Ever wondered how your required college composition courses will benefit you once you’re in the “real world”? Ever wondered how important reading and writing skills are to artists, marketing experts, nurses, and entrepreneurs? I’ve started this series, Real Talk, to give professionals in a variety of industries a chance to share why reading and writing are so critical to what they do.
I work as a geotechnical engineer for a consulting firm in Seattle. Geotechnical engineering is a branch of civil engineering that focuses on everything to do with dirt–foundations, landslides, tunnels, earthquakes, etc. I typically work on large infrastructure projects like bridges. My current project is the replacement of one of the floating bridges over Lake Washington, east of Seattle. This project included constructing 8- to 12-foot diameter drilled shafts (filled with concrete) that extend over 120 feet below the lake bottom.
What kinds of reading and writing do you do on an everyday basis?
One aspect of my job-related reading involves technical literature. Often, I’ll read journal papers that describe new techniques for analyzing various engineering problems. For example, a recent paper describes a new method for evaluating soil liquefaction potential (when soil basically turns into a liquid during an earthquake).
Geotechnical engineering is just one aspect of civil engineering design. So, I also have to read many reports and e-mails written by other consultants to make sure our designs are compatible. This is often quite difficult, because engineers are notoriously bad writers! It can take quite a bit of back-and-forth before I’m sure I understand what they are trying to communicate.
Most of my job-related writing is e-mails and technical reports. Our reports document all of the technical services we perform, and they provide recommendations for designing and constructing our projects. I have to affix my professional engineers’ seal to each of my reports to certify that it has been prepared in accordance with the laws of the State of Washington, and that the report meets the “standard of care” –basically, that it won’t collapse and kill the people that will use it. Important stuff!
While I don’t have to put my seal on e-mails, they are often just as important as the reports. E-mails document decisions made by me, my team, and my clients. During construction, e-mails are often the only record of decisions and recommendations made. These decisions can have huge cost implications.
What kinds of reading and writing skills are key to your job?
Reading critically is extremely important. I need to be able to identify gaps in logic and potential design conflicts. Often, what is not written can be just as important as what is! When writing reports and e-mails, clarity is the most critical part. If my client can’t understand my recommendations, how can she possibly design or construct the project correctly? Along those same lines, if the project goes badly, we want to make sure our recommendations and responsibilities are well-documented for the lawyers. You can imagine a lawyer pointing to a poorly-written sentence in my report and asking the jury “if he can’t write a good sentence, how can he possibly design this complicated engineering project!?”
Why are these skills important to being successful in your work?
Being misunderstood or not communicating clearly can have pretty big ramifications in civil engineering. At the extreme end of the scale, something could be constructed incorrectly or collapse, leading to big lawsuits and even loss of life.
When I had just started as an engineer, I was on a construction site to inspect the excavations. Every day, I would write a field activity report to document what I saw, what I said, who I interacted with, etc. One day, a State safety inspector showed up and cited me and my firm because the excavation side-slopes were “unsafe”. But I was only on site to look at the bottom of the excavation, where the foundations would be constructed! It was the Contractor’s job to maintain safe side-slopes, and I had nothing to do with it. Fortunately, each of my field activity reports clearly documented the purpose of my inspections, and explicitly stated that I wasn’t there to look at side-slopes or take responsibility for site safety. It was very reassuring to be in a deposition with a bunch of lawyers and be able to point to that information in my reports. In the end, both my company and I were cleared of the citation.
What advice do you have for students, particularly college students in first- and second-year writing courses?
Practice good writing in everything you do. Even if you’re just writing an e-mail to a friend, practice good grammar, sentence structure, etc. Make good writing a habit and it will come naturally later on.