All posts by Jill Griffiths

Words in the forest

Settler letterI snuck down to Pemberton in the southern forests of Western Australia for a few days. It’s been a while since I visited the area. Towering karri trees dominate the landscape. It’s stunning. I breathe. Relax. Walk.

Walking around Big Brook Dam I overheard a woman talking to her husband. “Go and read the information signs,” she said. “They tell the story of the forest from all different perspectives. It’s like pages from different diaries. It’s very clever.”

I couldn’t help but smile as I walked past. There’s no author’s name on the information panels she was talking about but if there was it would be mine. I wrote the text for the Karri Forest Explorer trail when it was put in years ago. It was a great job. Lots of fun. The brief was to show that the views of the forest have changed over time and that the forest means, and has meant, different things to different people. I was given complete freedom in how I would do that and came up with the approach of using a range of voices – an early settler writing letters home to her mother, a forester filing reports, a ranger making notes of observations, a protester sending postcards home – all written in first person, but clearly identified as being different people. Each viewpoint is different, and the style of writing, the perspective held, the words used and the observations made, reflect who they were and the time they were writing. A graphic designer carefully crafted my words into panels using different fonts and styles for the different voices, and illustrated them with photos, drawings and relevant objects.

Revisiting this month, I was pleased to see the work is standing the test of time. The panels still look good and they still work as a way of telling some of the forest’s many stories. I’m especially pleased that people are still enjoying reading them. Satisfying work indeed.

Ranger notes

A pair of stilts

Stilts 2A pair of stilts hatched four chicks down at the lake near my house. I noticed the female sitting on the nest, near where they have previously nested, a few weeks earlier. Then one morning, I saw she was off the nest. Both parents set up a raucous call when I stopped to look. Eventually, I found them; small grey balls of fluff on impossibly long legs.

Back home I wrote about it in my journal – pretty much the paragraph above, except when I wrote the first sentence, I wrote: ‘There is a pair of stilts that has hatched four chicks down at the lake near my house.’ As I was writing, I realised I could delete ‘there is’ and begin instead with ‘a pair of stilts’. In deleting ‘there is’ I also lost ‘that’, so I cut the sentence by three words with no change in meaning but an improvement in readability.

This, along with correcting errors in grammar and style, is the essence of editing. It’s about making writing more readable; more readable generally means fewer words – certainly getting rid of words that don’t add anything to the sentence.

I had the benefit of a writing teacher who went through my work and put brackets around all such superfluous words, teaching me how to tighten my writing. It seems like a small thing, a detail, but as William Zinsser writes in On Writing Well says, the battle is won or lost in the details.

Mark Twain reportedly had a policy of going back over every page when he thought it was finished and cutting a further three words. It’s a policy that evidently served him well. It’s worthwhile adopting if you want to write succinctly.

Lake

Going bananas over Banana’s for sale

bananas-1119790_640That’s what the sign out the front of the general store said, just like that: Banana’s for sale. It’s wrong. It’s true, there were bananas for sale in the shop, but the punctuation is wrong. The word they were after was bananas. Simple plural form. Banana’s is a possessive form – such as the banana’s skin.

The friend who ranted to me about the banana’s for sale sign when she saw it always points these errant apostrophes out to store owners. She says her butcher now cringes when she walks into the shop. He anticipates that he’s made an apostrophe mistake and asks her what he’s done wrong. “You don’t need the apostrophe in sausages,” she might answer. “They don’t own anything.”

Macquarie Dictionary editor Susan Butler claims that she’d rather see apostrophes done away with altogether than continue to see these errors:

“It would be a far, far better thing if we were to forgo the apostrophe entirely, expunge it from our writing completely rather than let it loose to rampage amongst our plurals.” (p18, The aitch Factor by Susan Butler.)

The rules on apostrophes in modern Australian English may be a little murky around the edges but in the main are clear. Apostrophes do two basic things.

Firstly, they show there’s a letter missing. There’s being a case in point; the missing letter is “i”there is a letter missing. More of this in a minute.

Secondly, apostrophes show ownership – the dog’s legs refers to the legs of one dog. The dogs’ legs, on the other hand, refers to the legs of more than one dog. The rule here is simple – if there are multiple dogs (or cats or budgerigars or workers or anything else) that own the things being considered, the apostrophe goes after the plural “s”. Now, a word of caution, if you don’t need an “s” to create the plural, but are adding one for possession, the apostrophe comes before the “s”. This sounds complicated but isn’t:

Sheep’s clothing

Women’s rights

Children’s responsibilities

Now back to the missing letter apostrophe for a minute. In the previous paragraph, I used apostrophes in contractions a few times:minion-2687629_640

