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To expand on the title, I am about to finish my engineering degree. However, I haven't really written an essay for the past ten years. The main reason was that I focused all my attention on maths-related subjects throughout my school years (I was one of the kids who would do maths competitions, etc.). I only realised my writing and grammar was poor, is when I did an internship, and it was the only constant improvement that I was recommended. When it comes to writing, I would be aware of using commas when I felt it was necessary rather than following the grammatical rules that are set out ( e.g., before a coordinating conjunction in compound sentences, etc.).

I mainly struggle with making sentences flow, getting across all the thoughts that are in my head for the reader to understand what I am thinking, and to make my writing appear to be written by a competent writer (sad reacts). Is there a bank of rules in the back of your head when you write just like when someone is solving a maths problem?

So my question is, where should I start, and when it comes to writing, what topics should I cover? For example, if you were in my shoes and wanted to get up to scratch (or up to your level) what topics or tasks would you set yourself up with, in what order and how long would you assume it would take to reach a competent level?

I am fully aware it would require constant practice to maintain ones writing ability.

Thank you for reading what I had to write.

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You express yourself well. Clearly explaining your position is a very important beginning. I use ProWritingAid. A free version is available as an add on with Google Docs. I love it because the reports show me exactly where my writing can improve and what actions I can make to ensure all grammar rules are observed.

Practice is key. By writing every day, one improves by finding new areas to learn and strengthen. Any reading and writing activities help strengthen those muscles. There are hundreds of grammar books; my favorite is Elements of Style. The thin volume shows and tells the huge take away of proofreading: eliminate unnecessary words.

Another source of help could be the people who wrote the performance reviews. For every rude person, I’ve found ten helpful souls willing to give constructive feedback.

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  • Thanks a lot for the feedback, which I have taken onboard. I've now bought a copy of the book you have suggested, and also I've enrolled onto coursera an online English course. I just wanted to ask, what do you mean when you wrote, "by the people who wrote the performance review"? – wanttoimprove Jul 9 at 2:00
  • I had to ask people in my field to look at my writing and make suggestions since they knew the most about that style of writing. There are a lot of very specific tools out there, I wouldn’t have known about any of them if I hadn’t been open for help. In your initial post, you mentioned that people suggested you improve your writing. That sounded like a review. I was always told I have an attitude, I still do. – Abigail Davids Jul 9 at 16:19
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You should have more confidence in your skills. Your writing is clear and expressive. Your thoughts are organized and you get your point across. I wonder if someone was unfairly harsh in their criticisms of your writing in the past.

For language, the equivalent of basic math rules are grammar and style. The fastest way to improve these is to check your writing with software such as Grammarly AND then cross-check each recommendation against a reference such as the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing or The Oxford Modern English Grammar. The software will help you focus on your particular weaknesses; the references will help you counteract the software's 25% error rate. After a week or so of doing this, you'll make far fewer errors and your writing will improve significantly. If you have the time, I also recommend enrolling in an online class such as https://www.edx.org/course/english-grammar-and-style.

That "struggle with making sentences flow" you mention is common to all writers. Practice helps, but by far the best strategy is revision (which is what I'm doing write now). Give yourself permission to write your ideas imperfectly the first time(s?) through - leave the cleanup for later. Then, go back and tidy up.

The importance of using correct English depends the circumstances. It's less critical for informal communications. Most Tech/Engineering companies that hire global talent do not expect correct English for internal communications. However, using correct English IS important when you apply for positions, particularly customer-facing roles. For make or break documents, such as your resume or a client proposal, you should have a professional writer/editor review your work.

As an engineer, you'll probably find technical writing skills very useful. Google has free online technical writing courses. These do a good job of teaching you the most important skills with minimum fuss! They've created "these courses at people in the following roles:

  • professional software engineers
  • computer science students
  • engineering-adjacent roles, such as product managers"

If you prefer to learn-as-you-go, the Microsoft Style Guide is excellent. Just look at these Top 10 tips for Microsoft style and voice.

Good luck! I hope this is useful!

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    I would challenge the argument that English skills are not as important. In a lot of engineering roles, there’s a need to write documentation or proposals that will be shared with a client. If there isn’t the attention to language detail there, a customer may be forgiven for having concerns about the quality of the product. I personally look for good written English skills when recruiting and it can be a reason for a CV being discarded. – David Fulton Jul 8 at 8:50
  • @DavidFulton Updated the answer to reflect your comments. – rolfedh Jul 8 at 12:02
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This is a very opinionated answer, be aware that some would not necessarily agree with my interpretations and beliefs.

Improving your writing widely varies whether it is just for general improvement, or writing for a specific purpose like academic papers.

Academia/technical writing

From my non-native speaker perspective, I would rank this as the easiest form of writing. Sure it does sometimes requires big fancy words unbeknownst to mere mortals, but much is forgiven there as the content prevails over the form. From your post I would say you are ok there, you are an efficient communicator, there are some grammar and style issues but they aren’t too hard to fix. My recommendation is similar to the other answers, review your grammar, read, write.

General informal writing

Here the goal is to sound natural, and notice that I did use the word “sound”. Some academics are not able, or unwilling, to loosen up and ditch formalism and the big stick logged up there. Most of the sentence structures and words used in a scholarly context are contrived and unattractive, they may be precise, efficient even, but they are platypuses that don’t quack right.

While your question post was clear the sentences seemed a bit like bullet points in a presentation, a bit too dry and robotic for my taste. You could try to add more structural variations and different sentence lengths. I know you asked for a “formula” to improve your writing but I would argue that what you need is less, and not more, rules....writing is a soft skill.

To improve in this area I would pay more attention to spoken English. This in turn would help you write dialogue, if you ever need to. While estimates vary, there are only three to five thousand words commonly used in the english language, you don’t really need more. Some of the world greatest authors use very simple vocabulary that can be understood by a child. Also, for general improvement practice is key. As in other fields the 10 thousand hours of practice rule of thumbs apply.

The First Million Words Are Practice

Novels

Fiction writing is too vast a subject to address quickly and is the reason behind forums like this. This is writing as an art form. Many how to books are written about it, Here is one of the most prolific authorstake on it:

20 tips from Stephen King’s On Writing

In your case I think you should start by writing poetry. Poetry follows many rules which should keep you happy, yet, if done properly, flows. Writing is music, pay attention to the rythmes of your words, you should try to read aloud what you write, it should improve your flow. Also it can be healthy to ditch the rules and be nonsensical. Try your hand at free form writing. A lot of writers enjoy playing around with words. Again this subject is too vast to do it justice in a post. I will leave you with the example of a mathematician who knew how to loosen up and be “silly”. (not to mention a certain scholar who doodled aimlessly that in a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit)

Alice in Wonderland’s genesis

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