrITE!

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A Familiar Process

K lingon warriors, a bright orange carrot, a pirate the spitting image of Captain Jack Sparrow, an assortment of ashen vampires, and a two-headed alien stroll past a long line snaking

through the halls and corridors of the hotel hosting Balticon, a popular science fiction conven- tion held each year in Baltimore. Gene Wolfe, an award-winning writer of more than 50 science fiction and fantasy books, sits behind a table at the front of the line where he chats briefly with the fans inching past him and autographs the stacks of books they push towards him.

Wolfe is a renowned writer of fantasy fiction who was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2003. But he is also a mechanical engineer and among the accomplishments of his long career was designing and developing production equipment to cook Pringles potato snacks when Proctor & Gamble introduced that product. As an engineer his projects usually started with a preliminary design. As a writer his beginnings are first drafts.

“The main thing on the first draft is to get everything down,” Wolfe says. “Not all the details but who the characters are and what events are happening in the story. The second draft is where you try to make it a whole lot better, adding detail, ordering things, giving attention to the things that should get more attention, giving less attention to the things that should get less attention.” Wolfe’s stories of fantasy worlds go through many revisions, often as many as six drafts. His novel the Head of Cerebus was the result of eight drafts. “That is why it is a good book. You have to have patience.”

The functional products of writing, whether the novels, stories and poems that Wolfe and the other engineers introduced here create, or the proposals, reports, and specifications that come from the work of most engineers, don’t spring to life in a sudden fit of creative energy. They

evolve through an analytical process that includes planning, creating a first draft and refining

it until the final written product is acceptable. That process should not seem unusual to

engineers who are familiar with and play important roles in very similar processes used to develop new products and technologies. New products, whether they are automobiles,

satellite antennas, radar units or software packages, follow a path from initial concept through

a sequence of preliminary designs, engineering models, design reviews, prototyping, and

numerous levels of testing and acceptance. Writing, good writing that is, follows an analogous

evolutionary path.

Aileen Schumacher had no idea how to write a novel. She had read many mysteries, enjoyed them greatly, and decided she would try her hand at creating a mystery with an engineer as a protagonist. “I just couldn’t understand how one day you could be finished and have a whole book,” said Schumacher, a civil engineer and partner, with her husband, in a Florida engineer- ing firm. “I had an idea for the plot and the characters, and I outlined the book with a one page synopsis of what had to be discovered and what had to happen in each chapter. That really saved me.” Following that outline, she made a first cut at writing each chapter, one after the other, until she eventually had finished a rough draft of more than 300 pages. “That outline got me through that first book,” Schumacher says. “I would not have known how to do it without it. That was the engineering in me too, the quantitative guide to how I was going to write this book.”

EngInEErS CAn WrITE!

Outlines, in writing, act as detailed specifications, establishing limits, goals, expectations, setting the standards as to how each section of writing should perform. Certainly that is how Schumacher used hers in grinding out the initial version of what would become Engineered for Murder, the first of four novels featuring Tory Travers, a structural engineer whose curiosity and technical knowhow helps unravel a variety of mysterious and quite dangerous enigmas.

Outlines, of course, are not restricted to helping novelists keep their plots on track. They are important tools that aid in the design of an effective structure for most workplace writing. Usually done informally with little attention to grammar and spelling, often scribbled on a piece of scratch paper or the back of an envelope, preparation of outlines is an analytic process. They establish a sequence that optimizes the rhetorical flow of the information that must be communicated. That process forces writers to organize their thoughts into clear, cogent patterns that their readers will understand and relate to and that will act as a skeleton for the writing that will follow. Much like specifications and blueprints, effective outlines ensure that nothing important is omitted and nothing irrelevant is included as they guide engineers who must hammer out the first drafts of technical articles, reports, and proposals.

Engineering designs take on form, shape and functionality as engineering models, early prototypes, and pre-alpha and alpha releases are developed. Those first manifestations of the designs provide an opportunity to test, analyze and improve the designs and the products. Written first drafts offer the same opportunity. “Whether it is a novel or short stories, the problem is to come up with something, to actually get the first draft down. Then you look at it, try to figure out what the problems are, and revise those out,” Nick Arvin says. In 2006 the American Academy of Arts and Letters named Arvin, a mechanical engineer, the recipient of its Rosenthal Family Foundation award for his first novel Articles of War. “Putting a prototype together and discovering that you have problems with it, then revising your design and seeing what the problems with the new version are, that is very similar in my mind to the process of revision in writing.”

In novels like Snow Angels, The Good Wife, and Songs for the Missing, writer Stewart O’Nan takes readers so deeply into the lives of his characters that the fictional men and women seem as real as friends, neighbors and family. “I think the biggest influence engineering has had on my writing is the continual insistence on comparing what I’m thinking about to how the real world actually works. What would REALLY happen?” asks O’Nan, who after receiving his degree in aerospace engineering worked as a test engineer at Grumman Aviation. “In engi- neering, you make several tries at a solution that will hold up to the laws of the real world, and when you find one, you test it,” O’Nan points out. “What I’ve just written or am about to write can’t just sound good, it has to pass a reality test.”

Testing is integral to engineering. Tests are used to evaluate the properties of materials, de- termine the performance of systems, and find the cause of operational problems. Writers test their writing each time they go over what they have created, comparing what they find to their expectations on every level. O’Nan asks himself if the writing seems real. Other novelists will ask themselves if what they see is exciting or moving or carries the emotional tone they want their readers to experience. They will listen for missed beats in the rhythm of their words, check that the dialog and actions they have given their characters are believable, and question the need for descriptive passages, flashbacks, dream sequences, and every other component of their work.

EngInEErS CAn WrITE!

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“The best (only?) way to become a better writer is by reviewing your own writing with a critical eye and continually asking yourself, ‘Is this what I really meant to say?’”, George Saunders, a graduate of the Colorado School of Mines says. “By doing this on a line-by-line, and even word- by-word, basis, incorrect grammatical constructions, poor word choices, logical inconsistencies, cliches, and redundancies become apparent. Many students mistakenly believe that the first draft of a piece of writing is the final draft.” After graduation, Saunders worked as a geophysi- cal engineer in Sumatra where he ran seismic tests to locate possible petroleum fields. In 2005 he was awarded a prestigious McArthur Foundation Fellowship for his writing. “In fact, a first draft should be viewed as the starting point of an alchemical process: the transmutation of something worthless into something of great value.”

Fiction is not the only writing that undergoes such careful scrutiny by its writers. Poets and

writers of non-fiction are equally critical when looking at their work. “I think that is what makes

a good writer,” Henry Petroski says. “Being able to see how something is not going right. You learn to self correct, you learn to abandon.”

Sometimes the self-criticism can very harsh and the sense of abandonment overwhelming. Nick Arvin, as with these other engineer writers, has taken stories through several drafts before deciding that something was not working and his efforts could not be salvaged. “It is a lot of hours down the drain,” Arvin admits. “The lesson is to try not to think of that as failure per se, but just as a necessary part of the process. As a writer you get all sorts of ideas, you have to work through them and maybe what you come up with out of those ideas isn’t something that is publishable. That’s ok. There are always more ideas coming.”

Some ideas may turn out to be dead ends, some may require huge rewrites and some may slowly take shape and with effort grow to become pieces of writing that work. The process is clearly an iterative one, each test or reading leading to changes that result in an

improved product that will itself be subjected to the scrutiny and verification of another critical reading. Instead of the succession of design reviews and acceptance testing cycles found in engineering projects, a work breakdown schedules (WBS) for a written project would depict

a cycle of reviews and editing and rewrites until the final piece is approved and released to find its readers.

