The Planning stage of the writing process is important because the purpose, content, and general structure of the paper is established there. A large number of students do serious damage to themselves by skimping on this stage, or on the related process of outlining. Nobody would ever begin to build a bridge, factory or even a single gear without a detailed plan. You should approach your writing task in the same manner, and carefully analyze the assignment, spend some time brainstorming, thinking about a title and, develop a well thought out outline.
1. Reading the Assignment for Audience, Purpose, and Requirements: Students often shoot themselves in the foot by failing to read assignment statements carefully enough. If you fail to read carefully, you may miss the stated audience, the purpose of the document, and essential requirements of the paper – three things that can be essential to producing a strong paper. Take, for example, the following assignment statement:
Your editor at Scientific American has requested that you prepare a technical report which describes the science/physics of the CRT, its range of applications in home entertainment, and its limitations in the ever evolving modern microelectronic world. Identify briefly the range of emerging alternatives to the CRT, including those likely to emerge in the future. From these choose two generically different alternatives and proceed to describe the scientific basis of the selected projection devices. Compare and contrast these alternatives and the CRT, discussing their strengths and weaknesses in relation to their application for home entertainment. In your dis cussion, consider factors such as energy consumption, safety (radiation, eye strain, …), and others. Conclude by assessing the significance of the analysis (for example, in view of your analysis what alternative(s) do you expect to dominate (or not) and the reasons thereof).
In the above assignment statement, you should be able to identify a clear statement of audience, a clear purpose, and explicit and implicit requirements.
i) Audience: Engineering writing is very audience focused. As a civil engineer, for example, may be writing for other civil engineers, architects, managers or executives, the general public, or politicians (among others). Each group has a different educational background, levels of expertise, expectations and reasons for reading. These details can have a significant impact on the structure and content of your papers.
When analyzing audience, two key factors come into play: 1) educational background and 2) reasons for reading. Knowing the educational background of your readers allows you to pitch the document to the appropriate level: it tells you how much and what kind of context information you need to include and how detailed the information needs to be. Their reasons for reading turn into your reason for writing, and helps to determine your purpose.
In the above example, the statement of audience arrives in the second paragraph, but it’s a little complicated. The explicit audience is your editor at Scientific American, but if you’re writing for an editor for a magazine, there is a more important implicit audience? The readership of the magazine! You’re probably writing something that will become the basis of a magazine article. A Scientific American editor is likely much more technologically savvy than a reader, though both share a keen interest in science. You can assume the SA reader have some familiarity with basic physics and chemistry principles, but not much more. You would have to avoid technical jargon and define key principles or concepts involved in television technologies.
ii) Purpose: Engineering writing is also aims focused. Instead of a thesis statement, technical documents use purpose statements: they differ from thesis statements in that they do not identify the actual claim of the paper, only its purpose. It is important to identify the main purpose of your document before going any further with planning.
There are essentially two kinds of technical reports: 1) informative and 2) persuasive. Informative reports simply provide information objectively. Persuasive reports, on the other hand, apply that information towards a specific claim, usually to recommend a certain course of action or to identify an outcome.
In the above example, which of the two is your purpose? It first seems like an informative report, but when you compare and contrast items, you’re likely going to be making a claim of some sort – whether it be that both options are equally good, or that one is better than another. The difference between a thesis and a purpose statement can be seen in the below example.
Purpose statement: This report analyses the viability of two main alternatives to traditional CRT televisions: LCD and Plasma technology.
iii) Requirements: Assignment statements often establish a set of requirements for your document. In the above example, paragraph two lists those requirements. It is important that you meet each of these requirements, but don’t treat them simply as a set of questions to answer. If you do, your paper will lack coherence. Develop those requirements into a coherent and workable plan or outline for your document, rather than using those to structure your paper.
Some requirements are explicitly identified in assignment statements; others, however, are implicit. It takes careful reading and consideration of the assignment statement to identify these. For example, the above statement asks you to compare and contrast two technologies for home entertainment applications. Although it doesn’t necessarily state it, the assignment assumes that the author will establish criteria for comparison: it gives some examples – i.e. energy consumption – but doesn’t state explicitly that when using criteria for comparison, you need to define them clearly (for example, what is energy consumption measured in?) and justify them (why is energy consumption important in these applications?)
2. Brainstorming: Once you know your general topic (which your instructor will probably give you), purpose, and audience, you can begin to brainstorm. Brainstorming is a strategy for exploring ideas that relies upon the free expression of thoughts. During your brainstorm, you may end up rejecting certain lines of thought; if you can see clearly enough to reject an idea this early, you have invested your time well. It would be much worse if you had not realized you were on the wrong track until after you had sweated your way through several paragraphs or pages.
Open a new word-processing file, type the paper topic on the first line, and then simply write out — as quickly as possible, paying no attention to grammar, punctuation, or spelling — all your thoughts. Here is a selection from a sample “brainstorming” passage for an assignment in which the student was asked to take a position for or against nuclear power in Canada . The sample presented here has not been spell-checked or edited (good brainstorming does not have to be pretty).
Canada and Nuclear Power risks and benefits; haven’t heard much on the news about nuclear power accidents — is that because governments are doing more to enforce safety regs? How much does Canada pay for safety reg as opposed to the cost of researching other forms of power? What are the drawbacks of other forms of power gen? Hydro — dams up rivers and sometimes destroys ecology upstream; in China a million people will be flooded out by a huge dam; is it better to put more money into researching new power sources (solar, cold fusion) or to put that money into improving the safety of existing nuclear plants? Better means more economical, more reliable, faster…
The complete brainstorming exercise might be half as long as the whole document is supposed to be; the real test is not length, but content. At some point, you can print out your brainstorm and underline the main points, making notes in the margins where you need to develop your ideas further.
Another method of brainstorming may be more attractive to people who think visually. Take a fresh sheet of paper, and write the topic in the middle of the page. Draw lines from the central topic to any other ideas that may come to you; by continuing this process, you can create a web-like structure to help you organize your thoughts.
3. Title: A topic is the general subject or theme of a work. A title, on the other hand, is a more specific, informative statement of the contents of a work. Before you actually begin writing, you should have a clear idea of what title you will give your work. Even if your document is something with a predetermined title, such as a lab report, you may still wish to focus your attention by thinking up a title for your discussion and conclusion sections — even though that title may not actually appear on paper.
Title: “Why Canada Should Expand Its Nuclear Power Programs”
Title: “A Disaster Waiting to Happen: Canada’s Nuclear Power Safety Regulations”
Topic: “NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) Cooperation”
Title: “An Analysis of Failed NASA and ESA Telecommunications Ventures”
Title: “A Promising Future for a Successful Partnership: NASA and ESA in the Year 2000”
Keep your title in mind as you write every section of your document. If, by the time you finish writing your draft, you feel your document does not reflect your title, you have two options: revise the whole document to do better justice to the title, or change the title to make it match the document.