There’s – there is

Don’t – do not

Isn’t – is not

None of these seem to present much in the way of difficulties. But the same can’t (cannot) be said for it’s (it is) or you’re (you are). The problem arises because these forms sound just like the possessive pronouns its and yours, neither of which have apostrophes. Although we give nouns apostrophes to show ownership, possessive pronouns don’t generally have apostrophes in English. Again, this sounds complicated but isn’t. It’s made simple by the fact that we don’t have many possessive pronouns in English – for example, its, yours, hers, his, ours, whose, and theirs. By definition they are possessive. They don’t need apostrophes to help them show ownership. When one is used as a pronoun – for example, one’s own writing –  it is given an apostrophe to differentiate it from the plural ones, as in ones, twos and threes. The  possessive pronoun mine doesn’t appear to cause difficulties, perhaps because it’s always without an apostrophe and only comes in the one form. Your/you’re, its/it’s and whose/who’s seem to be the ones most often used incorrectly. The trick to remembering the difference (that is, to know whether you’re using a contracted form that needs an apostrophe or not) is to play a substitution game. Take the example from the previous sentence:

…to know whether you’re using a contracted form…

…to know whether you are using a contracted form… makes sense and is what was meant, so the apostrophe is correct.

Compare this to:

Your writing will improve if you follow this simple rule.

If you try substituting you are for your, you end up with:

You are writing will improve if you follow this simple rule.

That doesn’t make sense. You are cannot be substituted for the word your in that sentence, so the correct form is your, not you’re.

Honestly, this sounds so much more complicated that it really is. Just remember:

Two jobs for apostrophes:

  1. to show possession (work out who or what is owning the thing to know where the apostrophe goes)
  2. to show a contraction (say the sentence with the words sounded out in full to see if this is the right form.

No apostrophes in possessive pronouns (generally) (his, hers, ours, its, theirs, yours, whose)

No apostrophes in plurals that don’t own something. My friend’s butcher would almost never need an apostrophe in one of his signs.slip-up-709045_640

Simple. Remember those things and you won’t slip up. Nothing to go bananas about.

But if it still seems overly complicated, you could take up Susan Butler’s offer:

“So I would be prepared to lead a ‘Down with the Apostrophe’ campaign rather than suffer in silence while they multiply like rabbits and warren our writing to the point where the reader cannot negotiate any text safely without falling down an apostrophe hole.” (p18, The aitch Factor by Susan Butler.)

On Writing Well

On Writing Well“If the reader is lost, it is generally because the writer has not been careful enough to keep him on the path.”

This gem is from Willian Zinsser’s classic book ‘On Writing Well’, which I’m re-reading and can’t recommend highly enough. My copy is old and yellowing, showing the signs of having been consulted often during the several decades it has sat on my bookshelf. Originally published in 1976 as ‘On Writing Well: An informal guide to writing nonfiction’, it was republished last year as ‘On Writing Well: The classic guide to writing nonfiction’. It well deserves to be called a classic. Zinsser’s advice is as timely now as it was when he first wrote it. I concede that in my old copy there are a couple of chapters about writing with word processors that now sound quaintly outdated, but his basic principles about what constitutes good writing are still bang on target. If anything, his advice is more needed today than it was when first written.

Bureaucratic language, passive sentence structures and meaningless strings of qualifiers seem to creep into many reports these days. They become so prevalent that as readers we often forget that it needn’t be so. Worse still is the tendency to inject extra words into sentences in the mistaken belief that it will make the writing sound better. It doesn’t. Simplicity wins out every time.

Zinsser doesn’t say that it’s easy to write well. He expects writers to work hard at the craft of writing and words to work even harder:

“Every word that serves no function, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what – these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.”

Zinsser’s advice is to write clear, uncluttered sentences. He stresses the need to take care with every word, to ensure that sentences cannot be misinterpreted. He’s a stickler for details:

“A small detail, you may say – not worth bothering about. It is worth bothering about. The game is won or lost on hundreds of small details.”

On Writing Well - simplicityI can’t find anything significant I disagree with in ‘On Writing Well’. I still seek to follow his advice in my own writing and in the courses I teach. I like Zinsser’s vision of good writing:

“Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to “personalise” the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest strength and the least clutter. Can such principles be taught? Maybe not. But most of them can be learned.”

Write Course’s flagship course Write Well provides participants with an opportunity to learn the principles of good writing. Check out the scheduled courses page for details of courses and dates. Write Well suitable for anyone who cares about the words they write, whatever the context in which they write.

 

 

Buzzing with enthusiasm for headlines and practical experience

Getting practical with bees_LRThere are some things that just lend themselves to corny headlines and clichéd lines. Most stories about bees seem to fall into that category. I’ve been fortunate enough to write about ChemCentre’s research into certifying monofloral honey (that’s honey from one flower species, such as jarrah or karri) in this story: ChemCentre puts honey on the menu. And I’ve previously written about international bee research for Farming Ahead magazine – ‘High tech bee research aims for sweet success’ (Farming Ahead, January 2016).