Sometimes the process involves, as Gene Wolfe noted earlier, a lot of cycles. Karl Iagnemma, author of a very-well received collection of short stories, On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction, and a novel, The Expeditions, is a robotics engineer at MIT. He admits to being an obsessive rewriter. “The pole that I operate from in the rewriting process is improving points of weakness,” he says. “I tend to be an expander rather than a condenser. The novels that I have finished, all of the chapters have had 20 or 30 drafts. It is that continual goal to get it exactly right.”

Design reviews and testing for technical products usually involve external reviewers, often customers, independent testing labs, typical end users, clients, or consultants who may offer fresh perspectives and insights on the product or system being reviewed. When professional writers sense they have gone as far as they can using their own critical eyes, they will look to have others critique the work from a fresh perspective. David Poyer turns to his wife Lenore, a writer herself, for comments and suggestions. Others go to friends they trust or members of a writing group. Eventually their work is passed on to literary agents and eventually the editors at publishing houses for more reviews, more scrutiny, more tests, more feedback.

EngInEErS CAn WrITE!

When Henry Petroski first started writing for nationally respected newspapers and magazines he discovered that he was working with professional editors who went over his writing very, very carefully. He would find himself on the telephone talking with an editor about a word

choice he had made or a phrase he had constructed, exploring exactly how well it fulfilled its mission in his article. “I loved that because it was so analytical. It taught me so much,” Petroski says, likening the process to a feedback loop. “I won’t say that I loved to make mistakes but whenever I made a mistake and it has been pointed out to me, I have learned something and I hope I’ve never made that mistake again. It made me realize that there are

other things like that that I may be doing wrong, I am all for it. I think it is very, very helpful.”

Brad Henderson first learned the value of this type of feedback when his father, an engineer, would review his early writing for school, showing him where he had made mistakes, indicating

changes he might make to strengthen the piece.

my father as an editor, that was the most valuable thing for me,” Henderson says. “It helped me recognize that writing was hard, that writing is tinkering at the sentence level, raising the bar, subjecting your writing to severe criticism, and then being willing to make the changes.”

That process, it turns out, is very much like engineering. “In real world engineering problems you have some known conditions, you have some question marks, you have some desired outcomes, you set a course, you solve the problem in motion and you deal with and resolve unknowns as they come up,” Henderson says. “Sometimes you have to resolve them by making assumptions. To me that is very much like writing a poem, writing a novel. It is an analytical process. Part of it is cold-hard calculus-based and part of it is an act of faith. It is both. It is both working together.”

The process of reviewing and testing writing and then improving it through rewriting is equally valid for engineers who must do workplace writing and provides a process for making sure that technical communication is clear, accurate and effective. The poor writing sometimes attributed to engineers may well come from those who either don’t take the time or effort to give their work a critical eye or haven’t developed the tools to evaluate and troubleshoot their writing. It is important that the engineers make the effort to develop a sharp critical eye for the proposals, reports, specifications, work statements and other writing they must do. When they have honed those critical facilities and take the time to use them, they will discover the same satisfaction that comes to the engineer novelists, short story writers and poets when the alchemical process that George Saunders alluded to turns their efforts into metaphorical gold.

So in that sense, if that is negative feedback,

“It was that editorial process, working with

EngInEErS CAn WrITE!

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getting Better (Much Better)

B rad Henderson loved engineering school. “It was almost addictive,” he recalls. “It was pure learning at high speed and at a high level. I loved it.” In his senior year, Henderson

was assigned to a student team working on a design project for FMC, a defense contractor. FMC engineers evaluated the students’ design, test results and prototype for the required system during intense reviews at the company’s San Jose, California, facility. “I found out in that experience that engineering is not a game, it is real,” Henderson recalls. “At the end of the road there are people who are counting on you to make sure something works, that it is maintainable and that it does not fail.”

If we accept that writing must also deliver a product that works and does not fail in its mission, how is the skill acquired to assure that result. Becoming a good writer takes work. Usually lots of it. When David Poyer teaches writing he is always taken by how mystical his students think the writing process is. “They just don’t understand the amount of work that a book takes. They think it is creative and a lightning bolt strikes you and you write it down and that’s the way it is forever after. I think they watched Dr. Zhivago too much.”

Although Omar Sharif, playing acclaimed poet Dr. Yuri Zhivago in the 1965 film, is only once seen actually sitting down to write for a few seconds in the more than three hour long epic, most writers realize that skill in writing effectively only comes through hard work. “It’s really not about having fun,” Nick Arvin says. “It is something that by investing as much of myself into it as possible, I gain a great deal out of it in terms of satisfaction, in terms of learning. I do like that process and it is frustrating sometimes and agonizing sometimes, but it is also very rewarding.”

Much of that effort involves practicing writing and rewriting, learning how to recognize weak spots in your own writing and taking the needed corrective actions. Novelist and poets learn to do that, of course. So, too, must engineers as they create reports and specifications, proposals and procedures. Nick Arvin’s second novel – soon to be published – is based on his work as a forensic engineer in Denver, analyzing deformation and skid patterns to reconstruct what hap- pened in automobile accidents. As the firm he worked for began to hire new engineers, young graduates, Arvin noticed something. “When they first came in, they were just terrible writers,” he recalls. “Misspelling things, their grammar was all wrong. I’ve always thought that a big part of the problem was that they never read much and so had never built up any intuition for even basic things, like the function of the quotation marks and proper sentence structure. To get a good sense of how our language can flow, how to write a clear sentence, the most important thing is just to read a lot and develop an instinct for that kind of thing.”

Robert Grossbach, author of a dozen novels including A Shortage of Engineers, agrees. “I think the best way to learn to write decent technical prose is to read good material,” he says. Grossbach, an electrical engineer and vice-president of a microwave manufacturing firm admits that he may sound like an old man grousing. “It’s becoming progressively more difficult to find such material, in part because of a general decline in the standards for everything, but also the great technological influx of non-native-English speakers. But there are still large numbers of excellent publications -different for each engineering discipline - that can serve as examples.”

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Benjamin Franklin claimed that he honed his writing skill by studying the work of writers he admired and then trying to rewrite the pieces himself, duplicating and possibly improving what he had read. He would do this over and over until he felt he had mastered the work. Gene Wolfe, whose first stories were written for a campus literary magazine at Texas A&M where he majored in engineering, tried that method himself, emulating the Irish fantasy master Lord Dunsany. Wolfe recommends the method to other writers but when he tried it on students in writing seminars, he met with less than stellar success. “The results were pathetic,” he ad- mits. “I don’t think there was a D- in the bunch.” He read a short story aloud to the class and had students repeatedly read it to the class until everyone said they understood and knew the plot. Then they tried it. Everyone had mangled the story. “They had been listening but they had been listening as readers,” Wolfe explains. “They weren’t hearing what was being read as writers and it was not something they could recreate on their own. Or even come close to recreating.”

Franklin’s method may be a bit dated and labor intensive for helping contemporary engineers improve their writing, but reading, and in particular reading from a writer’s perspective, will certainly help. Engineers typically read to grasp the content, to glean what is important to them and their field. If they take a few extra moments to look at the same material and un- derstand what the authors did to make the piece successful, or not, as the case may be, that small amount of time will pay tremendous dividends when analyzing their own first and second drafts. When a report is particularly interesting or a proposal compelling, they should go over the pages again to see what choices the authors made, how they organized the material, what transition devices moved the reader from one section to another, how sentences were structured to keep the material from slowing down, what words were selected to help clarify complex concepts. That process, reading and thinking as a writer and an engineer, develops models, good models, that can be called upon when faced with writing challenges in the future.

