Category Archives: Writing skills

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.


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I concede that in my old copy there are a couple of chapters about writing with word processors that now sound quaintly outdated, but his basic principles about what constitutes good writing are still bang on target.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.



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.