How Can I Do a Content Review if I’m Not an Engineer?

Once you get your first job with a scientific or engineering firm, it will not be too unusual for you to be asked to do a content review of a document (say, a proposal), even though you might not be 100% caught up on the material. Before you gasp in horror, English/liberal arts major, take heart! There are ways to add value even when you’re still learning the ropes, buttons, plumbing, or flow diagrams.

Watching for consistency

One of the biggest “gotchas” with engineering writing (my primary specialty, though science writing can have similar challenges) is ensuring that the content is correct and consistent. “Wait!” you might be saying, “I don’t know if the content is correct!” I’m still trying understand the hieroglyphics.”

That doesn’t mean you can’t catch the subject matter experts (SME) on matters of consistency.

Let’s say that in one part of the document they say that X amount of a chemical is added, but a few sentences later the text uses a different amount. You don’t have to flag one of them and say, “This one is incorrect.” All you have to do is refer the original author to the previous reference and ask, “Which one do you mean?”

This works the same for any measurement used in a system, and most of tech activities will require units because scientists and engineers require some degree of precision to ensure that the work is performing effectively. Whether they’re interested in mols, pounds of propellant consumed per second, or dollars per pound to orbit, all of those numbers, if they’re describing the same activity, should read the same. You don’t have to know which numbers are correct; you do have to be able to recognize when numbers describing the same process are inconsistent.

Also, if you have one subject matter expert (SME) saying one thing and another saying something else, you’ll have to contact both of them and let them duke it out with each other (figuratively speaking, I hope).

Relevance 

When you’re working proposals, you will often receive content from multiple contributors that you have to integrate and make sound like “one voice.” What you might encounter on such occasions is a copy-and-paste job, where someone sends you a bunch of text that they used in another proposal and just expect you to reuse. This is partially laziness and partially time saving. The text they send you could describe their part of the process correctly, but then you also might notice that their text includes references to that other project. If the process doesn’t change and the application is the same, you can just swap out the old proposal for the current proposal name.

However, if the application  of their process is radically different–say they were describing a process that works a specific way on the ground and  is being used space or under water or you’re suddenly working with a different chemical than the process used before–it doesn’t hurt to confirm with the SME the process is still the same despite the changed environment or materials.

Then there are occasions where the content you receive doesn’t necessarily “answer the mail.” Let’s say you’re working on fuel bladders for a ground base and the material you receive refers to fuel tanks that are to be installed inside a ship. You might not be a military engineer, but you can politely point out to your SME that their content appears to be addressing a subject different from what the request for proposal (RFP) is requesting.

Pattern recognition

What a content review comes down to is making certain that the content in hand is telling the story that your employer/customer wants told to meet the proposal customer’s needs. You need to read the RFP first so you know what the proposal is supposed to answer/say. Ideally, you should see some of the same matching subjects and verbs in your proposal content. Is the object or process being described creating the result that the RFP is seeking? If yes, go forth and conquer; if not, go have a discussion with your SME.

Marketing language

Another way you can add value in a content review is to flag places where the technical  description does not explain why your employer’s/customer’s process is better or more effective than the competition’s. Or, if you’re writing an SBIR or STTR proposal, you want to make certain that your work demonstrates why this approach is new, different, or innovative compared to previous approaches.

While engineers might think that just a bare description of their process will make it self-explanatory to the reader why it’s better, for the sake of clarity, it doesn’t hurt to spell it out in one sentence: “This approach will save $X per pound to orbit/X,000 labor hours to assemble” or “This hardware will increase spectral resolution 10X,” etc.

In other words, you can add value to the proposal by asking questions and being willing to “look stupid” by prodding your SMEs about how or why their particular process adds value.

And you don’t even have to do the math.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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