Writing

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Read: Writing Science

Schimel’s “Writing Science” seems a better guide to ‘serious’ writing than Pinker’s recent “The sense of style.” Though both are aimed at the non-fiction writer and have many recommendations in common.

Schimel takes a more hands-on, practical approach. Indeed, “Writing Science” is a more classical textbook, even including end-of-chapter problems. It is showing what works and less discussing the why. On the other hand, it makes very clear why good writing is necessary. You want your article not just getting published but also cited. And you need that grant.

All in all, “Writing Science” is not dramatically different from other good writing guides. A distinguishing feature may be the explicit framing of the article and that grant applications as stories. A scientific article is not that different from a novel, the research note may not be that different from a newspaper piece. Hence, the story arc features prominently in this writing guide. The story arc determines the overall structure of the article, its sections, paragraphs, and sentences.

As particularly eye-opening and helpful I would consider Schimel’s discussion of an article’s resolution, its conclusion. It should not end with and emphasize the article’s shortcomings but its contribution. It should not emphasize that “more research is needed” but the potential application. It should not give the reason to read another paper but the reason to cite this article.

Read: The Sense of Style

Pinker’s The Sense of Style is a unique writing guide in the sense of its foundation in psychology, its acknowledgement of the nonsense of a strict prescriptive–descriptive dichotomy, and its reference and discussion of other well known guides and popular texts on writing. I like that. It unfortunately also contains a chapter with a very common list of good and wrong usage of terms that could be found on any blog on writing as well. I did not like that.

Hence, the first five chapters are easy to recommend. They instruct, explain, and entertain. It was interesting and enlightening to learn that many “rules”, that need to be broken, are based on the misconception that English is Latin. It is not. Latin grammar does not apply to the English language.

There are a couple of other things I noticed and learned.

Pinker’s Sense of Style is political. Pinker takes clear positions. (On, for instance, feminism and the gender neutral singular)

Every sentence requires a writer to grapple with tradeoffs between clarity, concision, tone, cadence, accuracy, and other values. Why should the value of not excluding women be the only one whose weight is set to zero?

Typographical conventions that support the reader, the ease of reading, and hence facilitate the understanding of a text may be at odds with grammatical structure that also clarifies the meaning and facilitates the understanding of a text.

No discussion of the illogic of punctuation would be complete without the infamous case of the ordering of a quotation mark with respect to a comma or period. The rule in American publications (the British are more sensible about this) is that when quoted material appears at the end of a phrase or sentence, the closing quotation mark goes outside the comma or period, “like this,” rather than inside, “like this”. The practice is patently illogical: the quotation marks enclose a part of the phrase or sentence, and the comma or period signals the end of that entire phrase or sentence, so putting the comma or period inside the quotation marks is like Superman’s famous wardrobe malfunction of wearing his underwear outside his pants. But long ago some American printer decided that the page looks prettier without all that unsightly white space above and to the left of a naked period or comma, and we have been living with the consequences ever since.

I would usually prefer the typographers’ approach. Though Pinker (and Pullum) makes a valid point when it comes to the discussion of the structure of a text, its sentences.

The American punctuation rule sticks in the craw of every computer scientist, logician, and linguist, because any ordering of typographical delimiters that fails to reflect the logical nesting of the content makes a shambles of their work. On top of its galling irrationality, the American rule prevents a writer from expressing certain thoughts. In his semi-serious 1984 essay “Punctuation and Human Freedom,” Geoffrey Pullum discusses the commonly misquoted first two lines of Shakespeare’s King Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”68 Many people misremember it as “Now is the winter of our discontent”, full stop. Now suppose one wanted to comment on the error by writing:
Shakespeare’s King Richard III contains the line “Now is the winter of our discontent”.
This is a true sentence. But an American copy editor would change it to:
Shakespeare’s King Richard III contains the line “Now is the winter of our discontent.”
But this is a false sentence, or at least there’s no way for the writer to make it unambiguously true or false.

Hence, yes, the typographer’s rule needs to be broken if necessary.

Read: Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals

Thomson and Kamler’s “Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals: Strategies for getting published” differs substantially from other guides with similar titles like “Writing your journal article in 12 weeks”. It has the same audience, the rather inexperienced doctoral and early career researcher.

Their approach is different. The writer is seen as an individual that (still) struggles with his or her identity as a writer. Thus, strategies for getting published also include finding one’s identity. Following a universal to-do-list and checking off item after item is not enough.

Thomson and Kamler take a “meta-perspective.” They analyse, they deconstruct, and they build a whole from the atomic parts. The different maturity stages of a (tiny) text are shown, exemplifying their advice. Of course, in a way they, too, share a list of tasks with their advisee, their reader. Yet, these tasks are not just exercises on how to write an academic text. They are indeed strategies for increasing the likelihood of getting published.

Hence, Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals is not just another practical guide for writing publishable articles, it is a valuable complement to other guides on academic writing. It focusses on different aspects of the writing process and parts of the text – like the abstract or the title – that are often neglected.

