The following is an excerpt from Bill Schmalz's book The Architect's Guide to Writing.
The architecture, design, and construction professions are seen, by ourselves and by those outside the professions, as visual and tectonic fields. Architects and designers are trained as visual artists, using two- and three-dimensional means to depict buildings, spaces, and urban environments. We learn how to sketch; to build physical and digital models; and to draw plans, elevations, sections, and details. Similarly, contractors and construction managers are trained in scheduling, cost estimating, and the physical requirements of constructing buildings. These are valuable skills for us design and construction professionals at all stages in our careers. But for most of us, there comes a time when we need to write stuff, when written documents dominate our professional lives. Letters, proposals, reports, specifications, contracts, RFIs and RFI responses, meeting minutes, emails, and white papers are just some of the types of documents that we spend much of our time writing.
Unfortunately, we receive little training in our writing skills. True, our elementary school education may have given us the basics of English grammar and composition. In college, most of us had to fulfill liberal arts requirements that involved writing. But when we entered the profession, we were unprepared to deal with how much we would have to write, and how important it would be to our professional lives.
That’s not to say that most architects* are bad writers. Many can write quite eloquently. But even architects with the best writing skills often make mistakes with the little things, such as punctuation, grammar fine points, and precise word usage. Others of us struggle to find clear and elegant ways to make our points. And while we may use hard-copy or online dictionaries, few of us keep a reference book on English usage handy.
Little things matter. As Mies said, “God is in the details,” and most of us agree with that when designing buildings and spaces. We obsess about getting every drawing, every detail correct. Our writing deserves the same level of attention. When writing a letter or a proposal, we may think using that instead of which, or using a hyphen instead of a dash, is not important. After all, who’s going to notice? Sometimes, no one will.
But many of the people who read what we’ve written are well educated and can spot the small mistakes. With every seemingly inconsequential writing error, we run the risk of appearing careless. That’s why The Architect’s Guide to Writing was written. It’s intended to be a one-stop reference for design and construction professionals to help them with their writing skills. It consolidates the accumulated wisdom of the best experts on English usage in one place, and identifies approaches that will keep us, as writers, out of trouble. And it concentrates on the things that we designers and builders get wrong most often.
Why this book? A lot of good books are available to help people improve their writing. They include dictionaries, usage guides, and various types of writers’ manuals. Professional writers ought to have many of these books on their bookshelves. But most architects and contractors are not professional writers. Instead, we are design and construction professionals who spend a large part of our professional lives writing. That’s a big difference, and that’s where this book will help. It has been written, not by an English major or a university professor, but by a practicing architect who knows the kinds of documents we routinely have to write, and understands the kinds of technical writing mistakes we often make.
I’ve written this book to meet the specific needs of design and construction professionals. I’m not going to waste your time with the things that most educated people already know. Nor is this an encyclopedic reference that includes everything a writer would ever need to know, because we don’t need to know everything. But what we do need to know—what we use every day in our professional lives—is here.
Who is this book for? While most licensed architects, intern architects, interior designers, architecture and interior design students, urban planners, engineers, contractors, and construction managers will benefit from using this book, the people who need it most are the principals, practice owners, project managers, marketing managers, and project architects who spend the majority of their time writing or editing text.
This book is intended to help you, as a writer, get your written messages across as clearly and as simply as possible. Will it make you a great writer? Probably not. Great writers produce lasting works of literary art. Great writers win major literary awards and the accolades of critics. The works of great writers are often read by millions of people. But fortunately, you don’t need to be a great writer. You need only to be a competent one. And if you diligently follow the advice in this book, you will certainly become a better writer, and very likely a technically competent one. And that will put you ahead of 95 percent of the other architects, designers, engineers, and contractors. Unless, of course, the other 95 percent also buy this book and follow its advice. (I can wish, can’t I?)
* Throughout this book, when I say architects, I’m using it as shorthand for longer, clumsier, but more precise terminology such as architects, designers, engineers, and builders, or building design and construction professionals.