Most of us developed at least basic skills as we practiced our writing and took literature and writing classes that led us from Dick and Jane readers to university courses in technical writing and composition. Like the motor skills and balance needed to ride a bicycle, much of what we learned about writing has stayed with us and allowed us to write passable sentences and avoid common mistakes with commas and semi-colons. But that is, unfortunately, not universally true.

How might engineers, in particular young engineering students, improve their writing? “The first step is to acquire capability in basic English high-school-level prose,” Robert Grossbach offers. “This may sound insufferably snotty, but I think many engineers do not reach that point. I’m referring to run-on sentences, gross misspellings, absent paragraphing, eye-opening grammatical errors, and scattered organization. I’ve seen this from interns and corporate Chief Technology Officers.”

With an understanding of those basics, the next step is clearly practice. “You can learn to write if you try to make everything you write – everything! – as good as you can,” Gene Wolfe suggested. “Everything you’ve got to write, and everything you ought to write, is a chance to practice. Never waste one.”

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Nick Arvin echoes that sentiment, offering that engineering instructors need to ask their stu- dents to write more. “Make the students do it, “because that’s the only way that they will feel it and prioritize it. Make them write up their problem set results in a report format,” Arvin offered. “Make them give presentations. Some of this, I’m sure, the instructors would rather avoid because it makes grading more subjective. But, you know what, that’s life. I suspect it would be healthy to inject a little more ambiguity into the engineering curriculum.”

That ambiguity may, however, be part of the problem that engineers and engineering students have faced as they learned to write. Brad Henderson now teaches technical writing classes for engineers at the University of California’s Davis campus. “By the time they get to my class they are so beaten down as to their own potential as writers that they don’t even care anymore,” Henderson says. “It’s all because, while they are brilliant chemical engineers, they are not very good at writing a literary essay that explores the value of tea and crumpets as a metaphor in writing by Proust. Who cares. They don’t care.”

Henderson, too, sees a need for students to get more writing practice and instruction within their disciplines. He feels there is a profound difference in the pedagogy of English and that of engineering education, a difference that leads to difficulties for students who gravitate toward engineering studies. “It is in vogue to pass over the fundamentals and launch students at a very early age into the holistic writing process,” Henderson says. “The idea is that the fun- damentals of how to write a sentence will be absorbed by little insights and little on-demand discussions with teachers about nouns and verbs, and at some point in time the light will go on and everything will come together. Well, sadly that rarely happens.” Not only does the light not shine brightly, Henderson feels that most engineers-to-be recognize the failings of the methodology immediately. “The engineering mind desperately wants somebody to sit down and share the fundamentals with it, to start at the beginning. The engineering mind also craves to know what the evaluation criteria are. There is a lot of evaluation in the letters where the criteria are highly obscure and vague, if defined at all.”

Differences are also apparent to poet Richard Gabriel. “Engineers care about stuff,” Gabriel, a distinguished engineer at IBM Research Labs, says. “Stuff is a technical term where I come from. It means the actual components, the actual transistors, the actual gears, the actual what- ever it is.” Gabriel, whose current work is with very large scale computing systems, has writ- ten at least one poem every day for the last ten years, and a book of his poetry was published in 2001. “Writers view words and paragraphs and lines and stanzas as stuff. Maybe seeing that as stuff is what engineers need to do in order to become proficient at writing. Engineers care about elegance and beauty. Good design versus bad. They have a very strong sense of that. All of that is also central to writing. So you would think engineers would be good at it. But it isn’t their stuff.”

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Understanding the shared sense of “stuff”, that design, problem-solving, testing, corrective ac- tion and other concepts are similarly applied in both engineering and writing, can help engineers and engineering students look at their writing in a different light, see it as just an extension of the skills they apply in the technical arena. Then, hopefully, they will apply the effort that is needed to gain writing skill, reading, working to improve their critical eye, practicing and honing their writing, rewriting and editing skills.

Then, possibly, they will feel the same sense of accomplishment that comes to engineer writ- ers like George Saunders when they see the results of their hard work taking shape. “It is something that is deep and pleasurable,” Saunders says. “You are making something incre- mentally better every day. As you arrange it and rearrange it and cut it, you start to see an internal logic you hadn’t seen before. That is satisfying.”

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Integral to the Profession

H omer Hickam wears a sage green flight jacket with a large blue NASA patch sewn across the front. His khaki pants have a sharp crease, a bit of sun glints off the metal frames

of his dark glasses. “We are going ahead,” Hickam tells the crowd gathered around the welcoming stage for the annual October Sky celebration, a day-long festival to celebrate the tiny West Virginia town where the stories that unfolded in Hickam’s popular memoir, Rocket Boys, took place. “Right now, whether you know it or not, in Huntsville, Alabama, where I live, they are cutting metal on a new set of rockets that will take us back to the moon. That’s going to happen folks, you sort of need to wrap your mind around that. The United States is going back to the moon and we will take anybody in the world who wants to go with us.” Camera strobes sparkle through the wildly applauding crowd.

America’s space program was central to Rocket Boys and October Sky, the 1999 movie that was based on Hickam’s book. The story followed Hickam as he, sparked by the challenge of Sputnik and a desire to work with Werner Von Braun and take men into space, and four of his high school pals, the boys of the book’s title, tried their hand at building and launching rockets in the tiny mining town of Coalwood. The book became an international best seller and remains in print and popular a dozen years later.

Hickam never did get to work with Von Braun but he did become an engineer, worked for the U.S. Army Missile Command and, eventually, on the space program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. During his career he worked on construction projects, installed computer sys- tems, wrote software, came up with procedures needed to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, did spacecraft design and trained astronauts on how to carry out the science experiments they would need to do while in space. “I loved being an engineer,” he says. “I liked the challenges involved with the profession. I never had an engineering job that I didn’t enjoy.”

Hickam also enjoyed writing. He gained popularity as a columnist in his college newspaper and later wrote articles for adventure and scuba diving magazines. And he feels his writing as an engineer set him apart. “One of my greatest strengths as an engineer when I worked in that profession was my ability to write cogently, simply, and with precision,” he says. “I often observed instances when my fellow engineers, often much better engineers than I, were unable to properly describe their ideas and projects, either in writing or in a variety of formal and informal presentations. It is absolutely essential that an engineer be able to communicate.”

The essential nature of communication in engineering is widely acknowledged and included in the most recent ABET accreditation criteria. Engineers must communicate with one another on large projects, with support personnel such as machinists, technicians, and programmers, and with customers and clients. Even, on occasion, the public. And, of course, with management.

Robert Grossbach, himself an executive in an engineering firm, notes that top notch writing

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and communication skills will be needed by engineers who want to move into the manage- ment ranks or start their own firm and deal with venture capitalists. “These people value clear, concise writing; they like things to be explained correctly, and at the proper level of abstraction. They want technology put in context,” Grossbach says. “They want advantages and disad- vantages spelled out. They want options and evaluations. And they feel comfortable around – and reward -- people who can provide those things and may even overlook certain straight-up technical deficiencies.”

During his military service as well as at the civilian companies where he did engineering work, David Poyer also experienced the importance of writing. “Young engineers don’t realize that they will have to do a lot of writing in their careers. You really can’t escape it because you have to communicate your findings and produce written reports, manuals and evaluations and all sorts of written things. This was especially true for the Navy,” Poyer recalls. “So communica- tion, I think, is really part of engineering.”

And, lacking a solid ability to successfully accomplish that part of engineering can be a major handicap to engineers. “Suppose you couldn’t draw circuit diagrams?” Gene Wolfe asks. “You were good, but you had to build the circuit you wanted, take it to somebody’s office or bring somebody to see it, and say, ‘See! Like this!’ Not being able to write effectively is like that.”

