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Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre
17

Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

(OP)
I am a retired Civil Engineer and I am taking some liberal arts courses, particularly Philosophy of Science. The question arose regarding whether Engineering Reports could be considered as a literary genre. Is there anyone out there who who finds this interesting enough to provide some feedback?

Thanks,
kd5det

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

4
Are we talking fiction or non-fiction?

John R. Baker, P.E.
Product 'Evangelist'
Product Engineering Software
Siemens PLM Software Inc.
Industry Sector
Cypress, CA
Siemens PLM:
UG/NX Museum:

To an Engineer, the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

(OP)
I meant non-fiction but I guess it depends on who is writing the report.pipe

I was actually thinking about style, format, etc.

Reports are not really essays, editorials or legal documents but they explain like an essay, provide (professional) opinions like an editorial and are used for legal purposes.

Do reports fall into their own category? How would you describe it?

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

It's been awhile since I've had to submit regular reports. Currently my management only requires a monthly compilation of internal and external activities along with our times-cards. Despite holding a professional salaried position, I still have to fill-out a weekly 'time-card', primarily because as a member of the R&D department, some of my time can be legitimately 'capitalized' since the time spent developing and testing software is the same as adding-value to any sort of product, just that in the case of software, it's not adding hard assets, but rather the time spent by individuals adding 'sweat' assets as it were, in this case to increase the value of the intellectual property of the company and therefore much of that 'labor' can be capitalized as if it were an actual investment being made that increased the value of a physical product.

That being said, when I was writing regular reports, they were often more of a narrative giving the what, when and where of my actions and activties. So in that respect I guess you could consider it an 'essay'. As for opinions, unless I had been asked to draw a conclusion, i.e. give a status, or make a recommendation, there wasn't often much of what could be called an 'editorial'. As for the 'legal' aspect, I guess in the sense that they did provide an historical record of what had been done, by whom, and when taken along any conclusions drawn, be they a status or recommendation, I guess one could say that they became part of the 'legal record' of the company. If nothing else, the copies which I kept for myself, they also served as a so-called 'Peral Harbor file', if you catch the meaning of the metaphor, so in that respect I guess they could have been of legal value, if only for me personally winky smile

John R. Baker, P.E.
Product 'Evangelist'
Product Engineering Software
Siemens PLM Software Inc.
Industry Sector
Cypress, CA
Siemens PLM:
UG/NX Museum:

To an Engineer, the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

Mildly off-topic:

If "Foreign Movie" is considered a genre, then anyting is a genre. To think of it, Engineering Reports are like Foreign Movies: just like literature, only written in hard to understand language.

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

I don't write reports on a regular basis like a monthly status report. Those are usually incredibly boring. However, I do write engineering reports. These tend to be quite varied; competitive analysis reports to compare our products to competitors, qualification reports to show that our product meets a customers requirements and the dreaded failure analysis reports. I don't consider these to be literary works of art but I sure put a lot of time and effort into them. I even co-wrote an SAE paper once but that is a separate literary genre for sure and borders more on fiction. Then there are patent applications which when written properly are almost entirely flights of fancy coupled with whimsical illustrations. So there are at least 3 literary genres for you class to discuss.

----------------------------------------

The Help for this program was created in Windows Help format, which depends on a feature that isn't included in this version of Windows.

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

9
Chapter 1

Calibration

He reveled in the sweet, pungent aroma of the sewage, while the mist from the aeration tanks moistened his lips to the point of glistening. He smacked with strange satisfaction at the taste. Then gently, so gently, he lifted the dissolved oxygen probe from the roiling, fizzy, brown water. He patiently picked the rags and muck from the probe's shaft and polished it until it shone. Only perfection would do. Next, with great loving care, he immersed the sensor into its happy little calibration bath. He clicked his radio twice, saying not a word. In short order the radio barked out, "Good," and he smiled with pride at another successful operation. Then, like a mother gently putting her newborn into the crib, he lowered the assembly back into its nasty place. It's not enough to say he took pride in his work; his work defined him. Only by standing close to him could one hear his words as he lowered that probe into the forbidding tank. "Tomorrow, my love. I'll see you again tomorrow."

