GENERAL WRITING GUIDELINES

 

Last Updated: November 13, 2017

 

Dr. Hawkins’ offers the following guidelines to students writing material for one of his classes.  These guidelines will be updated on a regular basis and students should use the most recent version when preparing material for Dr. Hawkins.

 

Form and Style Guidelines/Information

1.     Texas A&M University Writing Center (http://uwc.tamu.edu)

2.     TAMU thesis web site and the TAMU Thesis Manual.

3.     Guidelines for the TRB Transportation Research Record contain formatting and style guidelines for TRB papers.  These are good guidelines for almost any transportation document.  The guidelines can be found at TRB Information for Authors. 

 

Word Processing Suggestions

1.     Learn the details of how to use a word processing program – particularly the advanced features.  Word and WordPerfect are two of the most common, but are not the only ones.  Each program provides many capabilities that will help you prepare and format a document with minimal effort. 

2.     Learn how Word uses style templates to define formatting.  It is much easier to format a document using the styles than to manhandle the formatting.  Particularly if you have to change formatting later in the writing process.

3.     Learn how to set indents and hanging indents.  Do not use tabs or spaces to indent the second and later lines of text in a paragraph.  In other words, you should use the tab key only as the first keystroke at the beginning of a paragraph.  You should not use the tab key within a paragraph.

4.     The default left and right margins for Word are 1.25 inches.  You should change the default template to left and right margins of 1.0 inches.  Few places use 1.25 for left and right margins.

5.     Dr. Hawkins recommends that students turn on the option to view formatting marks.  This will help the student to make sure that text is properly formatted.  This is particularly useful in making sure that you do not have too many spaces between words, are not inserting multiple tabs in a sentence, or are not inserting the tab code within a paragrah.  (In Word, Tools=>Options=>View tab=>Formatting Marks=>All).

 

Report/Paper Organization

1.     Provide a Table of Contents, List of Figures, and List of Tables for a report.  A paper may or may not benefit from these, depending upon the length.  If you provide a TOC, LOF, and/or LOT, use dot leaders with page numbers so that readers will be able to find the item listed in the TOC/LOF/LOT.

2.     Divide content using chapters and/or headings so that readers can easily go to the part of the document that they are interested in.

 

Report/Paper Format

1.     Dr. Hawkins recommends that you use 12 point Times New Roman as your default font throughout the document.  Do not mix fonts or font sizes in the document (except you can use a smaller font size in a table).  You can use a different font style if you want, but whichever font you choose, be sure to use it consistently. 

2.     Provide page numbers on every page.

3.     Single space reports and papers.  Use 1.5 or 2.0 spacing for a review draft.  Note: theses and dissertations must use 1.5 or 2.0 line spacing.

4.     Footers and/or headers may be a useful means of providing a unique identity to your document and provide the readers with useful information.

5.     You must have at least two headings of a given level.  For example, within a given first level heading, you cannot have just one second level heading.  You must have at least two second level headings or you should not have any second level headings.

6.     You cannot have a heading followed immediately by another heading.  You must have text between two consecutive headings.

7.     The chapter title is not a heading.  The first level heading is within the text of a document, not the chapter title.

8.     While not a requirement, it is recommended that each chapter be numbered (i.e., Chapter 1: Introduction).

9.     Tables and figures may be numbered consecutively throughout the entire document or may be numbered within each chapter (i.e., Figure 4-1, Figure 4-2 for the first two figures in Chapter 4).

10.   Tables and figures in any appendix should be numbered with a letter corresponding to the appendix letter and the number of the table/figure (i.e., Table A-1, Table B-3).

11.   Table and figure captions should use the same font and font size as the text in the document.

12.   Do not split tables across a page, even in a draft document.

13.   The font size in a table may be smaller than the font size used for the regular text.  It is common for the content of a table to be in 10 pt font. 

14.   Put a box around all figures.

15.   Typical heading style (follows TRB Guidelines)

a.   1st level – Uppercase bold: FIRST LEVEL HEADING

b.   2nd level – Titlecase bold: Second Level Heading

c.    3rd level – Titlecase italics: Third Level Heading

16.   If you provide metric units, make sure that they are SI units.  (FYI, SI units do not include cm.)

17.   In general, you should not use symbol in the text (except for the dollar sign $).  Specifically, do not use the percent symbol (%) or ampersand (&) in text – spell out the words “percent” and “and.”  It is okay to use these and other symbols within a table.

18.   Use one space between words and two spaces between sentences.

19.   Use the equation editor to insert an equation.  Do not type equations using regular text if it would require either the * or ^ symbols.

20.   Use left justification except where text is to be centered.  Do not use full justification.  Word does not use proportional font spacing in full justification.  As a result, spacing in full justification is inconsistent and presents a poor appearance.

