“A Scientific Approach to Writing for Engineers and Scientists” by Robert E. Berger (IEEE Press, 2014)

I both love and hate the detail in this book. This approach to teaching writing seems like a great idea, and the book is full of useful information, but 191 pages of examples, boxed definitions, and bullet points is too much (for me) to bear.

Berger categorizes sentences into types and then writes a formula for each one. These get more and more complicated. They include, for example, many small bracketed question marks, which stand for the fact that in some sentences of the form in question, punctuation is necessary at this point, and in some, it’s not. I could list other examples of his layers of code that seem to obscure his message, but let me instead refer to a few things I liked.

1. His term “premise.” Berger uses “premise” to mean “a coherent series of paragraphs intended to support a particular proposition (e.g. whether a particular problem is worth solving, whether a particular technical approach will lead to solving a problem, and whether a market exists for a product)” (6). I’ve always called this a “step,” but “premise” captures the meaning better.

2. His basic distinction between the “core” of a sentence and its various “qualifiers,” which add important information ( what kind of x?  when x happens, why x happens). If you identify the main point of your sentences, you’ll know what to say in the core of it, and then you’ll know what to put in the auxiliary parts. And then your reader would better understand your hierarchy of ideas.

3. Where and how the qualifier is attached to the sentence is important. Berger writes in bold: “The integration of qualifiers into sentences is the most common writing challenge encountered by scientists and engineers” (18). One would generally put the additional information close to the word it describes. Berger offers a lot more information on this decision, but it’s couched in grammar jargon (some of it will be familiar to you, and some of it he invented himself).

4. His ideal of having no more than two qualifiers in a sentence is a good one, even if that’s not always possible (4). Engineers try to cram too much information in a single sentence!

5. His high value on parallelism (what he calls “principle of equivalence”), which means ” all items in a list should be treated the same way” (4).

6. His emphasis on coherence. A paragraph should have one goal, and a topic or thesis sentence helps your reader understand this goal.

7. His attention to flow. Sentences should flow together, paragraphs should be arranged logically. Regarding sentences flowing together, Berger does not just emphasize transition words but also what he calls “linking words,” which are repeated words that appear in neighboring sentences and highlight the relationship between them (153).

If any of these topics are important to you, but you feel that they have not been properly explained to you in the past, then try this book. The Table of Contents is quite detailed, so you should be able to locate the topics of greatest interest to you. Perhaps the author’s scientific approach will be more attractive to you than it was to me.


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