Engineers must be able to explain, and often explain in writing, how their designs will work, which solution is the best choice, why one material is superior to another, and what the calculations that they did mean relative to the problem under consideration. Their writing will represent them. Karl Iagnemma, who has often had to articulate his thoughts on the design of wheeled robots for Martian exploration and tiny ones used in stomach surgery, feels that young engineering students need to realize that they are only as intelligent as their written words. “Their colleagues, supervisors, and employees will judge both their ideas and their personal talent through the lens of their writing,” Iagnemma explains. “In the working world we often don’t have the luxury of explaining our ideas through face-to-face presentation, and so we’re forced to use writing to convince another person that our point of view is valuable.”

Iagnemma sees this as a critical part of an engineer’s role but he also sees it as an opportunity. “Many of us are not all that skilled at presenting ideas face-to-face. Written documents give us a chance to refine and ultimately perfect our thoughts before sharing them with others,” Iagnemma says. The process of reviewing and reworking a first draft, of testing and improving it, should result in clear and persuasive communication and a respect for the engineer’s efforts. “As an engineer,” Iagnemma offers, “your persona on the page should always be more impres- sive than your in-person persona.”

That time spent in revising and editing and striving for writing excellence, is not just about con- cerns like word choice, where to start a new paragraph and how to spell a particularly difficult twelve syllable word. “To hone one’s communication skills is exactly equal to honing one’s clarity of mind,” George Saunders says. “So on top of all the obvious career benefits — writ- ing good reports and proposals, pleading more effectively to not be layed off, ha ha, there is the benefit of refining one’s ability to discern truth about the world around us, by trying to write clearly about it.”

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The very process of writing is an analytic one and the cycles of writing and review lead to clearer and enhanced understandings of the subject matter being written about. When an engineer sets about the task of writing a proposal that describes a custom design his firm will offer a potential client, the cognitive process sparked by writing causes him to reflect on the technical aspects of the design, to better see its strengths, to discover weaknesses that had not previously been apparent, to understand how aspects of the design might be modified to even better answer the potential client’s needs. It is the same with every piece of writing, from brief memos to thick reports, as engineers write, review, and rewrite, aiming for clarity of expression, their minds also see the technical aspects of their work with a new and often astonishing clarity. The goal is, of course, communication, but the very act of writing opens minds for possibilities that can result in new and better engineering solutions. For that reason alone, every engineer should welcome the opportunity to examine their work through the process of writing about it.

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Be Prepared.

- Boy Scout Motto

Engineers Can Write

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D octoral students in engineering at MIT are required to have a minor, a secondary area of specialization that supplements studies in their major. The minors are usually highly techni-

cal in content but Karl Iagnemma had become interested in writing during his undergraduate studies and when he planned his Ph.D. program in mechanical engineering, he listed “fiction” as his minor. MIT students were permitted to take classes at the nearby Harvard campus and Iagnemma hoped to take advanced writing seminars at both schools. The professors on the committee overseeing Iagnemma’s graduate program approved his plan of study, although one later admitted he had misread the plan, believing the minor to be “friction”, an excellent complement to Iagnemma’s studies in robotics, and not “fiction,” a somewhat odd choice for engineering students. Nevertheless, those studies led Iagnemma to become a very success- ful writer of fiction as well as an engineer noted for his achievements in the design of wheeled robots.

Throughout the preceding pages a number of engineers have appeared, engineers who have excelled in writing, gathering honors and appreciative audiences for their novels, short stories, non-fiction and books of poetry. They took different paths but each of them found a way to develop the craft and artistry needed to create literature that readers would respond to as they turned pages and experienced an array of emotions, found hope, laughed, grimaced, and saw truths and understandings about our shared lives and world. Creating prose and poetry that does these things is the most difficult and challenging of the many products that can arise from the process of writing. These writers, engineers all, found success in doing just that and, indi- vidually and together, they have shown that engineers can, indeed, write. And do so very well.

There are lessons to be learned from the experiences of these engineers. First and foremost is the fact that writing is important in the world of engineering. Not creative writing, of course, but clear, well designed, thoughtful and effective writing. Stewart O’Nan learned to use the active voice writing reports at Grumman Aviation. Aileen Schumacher got tremendous pleasure when a proposal she had authored led to her firm being selected for a new design job. George Saunders developed a love for technical language writing reports for an environmental firm. Good writing represents clear thinking and is critical in getting reports approved, proposals ac- cepted, new designs considered, and changes made. Engineers must understand that writing is not just something that they have to do in the workplace environment, it is something that they have to do well.

Secondly, their experiences make it clear that good writing takes effort. These writers all invested huge amounts of time as they perfected their writing, studying the written works of others, scribbling out draft after draft, agonizing over word choices and descriptive phrasing. They persevered, often in the face of rejection and considerably less than gentle criticism, until a story or a book or a poem was complete and then moved on to start anew. It was, as most of these writers will readily admit, always hard, hard work.

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Certainly, engineers with no literary aspirations do not have to put in the years of intense practice and study that some of their literary colleagues did. But they shouldn’t assume that writing prowess will come naturally, either. Or that years of grammar school, high school and even university English courses will have made them competent, skilled writers in the engineering workplace.

When Nick Arvin was a young engineer at the Ford Motor Company, he was asked to prepare

a report. He put together an eight-page report modeled on those he had done in school, with

text and graphs and tables to display the data. His supervisor leafed through it, pushed it to one side of his desk and pulled out a blank sheet of paper and a pen. “He showed me how to present our essential results on that one page, with some text, a couple of bulleted lists and

a small graph,” Arvin recalls. “That memory has always been a good reminder to me to try to

keep my technical writing as simple and efficient as possible, and to just tell my audience as much as they need to know.”

Arvin’s experience demonstrates the gap that too often exists between how engineers are taught to write and what is needed in the workplace. What is needed, of course, varies from workplace to workplace and situation to situation, but engineers with good writing skills will be able to quickly grasp what they must do to be successful. To get to that skill level, engineers must read more and write more. As they read well-written material, successful proposals, memos that had the detail and directness their supervisors appreciated, technical journal articles that sparked interest through clear writing and original thinking, they will begin to visualize models for their own writing. And as they practice writing, getting first drafts on paper, bringing a critical eye to bear on what they have done and honing and refining the work with rewrites and edits, they will see their own writing more closely resemble those models.

This takes effort, of course, but that effort will make them become better writers. Engineers are no strangers to hard work. Their engineering studies were no walk in the park and the technical problems they face day in and day out can be challenges of staggering proportion. They will quickly discover that applying themselves to the challenge of writing well will pay dividends. Substantial ones.

And lastly, engineers should recognize that writing well is not an alien process. It bears a remarkable similarity to process flows commonly encountered in engineering. The most

obvious similarity is that writing, like most product development cycles, results in a product. More importantly, that product is useful and has a purpose and goals it must accomplish. A proposal must sell an idea, possibly bringing change to the way things are done or funding for

a new project. Reports will generate some action, sometimes just approval of the efforts they

describe, but possibly the initiation of corrective measures or changes in production methods or research agendas. Specifications will define products and their performance. Too often engineers think of the writing they must do as a chore or busy work and a distraction from things of real importance. If they are able to see that their writing results in products, products that are complementary to the technical aspects of engineering, products that have a use, a value and can cause important actions to be taken, they will find it much easier to expend the time and effort needed to perfect their workplace writing.

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In addition, the path that leads to these products is remarkably similar to paths with which engineers have great familiarity. Like most technical products, good writing starts with a solid design and a well thought out plan. What are the components, the “stuff” as Richard Gabriel said, that will be needed to create this written product? How can they best be arranged? What is essential? What serves no function? These are questions many engineers regularly ask of their designs for products of every type. When they learn to ask those same questions of their workplace writing they should find the resulting products becoming more effective and suc- cessful.