I find the whole topic of bees and honey fascinating, so when I had the opportunity to begin to get some practical experience helping friends’ out in their beehives, I flew at the chance. There’s nothing like real world experience to put theory into perspective and to add colour to your writing. With bees that perspective can pack a punch or, more accurately, a sting. In my case, on my second foray into a hive, I ended up with three bees buzzing around my head on the wrong side of the veil; the wrong side being the same side as my face.

My friend and beekeeping mentor Helen managed to squish one of them before it stung me; but the other two stung – it’s tempting to say that I was stabbed in the back but took it on the chin, as that is exactly what happened; one stung me on my chin and one on the back of my neck. Stings aside, the experience was a good one. I’m pleased to say that I wasn’t sufficiently daunted by the stings (nor by the weird looks I got down the shops the next day when people noticed my swollen, misshapen face) to stop my exploration of beekeeping. I’ve been back into the hives again since and have plans to continue my apprenticeship. Reading and writing about bees and honey research is always interesting, but there’s nothing quite like sticking my head in a hive to find out what bees are really like. I could wax lyrical about their busy little lives, although I feel that could come to a sticky end.

The pointy end of this blog really is that sometimes a well-placed cliché and even a little bit of corniness may make a tasty subject even sweeter; I think it depends on the audience, but tread carefully lest you get stung.

Lessons in science communication

Telling science storiesProfessor Ian Ritchie used to stop in the middle of his chemistry lectures and tell a joke. He didn’t try to hide it nor to fit it in with the subject matter of the lecture; he simply stopped talking at the half way mark, clapped his hands, said ‘joke time’ and proceeded to tell a joke. I don’t remember any of them (it was 30 years ago!) but I remember that he did it – every lecture.

This year, I have had cause to recall professor Ritchie as I was writing a story about the Ritchie scholarship for ChemCentre  and more recently about ChemCentre’s annual staff awards. I came across some background on the late Ian Ritchie, written by former colleagues, and was struck by a sentence that read: his lectures shone out from all the rest as interesting, challenging, and, particularly, fun!

It made me smile; reminding me of what a fabulous lecturer Professor Ritchie was. I realised that he had inadvertently given me some very valuable lessons in science communication that have stood me well in the years since.

Firstly, he had shown that humour can work, even with serious subjects, if done in the right way and timed well.

baby-1531060_640Secondly, I recalled a lecture professor Ritchie gave in a course on chemistry in the life sciences. He showed us a picture of a new-born baby and told us that birth was the culmination of the most amazing series of chemical reactions. It was a different perspective to anything I’d ever heard and certainly made me think. I suppose it made me see the real relevance of chemistry to the life sciences which, given that I was a biology major, was a very important thing for me to realise early on in my university career. The long-term lesson for me in science communication from that experience was the importance of giving a subject direct relevance to the intended audience.

There were of course also lessons in there about the value of telling a story with pictures. And, of course, I learnt these things from him by his demonstration of good practice – by his walking the walk, rather than just talking the talk. RIP Ian Ritchie.

What’s the story here?

horses-002When writing about scientific research for a non-scientific audience, you need to identify the story you want to tell. Scientific papers go into all sorts of details about how a study was done and why it was done that way and previous studies done in the same or similar ways, but when you’re writing for a general audience, that detail isn’t usually necessary. Rather than telling the story of how the research was done, tell the story of what the research discovered. Drill down into the research and find the ‘aha’ moment. That’s your story.

Now that you know the essence of your story, think about your audience – what do they most want to know about this research? You won’t be able to answer this question perfectly, but take a guess. Imagine someone who may be reading your story and think about what they may already know and what they may want to know.

Say for example you are writing about gastric ulcers in horses for an equestrian magazine and you have the results of a series of experiments on the topic at your disposal. You could summarise all the research papers and call than an article, but it’s unlikely to be read by many of the magazine readers. It’s not going to be a story. So, find the story – what does the research actually say? What conclusions does it reach? Does it make recommendations? If so, what are they? Maybe it says that adding a particular product to horses’ feed reduces the chance of gastric ulcers. Maybe it recommends a particular drug treatment.

Next, think about your readers – if it’s an equestrian magazine, chances are the audience is interested in horses and probably has one or more and maybe they’re having a problem with their horse or horses having ulcers, which is why your article caught their attention (because you called it something that told them what to expect from the article, didn’t you?). So now you have a profile of your reader – you know they are interested in the content (they have horses), you know they have experience of dealing with gastric ulcers (that’s why your article caught their attention), and you know they want a solution to curing the gastric ulcers (because you’ve assumed they are interested in their horses’ welfare). So now, tell them what was discovered and how it can help them. That’s the story they want to read. Keep that in mind when you are writing about scientific research.

