What Have I Learned? – Writing

I haven’t had any special courses or training in writing and some may say it shows. I wouldn’t advocate anyone following my style, especially if you trying to promote your products or ideas. I tend to lead the reader on path of discovery by laying out the situation and the problems and then some interesting ideas. Maybe it is the user in me (33 years at Monsanto and Solutia), the scientist in me (Physics), or my approach to writing that wants to leave it up to the reader to make the judgments and assessments.

However, people today want to know upfront the bottom line. They may not have time or the background to come to useful conclusions. Plus my emphasis on detailing problems can be formatted with a more positive approach of presenting opportunities and solutions. Next month I will offer a short introductory overview of my recent articles that emphasizes the scenario, essence, and value of the ideas developed.

The main point of this blog like all of my writing is to share what I have learned. My goal for next year is to help prevent significant expertise and knowledge in process automation from being lost forever. I would guess 100 or more automation professionals are retiring each year who have published at best an infinitesimally small portion of their expertise for posterity. Also, new engineers are facing special challenges. My sense is the new kid in the control room doesn’t have the mentors or the internal technical training programs I took for granted. They may be thrown into the midst of a difficult problem with no guidance.

Beginning this Fall I will be making presentations at Local ISA sections and interviewing young and seasoned automation professionals recommended by the sections to get a better idea of new and lost process control expertise. The first stop may be the ISA Boston section. I lived in Cambridge when I was overseeing a project at Badger. I am looking forward to returning to Harvard Square and Legal Seafood Market. I can dream of returning to Fenway Park. The interviews will be published in my monthly Control Talk column in Control magazine. I enjoyed doing the 3-part series in Control Talk on “The Secret Life of pH Electrodes” based on interviews at Broadley-James and Rosemount Analytical in Irvine California (nice place to visit).

In the mean time here is what I have learned about writing in no particular order except what pops into my brain (kind of the way I do my first draft).

(1) An outline is a good idea but it is just a starting point. I don’t truly know where the article or book will take me at the beginning. The value I get out of writing is the discovery process. I find concepts and ideas along the way. I gain knowledge besides sharing knowledge. In my next book, I realized after about 5 pages into the first chapter that an important message is the dramatic change in the performance of modern measurements. The installed accuracy of key measurements has improved by one to two orders of magnitude compared to my days in E&I design and construction. A smart closed coupled coplanar DP with static pressure and temperature compensation has 0.02% installed accuracy. A radar level gauge can detect changes as small as 0.04 inches in level. A Coriolis liquid flow meter can have an installed accuracy of 0.05% with a rangeability of 200:1. The bench top and installed accuracy of pressure, level, and flow measurements in 1970s and 1980s was typically 0.5% and 2%, respectively. I have an article from that era that quantifies the deterioration from uncompensated process and ambient operating conditions. Then there was the noise introduced by wiring problems (see May 19 entry). Smart wireless instrumentation offer a whole new ball game if you don’t screw it up with a bad installation. The limit to control loop performance is not the measurement but more than ever is the control strategy, the final element, and how well you tune the controller.

(2) The most difficult thing is writing the first sentence. The second most difficult thing is writing the second sentence. The third most difficult thing is writing the first paragraph. The fourth most difficult thing is writing the first page. The lesson here is to just get started. Writing is an iterative process. My problem is that I get bored rehashing ideas I have unleashed and want to move on to the next page, article, column, or book. I don’t iterate enough. Here is where a person who knows the subject can help by reading and commenting on your drafts. Beware of technical writers or copy editors who want to rewrite the whole thing because it often results in a loss or change in meaning and intent.