 

Writing Suggestions

1.     Provide an overall (“big picture”) description at the beginning of a chapter.  The first sentence of a paragraph should provide an indication of the overall content of the paragraph.

2.     In general, short sentences are better than long sentences.

3.     Write economically!  Use as few words as possible to convey a concept.  Do not use 10 words to convey a thought when you can do it with 5.

4.     Use figures and tables to communicate information.  Many readers will just browse a document and will get valuable information from looking at the figures and tables.

5.     Use bullet points to summarize/list key items.

6.     Write in active voice.  Avoid passive voice.

7.     Pay attention to the organization of your sentences, paragraphs, sections, and chapters. 

8.     Use transitions between the key elements (sentences, paragraphs, sections, and chapters).

9.     Use adjectives and adverbs carefully.  Do not embellish. 

10.   Do not use the word “dangerous” in engineering writing.

11.   Do not write negatively about your work or others’ work unless you carefully consider what you are saying and are convinced that the wording is appropriate.

12.   Make sure you use the correct tense.  Proposals are typically written in the future tense and reports/papers/theses/dissertations in the past tense, although there may be exceptions for some cases or sentences.  If you cut-and-paste text from the proposal to the thesis/dissertation, make sure you change the tense.  Consistent use of improper tense indicates a lack of proofreading and may lead to the proposal or thesis being returned to the student for editing without being read for technical content.

13.   Students should make sure they understand the rules for using commas.  Improper use or lack of use of commas is a common deficiency.  Improper use of commas may require additional review time for Dr. Hawkins’ thesis/dissertation review.  Dr. Hawkins prefers that a comma be used after the next-to-last item in a list (before the and).

14.   The word data is plural.

15.   You must have a space between a number and the unit of measure.  In the last couple of years, students have been showing numbers and units with no space between them.  This type of error may lead to the proposal or thesis being returned for revision without being read for technical content.  Examples: 4ft is not correct, 4 ft is, 35mph is not correct, 35 mph is.  The rule applies regardless of whether you are using English or metric units.

16.   The Table of Contents, List of Figures, and List of Tables are three separate lists.  Each should have the heading/caption and use dot leaders (……….) to connect the heading/caption to the page number that is right aligned.

 

General Organization for an Engineering Document (Report or Paper)

1.     This outline will change depending upon the topic and level of detail needed in the document. 

2.     In some cases, these headings will be sections, in larger documents, they will be chapters.

3.     This structure may not work for all documents.  In some cases, you may want to deal with data collection, analysis, and results all together instead of splitting them up as described below. 

4.     The primary guiding principle in writing is to know your audience.  Write in a manner that will make your intended audience get the most out of the document.  If you are trying to write for multiple audiences, you should prepare different documents or you need to recognize that the document you prepare may not meet the needs of some of your audience.

5.     The following presents a general outline for the sections/chapters that can make up an engineering document.

 

I.             Abstract – generally, a 250 word or less description of what you did, what you found, and what you recommend.  This should be the last item in the document to be written.  For a report, there may be a need for an executive summary (generally less than 2 pages).

II.            Introduction – a view of the topic from 10,000 ft altitude.  The introduction provides a generalized description of what the document is addressing without getting into details.  It must be well written to generate the reader’s interest.  It should also provide a framework for the rest of the document so that a reader can read only the introduction and one other section/chapter and have a pretty good idea of what it means.  The content of the introduction will change depending upon the type of document, but generally includes:

A.     Setting

B.     Problem description

C.     General description of problem solving approach

D.     Structure of document.

III.          Background Information – depending on the type of document, this may provide detailed information about what others have done related to this subject, explanations of how critical pieces fit together, or other material that will help the reader to get to the same level so that they can understand and appreciate the remainder of the document.

IV.          Problem Solving Approach – describe the method you used to solve the problem.  This probably means outlining how you decided what data you needed, the procedures you used to collect the data, and the procedures you used to analyze the data.

A.     Description of data related to the issue and how you decided what data to use in the analysis

B.     Description of how you collected the data.

C.     Describe the procedure you used to analyze the data.  This is where you may need to give the theoretical basis for the analysis.

V.           Analysis and Results/Findings – this is where you describe what data is and what the analysis results are.

A.     Data – indicate the details of the data you collected.  This is where you summarize the raw data that goes into the analysis.  The raw data itself probably belongs in the appendix.

B.     Describe the data analysis and results

VI.          Conclusions and Recommendations – Many executives will read only this section/chapter.  It needs to be written so that it sufficiently summarizes the efforts and tells the decision maker what to do.