And, lastly, it must be understand that the work of good writing comes from an iterative pro- cess that bears a resemblance to the sequences of design reviews and acceptance and op- erational tests found in the world of engineering. Good writing doesn’t appear on the page or computer screen magically. It results from a series of edits and rewrites. Engineering docu- ments may not require the multiple rewrites that novelists like Karl Iagnemma and David Poyer give their work, but their writers should never be satisfied with a first draft. Engineers must develop a critical eye for their own work and be able to refine their words and their design to maximize each document’s effectiveness. The better they are at recognizing weak points in their writing, whether they are in the argument or the punctuation, the quicker, the easier and the more successful their writing will become.

Engineers can and should be better writers. Any shortcomings do not arise from a right brain left brain dichotomy, but instead result from a failure to see that writing is just another aspect of their engineering work, and that by applying themselves, just as they apply themselves to the technical aspects of their profession, they will be become good, possibly great, writers.

Not all of the engineer writers we have met agree with all of this. Aileen Schumacher is adamant that, for her, the processes used in engineering and those of writing don’t bear much resemblance. Homer Hickam is not sure that he ever understood or used anything that might be called “the engineering process.” And Robert Grossbach is quick to point out that a great engineer, a skilled designer or problem solver, can do just fine on his or her technical skills alone.

But, the experiences of all these engineer-writers, literary engineers if you will, are clear evidence that if they put their minds to it, engineers can write very, very well.

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Literary Engineers

I n the memoir Sky of Stone, Homer Hickam tells of coming home after his freshman year as an engineering student at Virginia Tech and showing his father his report card. It was a so-so report, with only one sparkling “A” amid mostly mediocre marks. The A was in English, not one of Hickam’s technical subjects, and his father wanted to know what kind of engineer he planned to be. “A literary engineer?” his father asked, with more than a touch of sarcasm.

That book was the first place where I encountered the term “literary engineer” but it is an excellent label for those engineers who have turned to writing and demonstrated the power of the creative minds and their proficiency with language. Throughout this book, a dozen of these “literary engineers” offered their thoughts on engineers and writing and suggested ways that engineers might think of the task of writing. In the following pages I provide you with some additional details on them and their lives as engineers, both of the “literary” and the “technological” varieties.

Nick Arvin

Arvin graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in mechanical engineering and went on to earn a master’s degree at Stanford University. His first engineering job was at the Ford Motor Company but he left there after two years to earn a MFA degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa. His first book, a collection of short stories In The Electric Eden, was published in 2003, and Arvin worked as a forensic engineer in Denver before his novel, Articles of War was published. That book received awards from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Colorado Center for the Book, and the American Library Association. Arvin currently works for a power systems design firm in Denver and looks forward to the release of a novel based on his work as a forensic engineer, The Reconstructionist.

Richard Gabriel

Gabriel earned his Ph.D. in mathematics from Stanford University, and was Chairman of the Board of Lucid, Inc. a Lisp software firm that he founded in 1984. Gabriel also earned a MFA in poetry at Warren Wilson College and has been writing a poem a day since 2000. Some of those poems have appeared in Ploughshares, 88, Squaw Valley Review and other journals and a book of his poems, Drive On, was published in 2005. His essay, Worse is Better, is well known in the software community and he has written four non-fiction books on software topics. Although Gabriel makes no claims to being a “real engineer”, he held the title of distinguished engineer at Sun Microsystems for eight years and now holds the same title at IBM research.

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Robert Grossbach

Robert Grossbach’s 2001 novel A Shortage of Engineers provides readers with a sly, humor- ous look inside an electronics firm working on government contracts as a young engineer tries to decipher output problems with an oscillating power transistor as well as his own personal and romantic dilemmas. The story clearly springs from experiences in Grossbach’s own long technical and management career. He earned his baccalaureate degree from Cooper Union and

a master’s degree from Columbia University, both in electrical engineering, and has worked at

firms like Wheeler Laboratories, Loral Corporation, Nardia Microwaves, and American Technical Ceramics, where he is currently vice president. Grossbach has written numerous novelizations of popular movies, including The Cheap Detective, The Frisco Kid, and The Goodbye Girl. His own novel, Easy and Hard Ways Out, was produced as the film Best Defense in 1984. He has written two other novels as well as short stories that have appeared in the Transatlantic Review, the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Analog.

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Brad Henderson

Henderson graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from California Polytechnic State University. He started work designing fluid control devices for the Parker Hannifin

Corporation and later did technical training for Hewlett Packard. An avid musician, he wrote

a novel, Drums, based on his experiences in a band while he was in college. The book was

published in 1997. Henderson also earned a Master of Professional Writing (MPW) degree from the University of Southern California and currently teaches writing to engineering and science students at the University of California’s Davis campus. Split Stock, a book of poems by Henderson and another UC Davis poet, was published in 2006. Henderson has recently concentrated on what he has dubbed neo-cowboy poetry, using the pseudonym Beau Hamel. His works have appeared in numerous journals, including Tule Review, Poetry Now, Blue Moon Review and Embers.

Homer Hickam

Hickam graduated from Virginia Polytechnic University with a degree in Industrial Engineering and after combat service in Viet Nam, worked in Europe with the U.S. Seventh Army Train- ing Command, and eventually NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center. A story he wrote for the Smithsonian’s Air and Space magazine became the seed for Rocket Boys, the memoir that became tremendously successful and brought him a legion of fans. The New York Times cited Rocket Boys as one of the great books of 1998. Since then Hickam has written ten more books, including two other memoirs about life in Coalwood, the West Virginia town where he grew up, and three novels about a World War II Coast Guardsman whose adventures put him

in danger in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. His most recent books are The Red Helmet,

a novel that uses a West Virginia coal mine as the backdrop for a tale of romance and rescue, and My Dream of Stars, the story of Iranian astronaut Anousheh Ansari. Hickam remains an ardent and vocal supporter of America’s space program.

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Karl Iagnemma

Iagnemma, the son of an engineer, earned his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineer-

ing at the University of Michigan and a master’s and Ph.D in mechanical engineering at MIT.

A short story he wrote while in school won the Playboy College Fiction contest and another

received the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize. His stories have also appeared in Tin House, Zo- etrope and other literary journals. A collection, On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction, was published in 2003 and was followed five years later by his first novel, The Expeditions, which gathered strong reviews. At work on a second novel, Iagnemma is principal investigator of MIT’s Robot Mobility Group, where he supervises graduate students and post-doctoral fel- lows doing research on robots for space exploration and medical use.

Stewart O’Nan

“Engineering showed me a large part of the world I would have never found without it,” O’Nan says. “Even now it serves as a resource, even if I’m not writing about somebody deburring

holes or using eddy current to check on crack propagation.” Also the son of an engineer, O’Nan received a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from Boston University. He worked as a test engineer for the Grumman Aerospace Corporation for four years before going to Cornell to

earn an MFA in writing.

in 2007. In 1996 Granta magazine included O’Nan in its list of the 20 best young American nov-

elists. His twelfth novel, Songs for the Missing, was published in 2009. His other titles include

His 1993 novel Snow Angels was made into a film that was released

The Good Wife, Last Night at the Lobster, Wish You Were Here, and The Speed Queen.

Henry Petroski:

“The dividing line between my books and my engineering has become blurred,” Henry Petroski says. “My books are all about engineering and design. If somebody asked me, I wouldn’t say I am a writer first. I would say I teach or that I am an engineer. That is how I would identify myself.” But his prolific writing about engineering, technology and the extraordinary stories of ordinary objects like pencils and toothpicks have been widely popular. Petroski‘s undergradu- ate degree in mechanical engineering came from Manhattan College and he specialized in continuum mechanics during his Ph.D. studies at the University of Illinois Urbana. His research has been widely published and he has received numerous honors, including membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. His many books include Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design, Remaking the World: Adven- tures in Engineering, The Evolution of Useful Things, and, his latest, The Essential Engineer:

Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems.

