Tag Archives: writing

On writing well part 2

“The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

In my previous post, I introduced an excerpt from On writing well by William Zinsser about how writing is work and we can learn to get better. What stuck with me from On writing well were his concrete tips for editing my drafts. This post contains a few extra tips for editing all of the “clutter” in my early drafts.

Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds—the writer is always slightly behind…

Is there any way to recognize clutter at a glance? Here’s a device my students at Yale found helpful. I would put brackets around every component in a piece of writing that wasn’t doing useful work. Often just one word got bracketed: the unnecessary preposition appended to a verb (“order up”), or the adverb that carries the same meaning as the verb (“smile happily”), or the adjective that states a known fact (“tall skyscraper”). Often my brackets surrounded the little qualifiers that weaken any sentence they inhabit (“a bit,” “sort of”), or phrases like “in a sense,” which don’t mean anything. Sometimes my brackets surrounded an entire sentence—the one that essentially repeats what the previous sentence said, or that says something readers don’t need to know or can figure out for themselves. Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.

My reason for bracketing the students’ superfluous words, instead of crossing them out, was to avoid violating their sacred prose. I wanted to leave the sentence intact for them to analyze. I was saying, “I may be wrong, but I think this can be deleted and the meaning won’t be affected. But you decide. Read the sentence without the bracketed material and see if it works.” In the early weeks of the term I handed back entire papers that were festooned with brackets. Entire paragraphs were bracketed. But soon the students learned to put mental brackets around their own clutter, and by the end of the term their papers were almost clean. Today many of those students are professional writes, and they tell me, “I still see your brackets—they’re following me through life.”

You can develop the same eye. Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?

Simplify, simplify.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

This process is work, and even experienced writers have to write many drafts that they ruthlessly edit.

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time. Or the third. Keep thinking and rewriting until you say what you want to say.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well


On writing well

When I was preparing for my preliminary exam, a friend gave me a copy of the 25th anniversary edition of On writing well by William Zinsser. I read it at once, devouring it in a couple of days. It instantly became one of my favorite books and is still my favorite book about writing.

Zinsser was a journalist and published many nonfiction in his career. On writing well is aimed at all types of nonfiction writing, and while it wasn’t written solely for academics, academic writers can benefit from following his guidance. Zinsser has a growth mindset for writers, and I continue to appreciate his encouragement. If I work at writing, I can get better.

I love On writing well because it’s the writing book that inspired me and encouraged me to be aspiration about what I want to achieve from writing. In contrast, I’ve found the books I’ve read about academic writing—some of which are excellent—to be more transactional in focus.

I have included an excerpt below about the importance of writing frequently and about the growth that will happen if we write on a regular basis.

You learn to write by writing. It’s a truism, but what makes it a truism is that it’s true. The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.

If you went to work for a newspaper that required you to write two or three articles every day, you would be a better writer after six months. You wouldn’t necessarily be writing well—your style might still be full of clutter and clichés. But you would be exercising your powers of putting the English language on paper, gaining confidence and identifying the most common problems.

All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem. It may be a problem of where to obtain the facts or how to organize the material. It may be a problem of approach or attitude, tone or style. Whatever it is, it has to be confronted and solved. Sometimes you will despair of finding the right solution—or any solution. You’ll think, “If I live to be ninety I’ll never get out of this mess.” I’ve often thought it myself. But when I finally do solve the problem it’s because I’m like a surgeon remove his 500th appendix; I’ve been there before.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

how to write about operations research

In my lab meeting this month, we discussed writing operations research publications. We read How to Write About Operations Research by Gerald G. Brown at the Naval Postgraduate School, a fabulous guide for writing technical publications in the field of operations research written in 2004. The entire paper is worth reading and discussing. The paper starts by introducing a “grand, unified design for any OR publication.”

There are five simple, essential questions you must answer in your publication, preferably in this order:
1) What is the problem?
2) Why is this problem important?
3) How will this problem be solved without your help?
4) What are you doing to solve this problem?
5) How will we know when you have succeeded?

The paper introduces a series of writing recommendations, which we discussed by listing our favorite and least favorite recommendations. My two favorites are ones that I often tell students:

  • Start each paragraph with a topic sentence.
  • Make sure that just reading your paragraph-by-paragraph topic sentences conveys all of your publication.

I also like these three recommendations:

  • Use active voice
  • Use present tense
  • Work at it

Afterward, as a group we brainstormed recommendations that we felt were missing from the list. Here is what we came up with:

  • Read your writing out loud as you edit.
  • Use inclusive and gender neutral language.
  • Describe all tables and figures in the text, i.e., do not just refer to the tables and figures.
  • Be consistent with terminology.

What are your favorite writing tips?


how to write a scientific paper: advice told through a series of tweets

It’s almost the end of the summer, which marks the end of writing season in academia. Here is some advice for writing a scientific paper, as told through a series of tweets. What would you add?

twitter-phd6

twitter-write


just write, damn it: the dissertation edition

One of my recent blog posts entitled “just write, damn it” got a lot of hits and positive feedback. All the feedback was for just writing and none was in favor of planning first. I was surprised that my methodological and analytical readers preferred to cannonball into writing without a lot of planning.

