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Engineering the Sentence

In eighth grade, I took an elective designed to prepare us for Science Olympiad, a yearly STEM competition. I was eager to start building rubber-band-powered airplanes, roller coasters, and other Sci-O engineering projects. But as we filed in on Day One, there were no materials or tools to be found. Instead, the teacher split us into pairs and sat us face-to-face but with tall dividers obscuring our view of each other. One student in each pair was given an object — an asymmetrical tower made from toothpicks connected by marshmallows — while the other was given a pencil and paper. Our task seemed trivial: the student with the object had to describe it to their partner, who then had to draw it. The team with the most accurate drawing would be deemed the winner.

Carlos shares his inspiration for this post.

Let me tell you, it was not trivial.

You might think it odd that the first exercise in a STEM class was about communication. But communication is an essential part of any design process. After all, you don’t want your teammates to build just any building; you want them to build your building — the one you’re picturing in your mind.

And yet, for many people interested in engineering, writing is, at best, slightly boring, and at worst, downright intimidating. And I would know, because I used to be one of those people. But there’s a little hack I found that I want to share with you that might make writing a bit less daunting.

Instead of writing a sentence, we’re going to engineer one.

Just as a circuit is made up of discrete components (resistors, capacitors, inductors, etc.) that achieve a specific function, a sentence is made up of discrete components (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.) that communicate a specific idea.

Writing is often thought of as a purely artistic discipline. But language has structure. And as engineers, we can use that structure to design sentences from the ground up. Since I’m an electrical engineer, I like to think of a sentence as a circuit. Just as a circuit is made up of discrete components (resistors, capacitors, inductors, etc.) that work together to achieve a specific function, a sentence is made up of discrete components (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.) that work together to communicate a specific idea.

So, let’s say you want to write … oh I don’t know, the first sentence of your college essay? I know, I know, I can feel you tensing up already. But bear with me! Let’s say that, for this sentence, you’re trying to write about a memorable moment from your childhood. So you start with something like this:

I found a box.

 

That’s a perfectly respectable, grammatically correct sentence! It’s got the parts it needs — a subject, a verb, and a noun — and this first sentence of your hypothetical essay already gives us some information: we know this story is about you, and we know that you discovered an object, a box. 

Now let’s start engineering this sentence.

To do this, ask yourself the following: If I were reading this sentence, what more might I want to know about this story? For example, you might ask, “What kind of box was it?” And to answer that question, you might write something like:


I found a
cardboard box.

 

Great! Now we have more information.

Let’s repeat this process. What else would you want to know? You might ask, “How big was the box?” and “What was in the box?” So you might write:


I found a
large cardboard box
filled with vinyl records.

 

We’re making progress! What else might a reader want to know? Maybe they’d ask, “Where did you find the box?”


In the basement
, I found a large
cardboard box filled with vinyl records.

 

Now we’re really getting somewhere! “In the basement” gives us a setting, and I’m sure you can already start to picture this scene in your mind.

Let’s give this sentence one final pass. You could ask, “What did the basement look like?”, “What did the vinyl records look like?”, and “Whose basement were you in?” And, in turn, you might write:


In the
dark basement of my childhood home,
I found a large cardboard box filled with
dusty vinyl records.

 

We could keep tinkering with this and asking questions (it’s a recursive process, after all), but I think this is pretty good! We now have enough detail to really set the scene.

I wish I’d known about this little exercise back in Science Olympiad class. Instead, we fumbled our words as we tried to explain to our partners, in vain, what to draw. “It’s a tall tower made of toothpicks and marshmallows! What more details do you need?” As you can imagine, our drawings looked nothing like the towers themselves. After all, try picturing a tower, and I’m sure you can envision any number of sizes and shapes it could take (a gothic turret, a radio antenna, a boxy skyscraper …). 

A good engineer understands the importance of specificity in communication. By thoroughly examining all of the relevant details, the engineer can then outline the specifications a fellow engineer would need in order to build something. 

In the same way, the writer of the college essay can examine and then put to paper all of the details admissions officers need to know in order to accurately picture a story in their minds. And while a structure’s integrity may not be at stake, this is a blueprint of sorts — a description that allows your readers to build your story the way you pictured it in your mind. And the closer a reader gets to picturing your story the way you experienced it, the better they’ll get to know you.

Carlos is a Hillside coach.

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