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Tutoring Writing – Part 2 – Smaller Concepts

June 2nd, 2011 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

Here are some items I see often when working with college engineering and science students – part 2.

For the past couple of years, I have been working with engineering and science students at George Mason University on their writing. I found myself spending the vast majority of the time discussing a small set of items. The previous post discussed what I call “Big Concepts.” This post discusses the “Smaller Concepts.”

The number of words in a sentence

Keep this below 20. I emphasize this with engineers and scientist. We, I am an engineer, tend to count things. We also tend to write on complex subjects that have many modifiers to make things clear (See the 5-volt, direct current, rectified, bench-quality power supply.) These topics often lead to long, unreadable sentences.

Omit needless works

I guess Strunk and White said this first. This helps reduce the number of words in a sentence.

The hyphen

The again comes from the complex topics that engineers and scientists try to describe in writing. In general, if a word will not stand on its own, use a hyphen. Examples include: 5-volt supply, high-quality supply, ten-ton supply, ready-made supply, off-the-shelf supply.

Tense of verbs

Engineers and scientists often describe their work in writing. In the reports, we also describe work performed before us. When describing work performed before my own, use the present tense as in, “water boils at 212 degrees F.” When describing my work, use the past tense as in, “in my experiments, water boiled at 212.5 degrees F.”


This construct is often used in computer programming. It doesn’t work in English. If I use if…then, then I will stumble often. This should be, “if I use if…then, I will not stumble.”


Spell numbers that are less than or equal to ten. For example, one, three, four, ten, 13, 27, and 212.

Subject-Verb agreement

He walks. I walk. They walk. This is pretty simple and should not cause any problems. Again, engineers and scientists describe complex topics in writing with lots of modifiers in the sentences. It is sometimes difficult to find the subject of the sentence and match the verb to it.


Use the same nouns and verbs over and over and over. This is boring, but we are describing complex situations and we want the reader to understand and not wonder. This is the opposite of mystery novels. If you want to confuse the reader until just the right moment, write mystery novels, not engineering and science papers.



Tags: Writing

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