(3) Once you get going, don’t stop. A flow is important. After about 10 pages, the thoughts start to flow fast and free. At this point, music (particularly the best of Concrete Blonde, The Goo Goo Dolls, Josh Groban, Don Henley, Meat Loaf, Matchbox 20, Bruce Springsteen, and U2) adds inspiration and makes writing more fun for me. I think this was the only way I was able to write a dozen serious technical books, a half dozen funny technical books, fifty articles and papers, and 8 years of Control Talk column. It also helps to have an understanding management and spouse. Can you envision getting approval of humorous books, columns, and “top ten lists” through the official channels of a big corporation? Can you imagine your spouse letting you spend 8 hours writing on a weekend? Lastly, I do the diagram and figures last. This is mind numbing work for me that would sap my creative energy and interrupt the flow.

(4) Use a lot of sub headings and bullet lists. This gets the reader interested and helps to cherry pick what is of greatest importance. My article “Maximizing PAT Benefits from Bioprocess Modeling and Control” is a good example of missing lists and sub headings. In my defense, the article was a last minute deal. I had just a couple of days and was just doing a core dump of what I thought was important.

(5) Go back and improve the introductory paragraph to each section and the introductory sentence to each paragraph. This is a good idea. I am going to try it when I have time.

(6) Develop the solution, include the assumptions, and detail the verification. I tend to do the first two parts of this suggestion and provide evidence of the last part. However, it would help the readers to make suggestions on how to prove out the idea for their application. No solution is universally true. There are always exceptions. I have benefited from the best minds in process control but I have noticed that the bigger the mind the bigger the ego. A blind spot is developed that makes experts unwilling to acknowledge when their solutions don’t work in a particular application. Maybe it is my science background or an ego deficiency but I am always looking for exceptions and I never think any of my ideas as perfect. You learn more from things that don’t work.

(7) Don’t make statements that are to be accepted as fact. I am particularly sensitive to statements made to be accepted as true that are mostly untrue. For example, “Thermocouples (TCs) are faster than RTDs.” This statement is generally accepted as true but is it useful and is it in fact misleading? What if someone chooses a TC instead of a more accurate RTD because he or she thinks the TC is faster? If you had a bare element there might be a difference of a couple of seconds in the response but the uncertainty in the time lags of most temperature systems are an order of magnitude larger. Once you put the element in a thermowell, the construction and fit and length of the thermowell determines a time lag for the assembly that is an order of magnitude larger as well (no pun intended). Also most controllers are tuned so slowly, you don’t see the effect of small changes in time lags. The bottom line is that you will probably never see the difference in speed between a TC and an RTD. Having said that I can envision exceptions, such as the temperature control of inline mixing of streams with an aggressively tuned controller. I have just never seen this application in practice.

(8) Use short clear sentences and paragraphs that build on each other. Providing qualifications can result in long sentences. Also, one thought for me quickly leads to another and to another and to another, which leads to run-on sentences. I need to constantly go back and split my thoughts into separate sentences with a building block approach. I am currently trying in my first draft to break thoughts up. So far it doesn’t seem to interrupt the flow, which was my original concern.

(9) Don’t get hung up on perfect grammar or a perfect piece. If you don’t give copy editors something to do, they will start some serious messing with the sentences. Everyone wants to feel like they are contributing and doing their job. Also, what copy editors are looking for in terms of commas and hyphens may change. Finally, obsession with sentence structure can lock up your mind. I talked to a copy editor who said he needs to find another job so he can write a book. As a copy editor, he thinks too much about the technical details of writing.

(10) Think of writing as if you were having a conversation with a good friend. This makes the whole writing process less intimidating and lets you be more frank and less formal.

(11) Use plenty of examples and illustrations. It takes time but sure drives the point home. I have seen a lot of misinterpretations of an idea or its intent. The fault is really my own and not the reader. For example, in my article “Is Wireless Process Control Ready for Prime Time” a reader thought there was a concern being expressed on noise from variable speed drives on wireless transmitters when what I meant was the opposite. Wireless transmitters should eliminate these and other noise problems associated with wiring. I no longer assume any concept is obvious.

(12) Use free association and both sides of your brain. This allows you to take creative leaps you probably didn’t even realize before you started writing. In my case it also enables me to add humor such as “Top Ten Lists” and the cartoon descriptions for my illustrious friend Ted Williams.