Best to you,

Goober Dave

Haven't see the forum policies? Do so now: Forum Policies

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

The reports we do as structural engineers usually follow this format:

1. General cover letter with an overview of what the heck this report is all about.
2. Description of the facility, building, structure, etc.
3. Observations - a detailed description of what we see, what is visible and what tests or measurements revealed.
4. Analyses - sometimes included, this would be any calculations we would perform to understand the structure or its capacity.
5. Conclusions - What do the observations and analyses mean? What is causing the problems or issues. What level of safety is or is not present. Is any action required.
6. Recommendations - What the heck do we need to do about all this? What options do we have? Should we run?
7. Back up data, illustrations, graphs, etc. - Show your work.
8. Qualifiers - Please don't sue us - we only can tell you what we see and there might be something hidden that we can't see.

I think the classic novel Moby Dick may have followed this format but not sure.

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RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

Hey Dave, 'channel' anyone else besides Hemingway...

John R. Baker, P.E.
Product 'Evangelist'
Product Engineering Software
Siemens PLM Software Inc.
Industry Sector
Cypress, CA
Siemens PLM:
UG/NX Museum:

To an Engineer, the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

At the risk of opening the door for identifying so many literary genres that the task becomes one of pinning down minute characteristics rather than finding common themes (unless that's what you want to achieve of course), I think the relevant literary genre is a "report" or even "investigative report". They have some or all of the following features: what prompted the investigation, what I did, what I saw, an analysis of what I saw, conclusions that can be drawn, some recommendations for future action and a disclaimer about what wasn't covered. Everything from incident reports to scientific reports and engineering reports will have very similar traits, with perhaps just the rigour and intellectual attention to vary.

It might then be an interesting exercise to contrast an investigative report with an investigative article such as a piece of journalism - the latter typically lends itself to more literary devices and less raw data. In my mind the distinction from other literary genres such as narratives and poems is stark enough, and rich enough, to justify the separate category.

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

An Engineer was assigned to inspect
A bridge truss for signs of defect
He saw lots of rust
And bolts which were bust
His conclusion is quite clear: "Reject!"

http://julianh72.blogspot.com

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

Earlier days( today also) it was common to give an executive summary of the report as first page.
Recently I saw a book where the author has given summaries of his book at the end - Twitter summary :with in 140 letters, Party Summary - within 100 words, Chapter wise summary - with in each paragraph. Indeed a good idea for reports also !

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

In the context of literary style, I wonder if engineering reports can be considered literature. If engineering reports were a literary genre, would police reports, contracts, and product warning labels also be literary genres?

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

I'd have to say that the genre of the mystery novel has its stars and its hacks, and so does the genre of the engineering report. I'm already agreeing to classify engineering reports as a literary genre. They may be structured as JAE pointed out, but all literature has its rules.

wannabeSE, I'd also vote for police reports if they didn't have so many check-the-box entries. I have read some doozies. Contracts? Hmmmm... Warning labels? Hmmmm...

Best to you,

Goober Dave

Haven't see the forum policies? Do so now: Forum Policies

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

... not to mention the accident descriptions in insurance claims.

- Steve

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

I spent a lot of time writing tech reports for journal publication, tech conferences, project design, procedures, field audits etc. Often these are collaborations (generally I write them and the rest of the team marks them up, a blank screen seems intimidating to many Engineers, but someone else's words are chum in the water) and I never cease being amazed at how many people accept partially understood "rules" as "gospel". My style is to write like a human being trying to communicate with other human beings--often this ends up being in the first person. The "rule" for tech papers is that everything MUST be written in the third person and many of my collaborators spend inordinate time converting my "and then you ..." to "and then a person would ...". I get published because my stuff is readable. After the rules police are done I don't see how anyone can slog through it.

Yes, Technical Writing is a Genre, too bad it is so heavily populated with people who can't write in a way that can hold someone's interest.

David Simpson, PE
MuleShoe Engineering

Law is the common force organized to act as an obstacle of injustice Frédéric Bastiat

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

The following Bulwer Lytton entry is slightly off topic, but it could provide inspiration to someone...

Quote (2005 Bulwer Lytton -- Dan McKay)


As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual Stromberg carburetors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire, highly functional yet pleasingly formed, perched prominently on top of the intake manifold, aching for experienced hands, the small knurled caps of the oil dampeners begging to be inspected and adjusted as described in chapter seven of the shop manual.