A.     Summarize what was done and how it was done

B.     Summarize the findings

C.     Describe what the findings mean – this is the interpretation of the results

D.     Identify what changes should be made in response to the findings.

VII.         References – this generally applies to research documents, but may be appropriate for technical reports to indicate the sources of information.

VIII.       Appendices – this is where you may want to put the data details.  Unless there is a need to put the data in the report, put it in the appendix.  You may want to divide it into several appendices.

 

Common Writing Mistakes that Students Make in Writing Papers and Reports (list is in no specific order)

1.     Check the tense you use.  Many students write a proposal/plan in future tense and then insert that text into a paper/thesis without changing the tense.  This is wrong!

a.   A proposal is a plan for what you intend to do.  Use future tense.

b.   A report/paper/thesis is a description of what you did.  Generally, you use past tense, but present tense may be acceptable.  But you need to be consistent.

c.    When you are referring to the work of others (such as in a literature review), you should use past tense as this is work that other people did before you did your work.

2.     When writing a literature review, be careful about using terms such as “this research” and “the project.”  They can easily confuse the reader who may not be sure whether you are talking about your efforts or those of a previous author.  Use the author’s name when describing the previous work, i.e., “Smith found that students who study are more likely to get higher grades.”

3.     Make sure that the font used for your titles and headings is the same as that used for the narrative text.  Microsoft Word’s default heading styles have a different font, size, and color for headings.  This is wrong.  See the guidelines above for the typical formatting used for headings.

4.     Convention is to always use the direction of traffic flow (northbound, etc.) when identifying an approach.  Do not use just north or some other partial descriptor.

5.     Tables and figures should stand on their own merit.  This is often all that policy makers will look at.  Each table/figure needs to have a caption and sufficient notes so that one does not have to read any part of the body of the report.

6.     Provide dot leaders in the Table of Contents, List of Figures, and List of Tables.

7.     If you prepare a paper or report that uses color (usually relates to the figures in the document), make sure that it can be interpreted correctly when printed in black and white.

8.     Make figures as large as possible on the page.

9.     Provide North arrow for all maps.

10.   There is always a space between the time and the am/pm and between the number and units.

11.   Always provide a caption for each table and figure.  Generally, each is numbered (figures and tables are numbered separately).  Table captions are typically at the top of the table.  Figure captions are typically below the figure.

12.   When you have numbered tables or figures, do not use terms like below, above, or next page.

13.   When proofreading your report, make sure that all references to figure and table numbers use the correct cross-reference.

14.   Do not use % symbol in text.  Write it out – “percent.”  It is okay to use it in tables.  Same goes for &, <, > and other symbols.

15.   Do not use contractions in a formal report or paper.

16.   Use headings in chapters to structure content. Show at least two levels of headings in the TOC.

17.   Always have text after a heading.  You should not use consecutive headings without text in between them.

18.   Always use a leading zero with a decimal, i.e., 0.81, not .81. 

19.   Always provide a space between a numerical value and the units, i.e., 40 mph, not 40mph.

20.   When you write and/or or review/edit your document, you need to think from perspective of someone who is reading it for the first time and that does not know what you know.  The unfamiliar reader may not know what your writing objective is and you need to explain it and other aspects to that they will understand.

21.   An introduction has general information – purpose, general activities, participants, etc.  An analysis chapter has details about what, where, how, when, etc.

22.   If you rotate content on page, the page number and any headers/footers do not rotate.  The page number and footer should be at the bottom of the sheet no matter how the page is rotated.

23.   Font size for body text is usually 12 pt.  You can use 14 pt for chapter titles, but those are usually 12 pt as well.  Use the same font in table that you use in text except that the size of the font used in a table can be 10 pt.

24.   Avoid two line rows in tables if possible.  See if you can widen a column so that the text fits in one line.

25.   When responding to editorial comments, consider whether the item being commented on exists in other places.  Your boss may make the editorial comment in only one location, but will expect you to fix it everywhere it occurs in the document.

26.   Be careful with time labels.  Indicate what is intended by the time labels.  Are you showing start time or end time.

27.   The page numbers that occur before the first chapter typically use a small Roman number (i.e., i, ii).

28.   Students should ask Dr. Hawkins to see an example report that contains most, if not all of the expected information.

29.   Avoid the use of adjectives and adverbs in your report unless you can ascribe specific meaning to them.  Never use “dangerous.”  Significant has a statistical connotation.  Words like careful and very do not have real meaning.  If a quantity is implied, give the quantity.

 

Template Reference

This template was provided to students participating in the Southwest Regional University Transportation Center Undergraduate Transportation Scholars Program.  Students were required to use this template when writing their report so that all of the reports would have the same format and a similar appearance when combined in the program compendium.  This template was specific to a single paper that was included in a compendium and it may need to be modified for use with a stand-alone paper or report.