Someone told me about an approach to writing a dissertation that was somewhere in between just writing willy nilly and planning. It’s called the One Draft PhD Dissertation [pdf] by John Carlis, a professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Minnesota. His approach is to sketch a blueprint of a dissertation by planning what will be in each paragraph and then jump in and write each of those paragraphs. He writes:

What’s my story? While writing my dissertation and, at the same time, working as a professor (yes, it was stressful), several streams of thought happily converged. I read lots about writing, and was particularly struck by the forward to the John McPhee Reader, which described his disciplined, design-before-write way of work. I read Richard Mager’s Preparing Instructional Objectives, which has this message that translates to writing: teaching (writing) is about them, the students (readers), not the teacher (author). I taught software development using Yourdon and Constantine’s “Structured Development” (Addison-Wesley, 1975). Convergence began when the strong parallels in their content struck me. By then I already believed that software should be designed and not hacked, and, coming to the same conclusion about a dissertation, I decided to try to transfer software notions to writing. Since a paragraph is a unit of development, like a software procedure, I, following McPhee, chose to design everything down to the paragraph topic sentence level before writing. And it worked!

The one draft dissertation is a 5 step process:

  1. Believe you can do it.
  2. Understand that the purpose of a dissertation is to defend your claimed contributions to your field.
  3. Write for the right audience. Start by sketching a blueprint by writing for yourself then do the formal writing for your committee.
  4. Acquire draft writing skills (paragraph topic sentences, story telling, and logic to tie paragraphs together to tell your story)
  5. Design a dissertation.

What does “draft” mean? Here a draft is a completed unit, something that you give to others for review. I do not consider small scale revising, say editing within a paragraph while leaving the structure alone, the same as re-drafting. Do not misunderstand; “one draft” does not mean that you just start from a blank slate with final words of truth and beauty rolling off your fingertips. No, producing a dissertation is work, but it is merely work, not some mystical thing… You should believe that you can produce a one-draft dissertation, because focusing on contributions allows you to first choose vocabulary, craft figures, and grow a story tree down to paragraph topic sentences, and to then, for an audience of other experts, draft, one at a time, what you have the skill to draft, namely, paragraphs.

This approach has been tested on his students. It’s similar to one of my writer’s block antidotes. When I’ve struggled with writing something new, I often dive in and plan my story paragraph by paragraph by writing topic sentences, much like in the One Draft Dissertation. It’s planning, but it feels like another way to jump in and write. Just write topic sentences, damn it.

Finally, here is the average length of a dissertation by field, courtesy of beckmw.wordpress.com.


just write, damn it

I’ve had little time to write lately, so writing feels like a guilty pleasure when I have the time to do it. I am advising four PhD students who often ask me about the writing process. I’ve almost forgotten about how hard technical writing was for me back when I was in their shoes.

Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself  jarred my memory. This weekend, I was listening to the audiobook while working on on my yard. One passage about writing got my attention:

[Bill] Lyon watched as I ripped one sheet of copy paper after another out of my typewriter and finally gave me the most useful advice I have ever received as a writer: “One, don’t wait for inspiration, just start the damned thing. Two, once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it’s going?” These rules saved me half a career’s worth of time and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town. I’m not faster. I spend less time not writing.

Part one is really great advice. I’m a firm believer in writing as you go. I’m not so sure about part two for students writing their first article or thesis. First, most of the time it is even feasible to write until you reach the end. Second, organization helps when writing a lengthy manuscript (lengthy here is relative to newspaper articles). It’s usually easier to write when you have an outline that lays out your ideas in a straightforward fashion. You should know where you’re going. But if organization paralyzes you, I recommend just starting the damned thing and reorganizing later. Students seem to struggle with writing sins of omission – the biggest mistake is not getting started. If you want to finish something, you need to start it first.

When searching for Roger Ebert’s comment on writing, I found similar advice from Matt Zoller Seitz about writing movie reviews on rogerebert.com:

Just write, damn it. I believe that ninety percent of writer’s block is not the fault of the writer. It’s the fault of the writer’s wrongheaded educational conditioning. We’re taught to write via a 20th century industrial model that’s boringly linear and predictable: What’s your topic sentence? What are your sections? What’s your conclusion? Nobody wants to read a piece that’s structured that way. Even if they did, the form would be more a hindrance than a help to the writing process, because it makes the writer settle on a thesis before he or she has had a chance to wade around in the ideas and inspect them. So to Hell with the outline. Just puke on the page, knowing that you can clean it up and make it structurally sound later. Your mind is a babbling lunatic. It’s Dennis Hopper, jumping all over the place, free associating, digressing, doubling back, exploding in profanity and absurdity and nonsense. Stop ordering it to calm down and speak clearly. Listen closely and take dictation. Be a stenographer for your subconscious. Then rewrite and edit.

This isn’t quite the right advice for writing a thesis, but students should hear this. Students know they are supposed to organize. They seem less familiar with the idea of puking on the page, knowing that they can clean it up and make it structurally sound later. The latter approach is how I start almost all of my blog posts (most get cleaned up later).

How do you write?