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Duke CEE 2021 Digital Magazine

An Engineer on Writing

December 9, 2021 | Miranda Volborth

For more than 30 years, noted civil engineer and Duke CEE professor Henry Petroski has explained our world from an engineering perspective, as a columnist for American Scientist

It’s hard to imagine writing an entire book about the humble pencil. It’s even harder to imagine finding so much to say about the simple writing instrument that after the volume’s publication, there were chapters left over.

When Duke professor of civil engineering Henry Petroski penned The Pencil, which he did while on sabbatical leave at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C., that’s exactly what happened; he had remainders. But those chapters, too, would eventually see the light of day, in an adjusted format: in 1990, they became Petroski’s first “Engineering” columns in American Scientist magazine.

Over more than 30 years of writing the bimonthly essays, Petroski has delved deeply into engineering topics both mundane and sensational, from bread twist ties to bridge failures.

Sigma Xi, the scientific and engineering research honor society and publisher of American Scientist, had relocated from New Haven, Connecticut to Research Triangle Park earlier that year, and editor Brian Hayes called on Petroski to gauge the professor’s interest in writing for the magazine. Petroski had written two widely reviewed books by then—To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, as well as The Pencil—and he dusted off two chapters from an early draft of the second manuscript and sent them over to Hayes for consideration. “On the Backs of Envelopes,” about quick and dirty calculations, was the first that Hayes printed.

This spring, Petroski—now the Aleksander S. Vesic Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Duke University—published his 183rd consecutive column for American Scientist. Titled “Elevators Rise to the Occasion,” the column shares a brief history of elevators and observations on how the current pandemic has changed public perception of their safety.

Over more than 30 years of writing the bimonthly essays, Petroski has delved deeply into engineering topics both mundane and sensational, from bread twist ties to bridge failures. He managed this while teaching full-time, publishing an additional 17 books for general audiences, and taking on a second regular column for Prism, a magazine published by the American Society for Engineering Education.

Petroski said that while there’s no secret trick to maintaining a steady flow of inspired writing, discipline certainly helps, as does the willingness to follow where one’s curiosity leads.

He shared his reflections on the column, and on writing, in May of 2021.

 

Q: How did you begin moonlighting as a writer?

A: I had written a good deal of poetry as a graduate student, young engineer, and assistant professor, and published over a hundred poems before I turned to the essay form, which happened when I was leading a fracture mechanics group at Argonne National Laboratory. I spent many a lunch hour in the lab’s main library, where I read a lot of science and technology commentary. Among my earliest published pieces of prose writing were op-ed essays in the New York Times. I also published in MIT’s Technology Review opinion pieces prompted by guest lectures I attended at Argonne, and this led to my being invited by its editor, Steven Marcus, to write feature articles for the magazine. This progression from poem to essay to feature—from shorter to longer pieces—gave me the confidence to write my first book, To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, which I began about five years after joining the faculty at Duke.

Throughout the progression of my writing I benefitted greatly from the support of my wife, Catherine, who has written fiction and nonfiction herself, and has been my first reader. She had a word processor before I did and was kind enough to let me use it in the evenings.

Q: How have you seen science communication change over the last 30 years? Has your own approach to writing changed accordingly? 

A: I began writing seriously about engineering and technology in the 1970s, while I was at Argonne. At the time, I read about those subjects mainly in books and newspapers and magazines like Scientific American and whatever the lab’s library subscribed to. The New York Times did not have a dedicated science section the way every Tuesday’s paper now has the “Science Times” section. As I recall, during the 1970s and into the 1980s there were a number of new science and technology magazines (Discover, Omni, et al.) launched, but after a while they began to lose readers and in many cases cease to exist.

My approach to writing, whether about engineering and technology or other subjects, has probably changed in the sense that what I write about has changed in the light of new developments. I can’t say exactly how my writing itself has changed other than that I would like to think that it has become more mature. But it is for others to judge whether I have improved or declined in my basic communications skills.

centered pencils in a line

Q: It’s difficult to write creatively, with consistency. How do you manage? Do you have schedules that you adhere to, or writing rituals that you use? Any tips for overcoming writer’s block? (Asking for a friend…)

A: All writing is difficult, I believe. When the words are coming with too much ease, I wonder if I am kidding myself about how good they are. I do try to be disciplined in my writing habits and work well ahead of deadlines.

"One of the first things I did upon my arrival at Duke in 1980 was to request a carrel in Perkins Library. I lived within walking distance of campus in those days, and every morning that I did not have a class or meeting I stopped at Perkins to write in my carrel before proceeding on to my office in Hudson Hall." 

Concurrently with the American Scientist column, I have written for other magazines. Since the fall of 2000 I have been writing a column for Prism, the magazine of the American Society for Engineering Education. The column is called “Refractions,” and it focuses on issues relating to teaching and the engineering profession. Not only does it cover topics that in general would not be appropriate for American Scientist but it runs to at most 750 words (about the length of a newspaper op-ed essay), whereas an “Engineering” column is in the 3,000-word range. I find it interesting to write to different word lengths; each requires a different kind of discipline and mindset. The difference naturally affects how I approach the actual drafting of the column.

I did my earliest non-technical writing late at night, after a full day of research or teaching and after I had prepared myself for the next day’s meetings and classes. Writing conditions were ideal for me when the house was quiet, after Catherine and our children had gone to sleep. One of the first things I did upon my arrival at Duke in 1980 was to request a carrel in Perkins Library. I lived within walking distance of campus in those days, and every morning that I did not have a class or meeting I stopped at Perkins to write in my carrel before proceeding on to my office in Hudson Hall. Several of my books were written according to that regimen. Now that I am a professor emeritus, I write in my study at home every day that I can, which has essentially been every day during the stay-at-home phase of the pandemic.

illustration of library carrel

Q: Which of your columns generated the most response from readers?

A: Each column seems to attract feedback from a different category of readers, and so I hesitate to judge responses by quantity. However, I have noticed some patterns that are interesting to me, but they may just be artifacts of the membership of Sigma Xi and the readership of American Scientist.  I do receive a lot of mail from medical doctors, often about my columns involving inventing and patenting. In fact, those columns also bring a significant amount of mail from inventors generally. Much of my mail is from readers who have suggestions about topics for future columns, or interesting anecdotes about or insights into the topic of a published column. I do keep getting multiple requests from Japanese agents and editors for permission to reprint a few of my columns in primers and workbooks for students learning English. These tend to be columns on commonplace topics, like opening doors. 

Q: Which column was the most fun to write?

A: To me, all writing is fun in some sense. Since I have been writing this column for over thirty years, my idea of fun has changed a bit, I suspect. I guess that maybe the columns that are the best fun are those about topics or things I know least about to start. It’s fun for me to discover new aspects of knowledge and see how they fit into what I already know. 

Q: You seem to be very fond of puns. What’s the best pun you’ve snuck into a column? 

A: I have been accused of using too many puns in my writing generally. Fortunately, Catherine or an editor has convinced me to delete the real groaners in manuscript. My columns may still contain some bad puns, but what can I say?

Here is what can say: I would no more name a favorite pun, column, or book than I would name a favorite among my children.