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David Poyer

During his first year at the U.S. Naval Academy, Poyer wrote notes about the mishaps and scrapes he got into, hiding the scraps of paper in his shoes to prevent upper classmen from finding them. Those scribbled memories became the basis for one of his early novels, The Return of Philo T. McGiffin, published in 1983. Faring better than his character McGiffin, Poyer graduated from Annapolis and earned distinction as both an officer in command at sea and a policy and strategy analyst on shore and eventually retired with the rank of Captain. Many of his military experiences provided the background for his popular Dan Lenson series of novels about the modern navy. He also wrote a four novel series set in Hemlock County, a fictional- ized depiction of the area in northwestern Pennsylvania where he grew up, a three novel series about naval combat during the American Civil War, and a four book series of adventure novels about underwater diving. He currently preparing a novel centered around sailing, a recreation he greatly enjoys on the Chesapeake Bay. Poyer also teaches writing in the graduate program at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania.

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George Saunders

Saunders’ early experiences as a geophysical engineering student at the Colorado School of Mines were eye-opening. “I learned that a person could try as hard as they could, and could make huge strides, shock themselves with how much they had learned and still get a C. That was sort of stunning.” After he graduated, Saunders went to work for a petroleum company doing seismic exploration in the jungles of Java. What he saw as an Indiana Jones life turned sour when he became extremely ill from swimming in a contaminated swamp and had to return to the United States and recover. He turned to writing and received his MA degree from Syracuse University, studying with noted short story writer Tobias Wolfe. His first collection of short stories, CivilWarLand in Decline, was published in 1996. His work includes two other short story collections, Pastoralia and In Persuasion Nation, a short novel, The Brief and Fright- ening Reign of Phil, a childrens book, The Very Persistant Gappers of Frip, and a collection of non-fiction essays, The Brain Dead Megaphone. In 2008 he received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the popularly labeled genius award, for his writing.

Aileen Schumacher

During a summer fellowship at Woods Hole Marine Laboratory, Schumacher nearly electrocut- ed herself operating a piece of lab equipment. That shock made her realize she didn’t know much about the “real world” and when she returned to New Mexico State University for her senior year as a biology major, as electives she took courses in electrical engineering. When she graduated, she had to choose between graduate school in science or changing to engineering studies. She opted for the latter and received her MS degree in civil engineering. She became a registered professional engineer and has worked on a variety of environmental, highway design, storm drain, and other engineering design and construction projects. With her husband, she in a principal in a Florida engineering firm, BL Engineering, and has frequently spoken about engineering as a career for young women. Rosewood Ashes, the most recent book in her series featuring structural engineer and sleuth Tory Travers, received a “Damn Good Book” award from the Florida Mystery Connection in 2002. After battling severe health problems for several years, she has been able to resume her writing.

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Gene Wolfe

Wolfe started his studies in mechanical engineering at Texas A&M but left school to serve in Korea as an Army infantryman. Using the GI bill, he took up engineering again at the University of Houston where he received his BSME degree. He joined the engineering staff of the Proctor and Gamble Corporation in Ohio and designed manufacturing and production equipment for their many product lines, most famously the ovens used in preparing Pringles potato chips.

Wolfe left to become the robotics editor of Plant Engineering a trade magazine, and finally

retired in 1986.

Tremendously prolific, Wolfe has published 16 short story collections and

more than 20 novels. His work has received three World Fantasy awards, two Nebula awards, the John W. Campbell Award, five Locus awards and the BSFA (British Science Fiction Association) award. In 2007 Wolfe was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

I hope you enjoyed meeting these “literary engineers” as they shared their thoughts on writing and engineering. The writers featured in this book are far from the only contemporary engineers putting forth excellent writing. Others include science fiction writers Jerry Pournelle, a systems engineer, Bill Buchanan, an electrical engineer and novelist, Gentry Lee, an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Scott Carpenter, an astronaut and aeronautical engineering graduate, and Geoff Landis, an electrical engineering graduate, as well as poet Kenny Chaffin, an electrical and computer engineer, poet and memoirist Marissa Martinez, an MIT graduate, creative non-fiction writer Barbara Oakley, a systems engineer, and poet and novelist Joe Amato, a Syracuse University mechanical engineering grad. I am sure I have omitted many others and to them I apologize.

You might visit your local library or bookstore to sample the poems, short stories, novels and non-fiction of some of these literary engineers. Their skill at writing will demonstrate the falseness of any claims that “engineers can’t write” and, hopefully, stimulate other engineers to value their own writing efforts and strive to develop a similar prowess with the proposals, technical articles, procedures, specifications and other documents that are a part of an engineer’s life.

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notes

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Engineers Can’t Write

David Poyer read from two of his novels and spoke at the Olean Library on April 6, 2006. In a 2001 speech marking Poyer’s retirement from the U.S. Navy, Rear Admiral Martin Janczak called him “the preeminent living American novelist of the sea” (available at www.poyer.com). The Kirkus Reviews suggested that Poyer’s novel A Country of our Own “will receive – and deserves – a warm welcome from the C.S. Forester/Patrick O’Brian audience” (Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2003). Reviewing the same novel, Cindy Lynn Speer noted that Poyer “has a reputa- tion for writing sea novels that hearken back to the works of Patrick O’Brian and C.S. Forester” (Mostly Fiction Book Reviews, February 25, 2005 http://www.mostlyfiction.com/spy-thriller/ poyer.htm).

The sense that “engineers can’t write” is primarily anecdotal although many colleges report getting feedback from employers of their engineering graduates that communication skills should be improved. Some of these are documented in Glenn J. Broadhead’s article:

“Addressing Multiple Goals for Engineering Writing: The Role of Course Specific Websites.” Language and Learning Across the Disciplines, July 1999, 3: 2: pages 19-43 and “Alumni Surveys,” Harvey Mudd College, http://www.hmc.edu/about/administrativeoffices/

alumnirelations1/alumniassociation1/bog1/alumnisurveys.html

Two articles by Donald Christiansen touch on how pervasive the doubts about engineer’s writ- ing skills are. See: “Engineers can’t write? Sez Who!” IEEE-USA Today’s Engineer, February 2003 and “Writing Not Badly” IEEE-USA Today’s Engineer, January/February 2007.

In Writing, A Ticket to Work or a Ticket Out, A Report of the National Commission on Writing, (College Board, September 2004 http://www.writingcommission.org/prod_downloads/ writingcom/writing-ticket-to-work.pdf), business leaders note the efforts made by their firms to improve the writing skills of employees and their cost. Most sent employees out for training in business and technical writing.

The title of Viva Hardigg’s profile of Henry Petroski, “The Poet Laureate of Technology” (Prism Online, September 2000 http://www.prism-magazine.org/feb00/html/poet.cfm) helped establish this unofficial honor. Petroski related the story about the English professor during an interview at Duke University in March 2007. Before Petroski became known for his articles and books on technology and engineering he wrote poems that were published in contemporary literary reviews, including the prestigious journal “Poetry.”