Read: Style -- The Art of Writing Well

I have to admit that I am not able to fully appreciate Lucas’ Style – The Art of Writing Well. Imagine, I lack the necessary education: in the French language, in classical English literature. And I am not the only one.

Style is not a practical guide to hone one’s English writing. It is about Writing Well in a much more general sense. It is not about how to achieve a certain effect. It is rather to show the importance of a few general principles that are likely to improve any text. Lucas summarizes these as “pursue clarity, brevity, and courtesy to readers; to be, if not gay, at least good-humoured, never to write a line without considering whether it is really true, whether you have not exaggerated your statement, or its evidence; to shun dead images, and cherish living ones; and to revise unremittingly…” There are other books than Lucas’, textbooks that will better help in putting these principles into action.

Still, Lucas also gives some practical advice. In the last chapter on the Methods of Writing he urges the writer to think but not to over-think, to revise but to know when to let go or else the text becomes too constructed, too cold. I think this is the most important lesson.

Lucas considers French a language that allows good style more easily than English (which, in turn, has the advantage over German), hence all the French, all the long French, examples to illustrate his points. I can understand the despair of the many readers who were denied a translation in the first edition 1955. These readers are mentioned in the preface to this, the third edition of Style. The translations are now provided in many, many footnotes – I would have preferred to put the English translation next to the French –; yet they cannot do justice to the original as they lack the elegance and melody of the French excerpts. Hence my feeling of a lack of proper appreciation.

Finally, there was also a moment of confirmation of a personal conviction. Endnotes en lieu of footnotes are a terrible obstacle. They are just rude. Already footnotes disrupt the reading and comprehension process. Now, with endnotes you have to flip through the pages of the book: First to find the endnote, then to find the reference to the endnote again that send you away from reading the actual text. If there are endnotes, I usually don’t bother to look at them. The author obviously does not want me to. If an author should limit his use of footnotes – sometimes they are adding to the clarity and brevity of the text and are thus beneficial – endnotes should not be used at all! Never.

Read: How to Read a Book

I believe you can get an idea on how to write well by reading. Not just by reading the “right” books that set an example, that provide you with a blue print for your own writing, but also by reading well.

Adler and van Doren’s How to Read a Book is a guide for reading well. Their main lessons are maybe to ask a certain set of question that your reading of a book, any text really, should answer and that every text deserves its own speed of reading. Some texts should be read carefully, slow, repeatedly. Other texts should be read fast, cursorily, or not at all.

The meat of the book covers analytical reading that should lead to answers to four crucial questions:

  1. What is book about as whole?
  2. What is being said in detail, and how?
  3. Is the book true, in whole or part?
  4. What of it?

and provides a set of 15 rules or recommendations that help in the process to discover the answers and judge the text. This is considerably more detailed than my own two guiding questions so far:

  1. What is this about?
  2. So what?

The book has a little bit too much meat, it tries to convince and justifies every little recommendation. This leads to some repetitions. (There were moments when I was reminded of Monty Python’s The Holy Hand Grenade.) Nevertheless I did not dare to skip any part. This is one of the books that deserve to be read well. (See http://sachachua.com for a nice visual summary and http://www. farnamstreetblog.com for a longer discussion of the book’s content.)

It deserves to be read well for some of the hidden gems that do not necessarily (only) relate to reading well. My attention was in particular caught by:

Discovery stands to instruction as learning without a teacher stands to learning through the help of one. In both cases, the activity of learning goes on in the one who learns. It would be a mistake to suppose that discovery is active learning and instruction passive. There is no inactive learning, just as there is no inactive reading.

This is so true, in fact, that a better way to make the distinction clear is to call instruction “aided discovery.”
and

Teachability is often confused with subservience. A person is wrongly thought to be teachable if he is passive and pliable. On the contrary, teachability is an extremely active virtue. No one is really teachable who does not freely exercise his power of independent judgment- He can be trained, perhaps, but not taught.


Needless to say, How to Read a Book will make it onto my students’ reading list.

Read: The Elements of Eloquence

That’s how a book should be: Entertaining, instructive, to the point.

I had to force myself to read Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence in two sittings, otherwise I would have finished it in one go, in just one evening. That’s how much I enjoyed it.

In 39 brief chapters, to whole book is just 205 pages long, Forsyth defines and demonstrates 39 different rhetorical moves using examples from the Classics (often Shakespeare) and modern authors that can turn an ordinary piece of prose and poetry into a perfect, memorable phrase. Of course, he applies the respective rhetoric principle himself in each of the chapters, in an inconspicuous way. Hence, discovering it contributes to the enjoyment and serves as a kind of comprehension test.

The only negative feature of the book is the sometimes forced transition to the next chapter, to the next rhetoric move. Each chapter ends with an example for the next topic that also, somehow belongs to the current one.

That notwithstanding, Forsyth’s blog made it into my feed reader. I want to read more of this.

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