Telling stories in science

Telling science stories

Telling a science story so it can be understood by non-scientists is not about dumbing it down. It may involve simplifying it, but don’t think of it as dumbing down. Simplifying it may mean taking out the boring bits – the almost endless repetitions, the detailed set-ups, the vast quantity of results – these are the bits that belong in the scientific literature, not in a community forum or a publicity brochure. (Sometimes you will want to say that you have conducted X repetitions over Y years; that’s about building your credibility and assuring people you know what you are talking about.) Simplifying may also mean changing some of the words you use – cutting out jargon for example. But avoid thinking of these things as dumbing down; instead, think of it as building bridges.

Telling a story in science is about saying what you know and hanging that on the things your audience already knows. So you need to begin with an understanding of what your audience, or more accurately your reader, knows. This means you need to answer some basic questions about them – who are they? What do they do? Why do they want to know about this? What might they already know?

You also need to be clear about what it is you want to tell them – what is your story? What is it that you know that you want your readers to know?

Your task then is to build a bridge between these two positions. You then take your reader by the hand and lead them across it. Of course, if you build the bridge well enough, they’ll be able to walk across unassisted, because every step of the way will be clear and logical. That’s your aim. Because when it comes down to it, you won’t be there to hold their hand.Your story has to stand on its own.

Singular they

The only acceptable usage of ‘they’ used to be as a third person plural pronoun; that is, the word you use to refer to more than one person:

Marshall and Warren discovered Helicobacter pylori cause stomach ulcers. They used unconventional research methods.

There’s nothing unconventional about using ‘they’ in this way, but increasingly ‘they’ is seen referring to an individual when the person’s gender is unknown:

doctor-563429_640The doctor looked at the test results. They appeared to be concerned.

In the past, this would have been written:

The doctor looked at the test results. He appeared to be concerned.

It’s likely that when this usage was first established, the vast majority of doctors were male, but the usage wasn’t really about doctors; ‘he’ was the acceptable pronoun to use if the gender of the subject was unknown:

The parent looked at the test results. He appeared to be concerned.

I think we are way past pretending that ‘he’ can justifiably be used to mean he or she. He/she was considered an option for a while and does still get used, but it’s not a great solution. It’s tempting to think of ‘they’ as a modern way around this, but the Australian Government Style Manual says this “type of construction has a long history dating back more than four hundred years, but it has acquired special value recently in the context of seeking inclusive language” (p76). Expect to see it more and more. It was voted as word of the year by the American Dialect Society but its usage is by no means restricted to America; Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary describes it as a solution that is being adopted more and more these days.

In just the same way that ‘they’ can be used in a singular form, so can ‘them’. For example:

The doctor looked at the test results. It was difficult for them to interpret exactly what was going on.

In this case, ‘them’ provides a gender-neutral alternative to saying him or her.

I, myself, don’t like this usage

Last week I shared an article about foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) on the Write Course Facebook page. The article took the (American) Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention to task over the way it had approached the issue and presented what I read as a well-written article. I shared it to highlight how communicating science can go awry when the tone and pitch of the writing misses the target audience: in this case the CDC’s article was intended to highlight an important issue but missed the mark to some extent because of the way it was written. I concede that there could well have been many other readers who read the CRC’s article and weren’t offended.

When I posted the article, I introduced it by saying: “Interesting, well-written article. It clarifies the issue of foetal alcohol syndrome but also highlights the importance of clearly communicating science. If the messaging is wrong, the important messages can so easily be lost.”

My Facebook post received the comment: “Yeah but the irony is she lost me in the first sentence with ‘myself’.” (Thanks Jean.) It’s a good point.

The Forbes article begins with: “Feminists–including myself–have been in an uproar this week over the tone-deaf and paternalistic decree from the CDC that women of childbearing age shouldn’t drink alcohol if they’re not on birth control.”

Leaving aside the content of the sentence and focusing on the use of the word ‘myself’, Jean’s right. It’s not correct to use ‘myself’ in this context. It should be ‘me’.

Myself is a reflexive pronoun, which means it is used to refer to something ‘I’ did in the past: “I did it myself.” It is not a substitute for ‘me’ or ‘my’: “It is my work.” “Give it to me.” Not: “Give it to myself.” And not “Give it to my.” (Even if you put on a Kath and Kim accent!)

Sometimes, ‘myself’ gets used for emphasis: “But I, myself, don’t like this usage.” I think it is difficult not to sound pompous saying ‘I, myself’ and I like writing that says what it means and means what it says.