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Engineers as Writers: Growth of a Literature, edited by Walter J. Miller and Leo E.A. Saidla, (D. Van Nostrand, 1953) demonstrates that engineers do write and shows how they write. Ex- cerpts from Vitruvius, Frontinus and Agricola as well as Arthur Raymond’s “The Well-Tempered Aircraft” and Herbert Hoover’s “Report on the Mississippi Flood” are presented as examples of engineering communication from the past. Samuel C. Florman’s books reflect on the practice of engineering and its importance in society. Most noted are The Civilized Engineer (1987), The Existential Pleasures of Engineering (1994) and The Introspective Engineer (1996). In Engi- neering and the Liberal Arts: A Technologist’s Guide to History, Literature, Philosophy, Art, and Music (1968), Florman writes that “when engineers attempt to write creatively – there have been a few attempts at novels and poetry – the results are usually disastrous.” Despite this, Florman himself authored a novel, The Aftermath (2001), a survival story set in the wake of a comet’s crash into earth.

Engineers of the Soul

The statement that “writers were engineers of the soul” was made by Joseph Stalin as a toast during a meeting of writers at Gorky’s house on October 26, 1932. The state of writers during the Stalinist era is examined in Dutch author Frank Westerman’s Engineers of the Soul: In the Footsteps of Stalin’s Writers (Harvill Secker 2010).

Fydor Dostoevsky studied at the St. Petersburg Academy of Military Engineering and served as an officer in the czar’s army for one year after completing his degree. He also studied literature while at the academy and had begun writing while there (William J. Leatherbarrow, Fedor Dos- toevsky, Twayne Publishers, 1981).

Robert Louis Stevenson came from a family of engineers. His father, Thomas Stevenson, and his grandfather, Robert Stevenson, were well respected engineers, involved in many civil engineering projects but best known for their designs of lighthouses for the coasts of Scotland. It caused his father great dismay when Robert Louis Stevenson dropped out of his engineer- ing studies at the University of Edinburgh. The family’s story is told in Bella Bathurst’s The Lighthouse Stevensons (Harper Collins Publishers, 1999). Stevenson’s life is detailed in Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson by Claire Carmen (Harper Collins, New York, 2005).

Henry David Thoreau worked in his father’s pencil factory and made numerous improvements, including the design of a new graphite grinding mill. A surveyor, Thoreau took to signing his plats H.D. Thoreau, civil engineer. This story is told in Henry Petroski’s article “H.D. Thoreau, Engineer” (Invention and Technology Magazine, Fall 1989, Vol. 5 Issue 2) and in his book The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (Knopf 1990).

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Austrian Robert Musil studied engineering at the German Technical University in Brno, where his father was chair of the mechanical engineering department. After completing his engineering studies, Musil worked in Stuttgart briefly before returning to school in Berlin to earn a doctorate in psychology and philosophy. Musil’s best known work is The Man Without Qualities and Musil’s name popped up as a possible candidate for the Nobel Prize during the years after publication of the unfinished work’s first two volumes (1930,1932). For an appreciation of Musil see Ted Gioia’s Exhuming Robert Musil: A Fresh Look at The Man Without Qualities (Great Books Guide, http://www.greatbooksguide.com/Musil.html) as well as Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988).

Eric Ambler won a scholarship to study engineering at Northampton University but his attention was soon diverted by London’s theatrical life. He did work as an engineer, however, for the Swan Electric Company. Ambler’s Here Lies: An Autobiography (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1986) covers his family and his early years through his service in the World War. The lasting strength of his novels is noted by Elleston Trevor in an introduction to a Mystery Library reprint of A Coffin for Dimitrios (University of California, San Diego, 1977).

Nevil Shute’s given name was Nevil Shute Norway. His autobiography, Slide Rule: The Autobiography of an Engineer (Morrow, 1954) covers his life only to his leaving the company he founded, Airspeed, in 1938. Julian Smith’s biography, Nevil Shute (Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1976) provides additional information on his later life. The Nevil Shute Norway Foundation has a rich trove of information on Shute available online at www.nevilshute.org/ Shute’s best known novel On the Beach was first published in 1957 in both the United States and Great Britain.

An extremely popular writer of science fiction, Robert Anson Heinlein graduated from the U.S.Naval Academy in 1929. He served as a gunnery officer on an aircraft carrier until tuberculosis forced his retirement in 1934. As a civilian he worked as an engineer doing materials testing and evaluation at the Philadelphia Navy Yard Shipyard during World War II. H. Bruce Franklin’s biography Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction (Oxford University Press, NY 1980) provides a good overview of his life.

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L. Sprague DeCamp majored in aeronautical engineering at Cal Tech and graduated in

1930. He earned a masters degree in engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology and

went to work with a firm called the Inventor’s Institute that offered consulting services and correspondence courses to help inventors obtain patents for their ideas. DeCamp’s Time and Chance: An Autobiography (Donald M. Grant Publisher , Hampton Falls, N.H., 1996) a provides a detailed and chatty look at most of his life. A short biography of DeCamp by Frederick Pohl is available as the introduction to three of his stories found in The SFWA Grand Masters, Volume 1 (Tor Books, 1999). Additional information is available on a web site maintained by his literary agent: http://www.lspraguedecamp.com/

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According to his entry in Contemporary Authors (Volumes 89-92, Gale Research Company, 1980), Carlo Emilio Gadda’s works have had a great influence on contemporary experimental writers. Gadda was an engineer in Argentina, France, Germany and Italy and his literary efforts earned him the Prix Formentar in 1957 and the International Library Prize in 1963. He is also the subject of an essay in Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988)

Irish writer Freeman Wills Croft’s best known work is The Cask (1920) but his series about the cases of Inspector Joseph French were immensely popular, including Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1924), Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930), The 12:30 From Croydon (1934), and The Loss of the Jane Vosper (1936). Many of his plots involved the unraveling of an air tight alibi and a complicated analysis of timetables for boats, trains and airplanes. As a railroad engineer – he apprenticed as a civil engineer at the age of 17, worked on railroad construction and design, and began Assistant Chief Engineer of the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway in Ireland – he had a clear understanding of the operations of that form of transportation and how they might be used in a plot. His entry in Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection and Espionage (Robin Winks, editor, Scribners Sons, 1998) notes that Raymond Chandler called him “the soundest builder of them all” and Ellery Queen regarded The Cask as the first great modern police novel.

Kurt Vonnegut studied chemistry at Cornell from 1940 to 1942, primarily to satisfy his father. He didn’t take to those studies and dropped out and joined the Army. In 1943 the Army sent him for training in mechanical engineering at Carnegie Institute of Technology, where he report- edly failed thermodynamics, and the University of Tennessee in 1943 where he did the same. For information on Vonnegut see http://www.kurt-vonnegut.com/timeline.shtml and the official Vonnegut site at: http://www.vonnegut.com/ His thermodynamic failings are noted in “The Melancholia of Everything Completed: The Stop Smiling Interview with Kurt Vonnegut” by J.C. Gabel (Stop Smiling, Issue 27, August 2006. Available online as http://www.stopsmilingonline.

com/story_detail.php?id=794).

Thomas Pynchon studied engineering physics at Cornell but joined the U.S. Navy at the end of his sophomore year, in 1955. He returned to Cornell after leaving the service but didn’t return to engineering, instead choosing English. Paul Royster’s “Thomas Pynchon: A Chronology” 2005, Lincoln, University of Nebraska, is available online: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/ viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=libraryscience. It lists major events in Pynchon’s life. The difficulties presented in obtaining details of Pynchon’s studies at Cornell and his service in the Navy are provided in Mathew Winston’s “The Quest for Pynchon.” (Twentieth Century Literature 21, October 1975, 278-287).

It has been suggested that Norman Mailer chose to earn a bachelor of science degree in aerospace engineering because of Harvard’s requirement that bachelor of arts degree graduates had to pass a Latin test, something Mailer wanted no part of. For information about Mailer’s engineering studies at Harvard see Mary V. Dearborn’s Mailer: A Biography (Houghton Mifflin Co. 1995, pages 24-25) and Peter Manso’s Mailer: His Life and Times (Simon and Schuster 1985, pages 48 and 51).

