Winsor: “Engineering Writing/Writing Engineering”


Winsor, Dorothy A. “Engineering Writing/Writing Engineering.” Central works in technical communication. Ed. Johndan Johnson-Eilola & Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 341-350. Print.


Originally Published in College Composition and Communication Vol. 41, No. 1 (Feb., 1990), pp. 58-70Published by: National Council of Teachers of English

Notes dissatisfied with her research methods. She is proud of its interdisciplinary bent; loves the ending.




Notes trend of social constructivism-- but also how it seems out of step with views of engineering. Writing seen as just "simple write-ups of information found elsewhere" (342).


"While our theory says, then, that engineering, like all knowledge, is filtered through language, studies have not yet shown how engineers'' writing would look when contemporary views about the textual shaping of knowledge are applied. This paper is an attempt to fill that gap" (342). Used case study of one engineer/author (names Phillips). Looked at documents, comments on those documents, and then observed writing activity.


Writing Engineering Knowledge


Engineers don''t accept notions of textual mediations of knowledge; perceive selves as working directly on physical objects (343). Cites Latour and Woolgar to argue differently: "inscription can be seen as happening in a chain because, althought documents are written as though they refer to directly to physical reality, they actually refer to and are based on other documents...knowledge is thus constructed through texts, not discovered in the original process of lab work" (343). Also argues that this is social in nature because each document is persuasive-- must convince audience of validity to be accepted.


Engineers'' Reliance on Writing


States that it''s perceived as the "means to the end" of production; not valued for itself. Reality, to Winsor: "Examination of Phillips'' work, however, reveals that, while for him writing is not the final product, it is an essential means by which that product is created because it is the essential means by which the engineering knowlege is created" (343). Even when considering lab results, etc. consulted, very Latour view-- knowledge is constructed through the documents, not the reality. "The computer is the only ''writer'' not writing from previous texts" (344). Interesting relationships-- "one can distinguish here between a document''s authority and its usefulness" (344). Data sheets most "authoritative" because later documents could not contradict them, but least useful for Phillips b/c contained least interpretation. Similarly, graphs are social constructions most useful (Phillips names subordinate who made six of the sets of handouts as co-author).


Knowledge of Document Equals Knowledge of Thing


For Phillips, knowledge of documents and knowledge of things identical.


Writing the Engineer


"Engineers think of themselves as gathering facts and then acting" (346). Reports either present info or store for facts for future use. Also "the reports are designed to show the writers'' respect for fact-based actions and thus show that they belong to the community of engineers" (346). Cites use of Technival Reports and Progress Reports.


Logic as a Plausible Story


Cites example from Latour of scientists working on protein synthesis; worked on specific analogs, but sequenced publication of work to reflect, for example, when they could access equipment or what would be easier. Always presented as only logic (not convenience) had determined selection (347).


"Scientists create rather than describe a logical world in which they themselves behave logically" (347).


Phillips omits and shapes some information b/c of concern about audience understanding -- is this ethical?


"For an engineer to be accepted as an engineer, he or she must write and speak in the already-created forms and tongues of engineering. Thus, while it is possible to say that engineers create themselves in texts, it is also possible to say that they are created by the texts available to them" (348).




Acknowledges limitations of study as one person; needs further research. However, notes the fluidity of exchange between organizations, so that assumes that the practices are generally common.


"This study suggests that writing is, indeed, what engineers do. They inscribe a written representation of physical reality and then use more writing to build agreed-upon knowledge and their own characters as engineers...the engineer differs from the rest of us, perhaps, only in showing greater resistance to knowing that language mediates experience" (349).


Ends -- acknowleges language and power and recognizes her attempt to exert power through language..."all writing, including mine, constructs the world for which the writer can bear to inhabit" (349).