--
JHG

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

Quote (zdas04)

The "rule" for tech papers is that everything MUST be written in the third person and many of my collaborators spend inordinate time converting my "and then you ..." to "and then a person would ...". I get published because my stuff is readable. After the rules police are done I don't see how anyone can slog through it.

That's painfully true. Not just third person machinations, but the use of passive voice that often accompanies that style. I have highly intelligent colleagues who are also robots and are therefore robotistic adherents to the passive voice. Reading a 40 page engineering report that is twisted in all manner to achieve the most passive of passive voices is a tiresome exercise. Of course, all suggestions that things could be lightened up with a bit of active voice on occasion is met with the response you would expect, having just told them the Bible is not entirely literal.

I particularly like Kenat and jhardy1's contradictions of my suggestion that poetry is in stark contrast to engineering reports - at least those reports would get read!

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

Cheers LiteYear, I was concerned folks might not get my pseudo Haiku.

Having daily 'stand up meetings' on high profile projects is all the fad here, theory being it's a few minutes for everyone to say what they achieved yesterday and what they'll do today. Inevitably they drag on and are big time sinks so one time I actually proposed we did them in the form of pseudo Haiku to speed things up and performed something similar to the above on the spot. Got a few laughs but apparently didn't get my point across about the pointless time sinks.

(I blame software folks for infecting us with their 'Scrum' nonsense - they never actually used the term scrum for our meetings but if they ever do I'm going to turn up in my old Rugby shirt, with taped ears and a gum shield.)

Regarding Passive voice, I actually appreciate it when used appropriately, but maybe I'm warped from too many years of requirement documents and drawing notes.

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What is Engineering anyway: FAQ1088-1484: In layman terms, what is "engineering"?

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

LiteYear,

Search the internet for the Underground Grammarian, the late Richard Mitchell. He makes an interesting case about the passive voice.

Quote (Active)


I drove my car into a tree.

Quote (Passive)


My car was driven into a tree.

The active voice assigns an agency to the action. In technical communications, you may or may not want to do this.

--
JHG

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

In "technical communications" you absolutely do want to do that. Assigning an agency to an action (nice turn of phrase by the way) is exactly what we are supposed to do.

It is only in communications that involve lawyers where you don't want to make that assignment.

David Simpson, PE
MuleShoe Engineering

Law is the common force organized to act as an obstacle of injustice Frédéric Bastiat

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

(OP)
Ladies, Gentlemen and Engineers,

I thank you for your hearty responses. This is my first post on this forum and I appreciate the numerous replies.

Regarding use of passive voice, almost all the the Liberal Arts writing classes I have taken considered the use of a passive voice in the same category as picking your nose in public. Only the uncouth would behave in such a way. Their reasoning always came back to aesthetic preference.

Meanwhile, engineering culture always seemed to prefer the passive voice. Technical writing in the passive was always viewed as more professional. Other than the obvious answer, that engineers are indeed uncouth, the reasons for the passive voice seemed to be that:

1. The passive voice is (or seems) more objective. Is it a more objective way of making certain kinds of statements? Or is it only a sort of rhetorical trick that only "appears" more objective to certain people? A primary tenant of engineering ethics, avoidance of a conflict of interest, is so emphasied that we should even avoid "the appearance" of a conflict of interest. Thus, even if the passive voice is not actually more objective from a linguistic standpoint, doesn't its "appearance" of having objectivity provide a valid reason for it's use? This is also probably just another case of aesthetic preference.
2. The observation being reported is more important than the observer. For example, the reader cares about the broken widget or the worn bushing. They don't care one whit about the observer except regarding his or her competency.
3. Using the first person is problematic in reports that speak for organizations. Particularly where multiple signatures are required. For example, I worked for government agencies where the findings of the report were an official statement of the organization.

Using the active voice can indeed make writing more lively and easier to read. I tend to get annoyed, however, with english teachers wanting me to write such statements as "the needle of the gage leapt to 97 psi" or "the nail plunged into the wood".

I don't mean to be grinding an ax here. I just want to have your thoughts on the matter.

Thanks again for you comments and happy Fathers Day to those to whom it applies.

Dan
kd5det

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

Dan,
That is a good point about collaborations. With 5 co-authors saying "I did it" can be pretty ambiguous, but what would be the argument against "you [the reader] will see ..."? I've worked on collaborative documents where it was OK to say "We discovered ..." rather than "it was discovered". That seemed to work well.

