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Everyone’s a Critic!

By: , Posted on: August 3, 2018

I started writing for public consumption in two ways. I wrote a few blogs to do with various hobby-horses of mine, and I wrote book reviews, mainly for IChemE publications. Book reviews were an excellent place to start, as they showed me the most common problems authors have.

For example, reviewing books taught me that poor proofreading can spoil an otherwise excellent book, and that there must be a firm editorial hand, otherwise a manuscript can appear to have been written by a committee without consensus. Some of my reviews were quite harsh, and the most swingeing of them were not published. I enjoyed writing them though, and I learned that some really badly written books still get published. Being the world’s worst author is probably scarcely easier than being the world’s best.

Blogs were also a useful training ground, as they helped me develop a direct, personal authentic writing style, which leads to readability. Readers also give you quick feedback on content and style. There isn’t much point in writing books no-one reads, though there is a difference in how you write a book intended to be read like a novel, like my first one, and writing a book intended to be read a chapter at a time, like my second and third ones.

From these beginnings, I developed my idiosyncratic way of writing books. I produce a rough draft, then use social media to recruit a couple of hundred engineers (mostly practitioners), each of whom gets to choose a couple of chapters to review. The review criteria are whether what I have written is complete, current, correct and consensus professional practice. I specifically tell them not to comment on spelling, grammar or styling, not because it will stop them doing so, but because it will at least encourage them to focus on making the comments which are most helpful in the early stages. The polishing comes later.

Whilst my reviewers have written no books themselves, some have very strong opinions on how mine should be written. Similarly, those who have never taught may nonetheless have strong opinions on what that’s all about. Those who have never worked as engineers frequently hold strong opinions on the nature and practice of my profession. Those whose grasp on English is weaker than mine sometimes insist on spelling and grammatical changes. I could go on.

Everyone’s a critic, as the old saying goes, but almost all of the most useful critique comes from my peers (whether they be peers as an author, engineer or professor) working in their personal area of expertise. The critique of non-experts is however often amusing, and occasionally useful.

So, when a non-author insists that textbooks absolutely must be written in a style even dryer than that of an expert court report (which at least allow the author to refer to themselves in the first person, and to express a personal opinion), what they are really seem to be telling me is how my book differs from the one they would write. My large pool of commentators tells me that these opinions – often held as absolute truths – are actually shared by very few. Many more appreciate the readable style of a more personal voice. Someone wrote to me this week to describe my first book as a “page-turner”, which is exactly what I was aiming for (or, at least, as far as that is possible for an engineering textbook). I can write reports for technical, scientific and evidentiary purposes, papers for peer-reviewed journals, pedagogic essays, blogs and so on but each of these differ from the others, and from various other styles of textbook. Authors understand that there is more than one kind of writing style, but maybe some engineers do not.

I have also noticed that some engineers misremember their education, and the struggles of those early years of practice, finding out for themselves how ill-prepared engineering graduates are to engineer. I made the same error myself until I had to reflect on this as part of learning to teach, and then to discover through teaching how hard it is to teach and learn these things. Some deny this strongly and take the suggestion that this is the case as an attack on their particular alma mater. I can’t help but notice that the strongest emotional reactions come from those who insist they are completely rational and scientific. We are run by the parts of ourselves we deny exist.

As for the non-engineers who insist that engineering is a simple application of maths and science, I’d say “try it”. Get a job as a practising engineer, if you can. Come back to me when you have practiced as an engineer for five years and you will find that maths and science don’t fill much of an engineer’s day.

Those who correct my English fall into a number of camps. Firstly, we have the native ‘British’ English speakers who object to my Americanisms, (unaware that Elsevier is a global publisher who require me to write in US English). Then we have those non-native speakers who expect me to write in the style of a Victorian gentleman, reflecting the way in which they were taught English. Then we have those who are often wrong but always confident, whose “corrections” are simply erroneous.

I said earlier that these comments could be amusing, but how are they useful? Since so many are offered despite my request not to provide them, I suppose those who offer them must feel strongly about them. They carry information about the misconceptions which prevent learning, as well as about where my style and use of language does not sit well with all readers. It doesn’t mean that I will necessarily change the writing in question, but it does tell me who will be stirred by it. Part of writing well is (in my opinion) to stir people’s emotions. This – not a really nice bullet list of facts – is what makes people want to turn the page.

You may remember I wrote at the start that a firm editorial hand is needed, and nowhere is this truer than with the strongly worded criticisms I sometimes receive. Even when unsolicited, I try not to ignore criticism – even if it seems disrespectful – unless it is not representative of the current, correct, consensus view of practitioners. This is the subject of my books.

Read more articles from Sean Moran, The Voice of Chemical Engineering

Professor Sean Moran is a Chartered Engineer with over twenty years’ experience in process design, commissioning and troubleshooting and is regarded as the ‘voice of chemical engineering’. He started his career with international process engineering contractors and worked worldwide on water treatment projects before setting up his own consultancy in 1996, specializing in process and hydraulic design, commissioning and troubleshooting of industrial effluent and water treatment plants.

Whilst Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, he coordinated the design teaching program for chemical engineering students. Professor Moran’s university work focused on increasing industrial relevance in teaching, with a particular emphasis on process design, safety and employability.

Connect with Sean on LinkedIn here, check out his Facebook page here and stay up-to-date on his thoughts, research and practice at his personal blog here.

The book is available, having published on June 5th 2018. An Applied Guide to Water and Effluent Treatment Plant Design brings together the design of process, wastewater, clean water, industrial effluent and sludge treatment plants, looking at the different treatment objectives within each sub-sector, selection and design of physical, chemical and biological treatment processes, and the professional hydraulic design methodologies.

Key Features:

  • Explains how to design water and effluent treatment plants that really work
  • Accessible introduction to, and overview of, the area that is written from a process engineering perspective
  • Covers new treatment technologies and the whole process, from treatment plant design, to commissioning

Sean’s latest books are also available to order on the Elsevier Store. Use discount code STC317 at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy!



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