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Author's Guide: Writing Style

 

This section of the Author's Guide explains ASCE style on various aspects of good writing for the topics listed below.

Style Guides

The following publications can provide useful guidance in preparing your manuscript.

  • For guidance on the mechanics of written communication, consult the current edition of The Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press).
  • For spelling and word usage, ASCE follows the current editions of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and Webster’s International Dictionary, Unabridged.
  • For rules of grammar and usage, refer to Words into Type (Prentice-Hall) or New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage (HarperCollins).
  • For guidance on engineering terms, refer to McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific and Technical Terms, Wiley Dictionary of Civil Engineering and Construction, or Means Illustrated Construction Dictionary.
  • For assistance in the presentation of mathematics, refer to Mathematics into Type (American Mathematical Society).
  • For assistance with the use of SI (metric) units, refer to IEEE/ASTM SI-10, Standard for Use of the International System of Units (SI): The Modern Metric System (this standard replaces the former ASTM E-380 and ANSI/IEEE Std 268-1992) or to Metric Units in Engineering: Going SI (ASCE Press).

Active versus Passive Voice

Wherever possible, use active verbs that demonstrate what is being done and who is doing it.

Instead of:  The bridge was built by James Eads.

Use: James Eads built the bridge.

Instead of: Six possible causes of failure were identified in the forensic investigation.

Use: The forensic investigation identified six possible causes of failure.

Direct versus Indirect Statements

Direct statements are clear, concise, and do not wear on your reader. Indirect statements are those that begin with phrases such as “it should be noted that…” or “it is common that….” Other types of indirect statements may begin with “to be” statements such as “there are” or “it was”.

Instead of: It should be noted that the flow was interrupted by a surge…

Use: A surge interrupted the flow…

Instead of: It is common that the steel rebars are weakened by oxidation…

Use: Oxidation commonly weakens steel rebars…

Instead of: There are many reasons that concrete may fail…

Use: Concrete may fail for many reasons…

Instead of: There are three kinds of bolt that can be used in these circumstances…

Use: Three kinds of bolt can be used in these circumstances.

Use of “I” and “We”

While the use of first-person pronouns (I, we, my, our) should be sparing in technical material, the use of “I” and “we” is preferable to awkward constructions such as “the authors” or “this researcher.”

  • If you are the sole author, use “I” to indicate your actions or opinions.
  • If you are working with coauthors, use “we” to refer to your collective actions or opinions. Use last names to refer to the actions or opinions of individual coauthors.
  • If you use “we” to refer to yourself and your coauthors, avoid the use of “we” in other contexts, such as referring to other people or humankind in general.

Inclusive Language

Writing without bias may feel stiff or unnatural at first, but usually results in greater precision and consideration for your readers. Therefore, avoid language that arbitrarily assigns roles or characteristics or excludes people on the basis of gender; racial, ethnic, or religious background; physical or mental capabilities; sexual orientation; or other sorts of stereotypes.

  • Avoid using man or men to refer to groups containing both sexes. Substitute words and phrases such as humankind, humanity, people, employees, workers, workforce, staff, and staff hours.
  • Avoid the use of masculine pronouns to refer to both sexes. Use plural pronouns, a locution that carries no bias, imperative verb forms, or second-person pronouns.

Instead of: When an engineer begins to design an overpass, he should consider…

Try: When engineers begin to design overpasses, they should consider…

Or: When beginning to design an overpass, an engineer should consider…

Instead of: A manager should not assume that his staff will alert him to potential problems.

Try: As a manager, do not assume that staff will alert you to potential problems.  

Or: As a manager, you should not assume that your staff will alert you to potential problems.

Acronyms and Abbreviations

An abbreviation is a shortening form of a word or phrase, such as “Jan.” for “January”, “U.S.” for “United States,” and “ASCE” for “American Society of Civil Engineers.” An acronym is formed when the abbreviation forms a pronounceable word, such as “NATO” for “North Atlantic Treaty Organization” or “AASHTO” for "American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials."

  • Abbreviations and acronyms in text must be spelled out the first time that they appear in each chapter or paper, with the shortened form appearing immediately in parentheses. Thereafter, the shortened form should be used throughout the chapter.
  • Several very common abbreviations (U.S. and U.K. as adjectives; DNA and PVC for nouns) do not need to be spelled out on first usage. 
  • Basic units of measure do not need to be spelled out on first usage. These include: ft, in., lb (customary) and m, mm, kg (SI).

SI versus Customary Units

ASCE publications use Système Internationale (SI) units, the most widely and officially recognized system of metric units, as the primary system of weights, dimensions, and other physical measures. For more information about SI units, visit the Web sites of the U.S. Metric Association (USMA), Inc. or the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) or consult the book, Metric Units in Engineering: Going SI.

All ASCE publications use SI units in text, figures, and tables. Customary (also known as English or imperial) units may be included in parentheses, if the author chooses.

One exception is recognized for ASCE Press titles. Case studies, examples, and problem sets can become difficult to use when both systems of units are presented. Therefore, it is acceptable to alternate metric and customary units in cases, examples, or problems.

Figures, Tables, and Other Supporting Materials

Elements such as figures, tables, and boxes containing lists or case studies are included to support or augment what appears in the text.

  • For books, each element should be numbered consecutively with the chapter number and an Arabic numeral: Fig. 9-1, Fig. 9-2, Fig. 9-3 …; Table 7-1, Table 7-2 …; Box 10-1, Box 10-2 …. For journal articles and conference proceedings volumes, which do not have chapter numbers, the chapter number is left out: Fig. 1, Fig. 2, Fig. 3....
  • If a figure or table has parts, a capital or lowercase letter is used to identify the parts: Fig. 9-1A, Fig. 9-1B…; Fig. 1(a), Fig. 1(b)…
  • In books, do not use subheading numbers for figures and tables. This practice is awkward and confuses readers.
  • Every element must be discussed in text, with a reference to the element and its number. The first reference to a figure, table, or box is the call-out. The call-outs must be worded consistently throughout your manuscript. Spell out “Table” and abbreviate “Fig.” For example: "The results of the stress tests (Fig. 1) clearly demonstrate…" and "Table 6-2 presents a range of planning options along with…".
  • When your manuscript is typeset, the element will be placed on the page on which it is called out—or as soon as possible thereafter.
  • Tables and figures must be numbered in the order in which they are discussed in text so that call-outs also appear in numerical order. In other words, Table 3 must be called out in text before Table 4.

Language Cleanup Services

For a list of companies offering language editing, translation, and cleanup services for manuscripts, please visit the Language Cleanup Services list. Note that these services are not offered or endorsed by ASCE, and that this information is provided only as a courtesy to our potential authors.