David Simpson, PE
MuleShoe Engineering

Law is the common force organized to act as an obstacle of injustice Frédéric Bastiat

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

What if only 3 out of 5 co-authors actually discovered it? smile

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

Does anyone ever really give a crap that Newton had a grad student? Edison had a Lab Assistant? I see a lot of papers with 3-7 co-authors and never even read the name after the first one. If they says "we ..." I just figure that some subset of the list was involved and it just doesn't matter if the primary author is giving credit to tag alongs.

I wrote a paper in 1998 that one of my co-authors attached one of his colleague's names to because the guy needed publication credit for tenure, he did exactly zero on either the research or the paper. I don't think he even read it. I met him at an SPE meeting earlier this year and he had the nerve to say "your name was on a paper I published a few years ago".

David Simpson, PE
MuleShoe Engineering

Law is the common force organized to act as an obstacle of injustice Frédéric Bastiat

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

Quote (kd5det)

the needle of the gage leapt to 97 psi

In a very narrow, technical sense, this is an example of an active voice. The active agency responsible for the action is the needle of a gauge. Is this needle a qualified engineer?

In a technical paper, you would write, "We observed that the pressure gauge read 97psig". This is less exciting, and rather wordy. I don't see how words like "leaped" and "plunged" would be used in technical papers.

--
JHG

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

I think the use of active voice or passive voice should come down to where to place the emphasis. What is most important?

Joe caused the accident
The accident was caused by Joe.

Which is more important - that it was Joe or that there was an accident? The subject of sentence should be reflect which is more important. If they are of equal import, then I would default to active voice.

Good Luck
--------------
As a circle of light increases so does the circumference of darkness around it. - Albert Einstein

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

I actually tend to write my first draft in a mostly-passive voice, I don't know how that got stuck in my style. My final reports, though, generally have as much active voice as I can stick into them. It differentiates my work from the masses, and I've had more than my share of compliments by doing so I think.

I personally think the active voice is a much better read, technical report or not.

Best to you,

Goober Dave

Haven't see the forum policies? Do so now: Forum Policies

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

(OP)
I found this Univ. of Wisconsin document online. It shows examples of papers written by professors in the College of Engineering.

Note that for most papers shown the authors used about half and half on passive/active constructions.

http://education.mrsec.wisc.edu/documents/Active-p...

Dan

RE: Engineering Reports as a Literary Genre

Sometimes, I write a report that needs a longer introduction that "This is a report about X installed in Y...".
The usual case is a damage repair, where the nature and extent of the damage must be summarized and a few photos or sketches will be used to document it visually. This is where attention to sentence structure can be important, so I try to make simple declarative sentences. There has to be a logical order and usually a chronology of events is enough. If I have trouble writing it, sometimes it's because I've forgotten my sentence structure. If the sentence structure is good, maybe my logic is faulty... It has happened that writing the damage evaluation as early as possible has clarified what questions remain to be answered about the nature of the damage and how to resolve it. Simple declarative sentences can be passive but often it doesn't matter. Just stick to Noun-Verb to start, then chain them together when a logical argument should be made in one sentence.

Is it a "genre"? Possibly. You would have to believe as I do, that "culture" includes technology, not just music and movies and painting. If you agree so far, then I would venture that engineering reports are historical documents. The kind I write typically examine one or more aspects of a piece of technology (or culture) and demonstrate that it is safe for the public, or attempt to improve upon it, though I doubt mine are of great historical value. But some certainly are. Just think of the level of scrutiny and interest given to some engineering reports, such as the Challenger's boosters, the Hyatt-Regency walkway collapse, the Titanic's watertight bulkheads, etc. At the time they were written, they usually served a limited purpose - proving compliance with one or more requirements, and the time-frame within their scope was very limited. But after some time has gone by, they document a certain "state of the art", good or bad. That's why they are kept: as a record of design decisions done in the past so that justification can be provided at a later date when the technical subject is needed again. Or cover one's a## if there's trouble.

To the OP, I suggest accessing the NACA technical reports servers. Many of them are very well written, particularly the early ones by authors such as Warner and Norton (Tech Reports 105, 120 are good examples). I have also read some DOD and MIL handbooks in my time that really stand out for their readability. These are all accessible on-line, so if you want a few links, I can suggest some.

I'm also wondering if your inquiry is broad enough to include things like patents. They certainly have a style of their own.

STF

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