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Writing Creates a Product

Brad Henderson’s novel Drums (Fifthian Press, Santa Barbara, 1997) included a cover blurb from the drummer for the popular band Guns N Roses. Split Stock (John Natsoulas Press, Davis, 2006) included poetry by Henderson and a colleague at the University of California Davis, Andy Jones. Henderson’s website includes information on the reissue of Drums on Kindle and a new book of poetry written under the pseudonym Beau Hamel tentatively titled The Secret Cowboy (http://bradhenderson.net/)

Henry Petroski likened writing to bridge building in the opening chapter of Beyond Engineer- ing: Essays and Other Attempts to Figure Without Equations (St. Martin’s Press, 1986). He had earlier made a similar analogy in his first book, To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design (St. Martin’s Press 1985).

David F. Beer and David McMurrey’s A Guide to Writing as an Engineer (John Wiley & Sons 2005) is a technical writing text aimed at engineers. The authors insist that engineers can write well and suggests that they envision writing as a “system” made up of processes and com- ponents that seem very close to Richard Gabriel’s concept of “stuff.” This book comes highly recommended by literary engineer and writing instructor Brad Henderson.

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The Process of Writing

Gene Wolfe was the guest of honor at Balticon 40, a conference held May 26 to May 29, 2006 in Hunt Valley, MD. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, originally associated with the University of Kansas, is now housed in the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle. The press release for his induction noted that Wolfe “is considered not only one of the most impor- tant science fiction writers, but one of the best writers in the English language today.” (Science Fiction Hall of Fame to Induct Ed Emshwiller, Gene Roddenberry, Ridley Scott and Gene Wolfe http://www.empsfm.org/press/index.asp?articleID=892). Wolfe’s work on the Pringle’s pro- duction equipment is examined in Lawrence Person’s article “Suns New, Long, and Short: An Interview with Gene Wolfe” (Nova Express, Volume 5, No. 1, Fall/Winter 1998. Available online at http://home.austin.rr.com/lperson/wolfe.html).

Aileen Schumacher’s novel Framework for Death (Worldwide Press 2000) was nominated for the Anthony Award, given to the best mystery novel each year at the Boucheron World Mys- tery Convention. Schumacher’s web site provides extensive information on her engineering and writing life (http://www.aliken.com/aileen/)

Articles of War, Nick Arvin’s first novel, won the Rosenthal Foundation award given to the best first novel by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. It also won the Boyd Award from the American Library Association as the year’s best war novel. In 2007 it was the One Book/One Denver selection, a book that was the centerpiece of readings and activities throughout the city. Information on Arvin’s writing and links to articles and short stories can be found at his web site (http://www.nickarvin.com/)

In “Best of Young American Novelists”, Granta magazine offered a list of twenty writers, including Stewart O’Nan (Granta 64, Summer 1996). O’Nan’s web site includes a time line titled “How I became a Writer when I used to be an Engineer” as well as information on his six novels, four non-fiction books and two edited volumes (http://stewart-onan.com/).

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The bizarre environment that confronted George Saunders on his first job after graduating engineering school is hinted at in “God Bless You Mr. Vonnegut”, his contribution to Amazon.com’s Writers Under the Influence series (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/ feature/-/539001). The John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation selected him for a fellow- ship, commonly referred to as the “genius” award, in 2006 (http://www.macfound.org/site/c.

lkLXJ8MQKrH/b.2070789/apps/nl/content2.asp?content_id=%7B30235456-75D5-4E8B-AE3

F-52969AAEC89F%7D&notoc=1). Additional information on Saunders and his writing can be found at George Saunders Land, a fan web site (http://www.georgesaundersland.com/)

A review of Karl Iagnemma’s novel The Expeditions noted his “robust command of language”

and his ability to marry “the poetry of science with the promise of salvation.” That book was named one of the year’s best fiction books by the Seattle Times and was hailed as a Michigan Notable Book by the state’s Department of Education in 2009. Additional information on Iagnemma’s writing is available at his website (http://www.karliagnemma.com/). He continues to do research as the principle investigator at MIT’s Robot Mobility Group (http://web.mit.edu/ mobility/index.html).

Getting Better

A review in Publisher’s Weekly (June 25, 2001) said that Robert Grossbach’s book A Shortage

of Engineers (St. Martins Press 2001) “engages exactly the right gear” and called one of the principal characters, a French electrical engineer, a “wonderful and touching creation.” Among his other original fiction are Going in Style (Warner 1979), Easy and Hard Ways Out (Harpers Magazine Press 1974) and Never Say Die: An Autonecrographical Novel (Harper and Rowe

1079).

Benjamin Franklin tried many things in his quest to be “a tolerable English writer,” including copying articles from The Spectator, a London journal, and rewriting them on his own. He would also turn articles into verse and then back into prose gaining facility with language and sometimes, he felt “being lucky enough to improve upon the method of the language.” He recounts these early efforts in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Garden City Publishing, Henry Holt and Company 1916 pages 23 to 27).

Richard Gabriel is well known in the software development world for his essay “Worse is Better” which was presented at the European Conference on the Practical Applications of LISP (1990) and subsequently reprinted in several places. Gabriel goes over much of that in his book Patterns of Software (Oxford University Press 1996). His first book of poetry was Drive On (Hollyridge Press, Venice, 2005) but a great number of the poems he has written as part of

his “poem a day” project can be found on his website (http://www.dreamsongs.com).

assortment of his writing is also included there, including the complete text of a wonderful book about writing, Writers’ Workshops & the Work of Making Things (Addison Wesley 2002).

A rich

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Part of the Profession

“Many West Virginians have a genetic predisposition toward being story-tellers so I come from a long line,” Homer Hickam admits. “It’s a messy business, really. Stories tend to pop into my head, then I mull on them, and worry them over until they become good enough, in my estima- tion, to share. I write a lot, throw a lot of stuff away, start over, then, just when I think it’s not going to work, somehow the magic comes along and saves the day. An engineer better not do his work that way!” Hickam’s comment about the space program were made in Coalwood, West Virginia, at the October Sky Festival in 2007. Extensive information on Hickam’s memoirs and novels, his many activities and appearances, as well as his thoughts on issues like space exploration and mining safety can be found on his website (http://www.homerhickam.com)

An excellent description and analysis of the role of communication and, in particular, writing in an engineer’s career is contained in Hazel Sales’ Professional Communication in Engineering (Palgrave Macmillan 2006). Sales offers an appreciation of the creativity of engineers, presents reasons why certain writing tasks are favored over others, and even found some engineers who write poetry and music for relaxation.

Information on the role of communication in ABET accreditation can be found in ABET Engi- neering Accreditation Commission, Criteria for Accrediting Engineering Programs (Baltimore, 2008 http://www.abet.org/Linked%20Documents-UPDATE/Criteria%20and%20PP/E001%20 09-10%20EAC%20Criteria%2012-01-08.pdf ). “You know it. Can you write it?” by Thomas K. Grose describes efforts to improve writing engineering student writing skill in response to the ABET guidelines (ASEE Connections, Special Bonus Issue, 2010, http://www.asee.org/ publications/connections/2010March-bonus.cfm#toolbox ).

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Literary Engineers

Homer Hickam recounts the story of his return home from Virginia Tech and his father’s reaction to his first year’s report card in his memoir Sky of Stone (Delacorte Press 2001). He also tells how during that freshman year his dean suggested he find another school. “Not everyone is cut out to be an engineer,” the man warned, urging Hickam to quit. “I have to be an engineer,” Hickam countered, offering several compelling if somewhat exaggerated rationales for continuing his studies.

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