Writing well and thinking clearly are vital to democracy

Tuesday , March 27, 2018 - 4:00 AM

DAVID FERRO, special to the Standard-Examiner

Recently, the Weber State University English department invited people in disciplines across campus to craft 2,000 words about the importance of writing. I agreed to take part, but explained, “If I can't say why writing is important to engineers in 500-750 words, then no engineer will believe me.” Engineers need to be able to read and write fluently and succinctly, as do all of us who live and work in this country.

My intention is not to lessen the importance of writing for engineers by writing fewer words. Far from it. Writing solidifies and organizes thought, creates coherence around group activity, communicates details with often far-flung collaborators and markets ideas to internal and external audiences. It also opens up opportunities for advancement, but only if done clearly and concisely.

In graduate school, I took a number of classes where I had to write three 12-page papers weekly — 36 pages per week. One professor in history would have none of it. He wanted a two-page paper, five paragraphs total, including an intro and concluding paragraph. Each paragraph had to have an introductory and concluding sentence. Also, more than one variation on the term “to be” (the word “was” for example) was (ahem) verboten.

I initially resisted. Writing about history while avoiding the past-tense of “to be”? Crazy. But, looking back at my old papers reveals the truth. The longer papers meander more and seem self-indulgent. The shorter papers, however, easily convey the main points. I can readily understand my thinking at the time.

With all the talk about the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in K-12 education, we can lose sight of the importance of other skills. We definitely need more people with advanced STEM skills (in fact, in my opinion, everyone needs some level of STEM education). Too many unfilled and necessary jobs require years of concentrated work to acquire the requisite knowledge — one reason those skills pay so well. We encourage STEM because so many students gradually drift from the required work. Having said that, the captains of aerospace and the moguls of Silicon Valley value good writing along with good coding.

At Amazon, for example, employees spend the first part of a meeting reading a one- to two-page exploratory paper written by a team member before discussion begins. Amazon knows that forcing writing and quiet reading assists discussion. Author H.G. Wells (author of “War of the Worlds” and “The Time Machine”) knew this in 1913. He wrote, “The toil of writing and reconsideration may help to clear and fix many things that remain a little uncertain in my thoughts because they have never been fully stated, and I want to discover any lurking inconsistencies and unsuspected gaps.”

Writing solidifies understanding, not just for an audience but for oneself. I’ve benefited from focusing on written communication. As a software engineer, I’ve returned to the careful notes I took inside my code to understand what I did. Those notes helped other team members working on other parts of the project. They helped future programmers who needed to modify the code for changing requirements when I no longer worked at those companies. The notes I wrote arguing for a particular technical approach on a project helped sell the idea, or, better, created good discussion. I’ve benefited from writing in my career as well. Documenting work led to opportunities in instruction, management, further education, and even writing this column for the Standard-Examiner.

Of course, good writing requires some circumspection and humility. Creating a document for all to see opens one up to criticism. I see that as a good thing. All writers should strive, as indicated by Wells, to reflect on the weaknesses in their thinking. All writers must swallow their pride and utilize a good editor with a critical eye. And all writers must read. Exemplary writers, including Benjamin Franklin, Winston Churchill, John McPhee and Bill Bryson, point the way towards clarity of communication and thought.

Since I believe in the clarity of thought as a prerequisite for a functioning representative democracy, I will go one step further. No matter who you are and how clearly you believe your insights, you (all of us, in fact) will benefit from your thoughtful written exploration, so don’t be afraid to write and share.

Now I’m off to see what my editor thinks of this column. My guess is that there is a “to be” hidden in there somewhere. Hopefully, I have stayed within the 750-word limit as well.

Dr. David Ferro is dean of the College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology at Weber State University. Twitter: @DavidFerro9.

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