Tag Archives: Word usage

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concede that in my old copy there are a couple of chapters about writing with word processors that now sound quaintly outdated, but his basic principles about what constitutes good writing are still bang on target.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

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.