Writing better — aka how not to annoy your reader

[03/10/2017] Added ‘better’…

[30/12/2017] Added ‘etc’ and ‘various’…

Academic writing is an critical aspect of scientific communication. Our understanding is often shared through academic papers, and in writing to each other (e.g. through peer review). Academic journal articles provide an opportunity to capture the scientific story behind an idea and communicating it with a wider audience.

In this vein, I’m going to introduce a few ‘linguistic tics’ that irk me, principally as a ‘go to list’ for new writers (and experienced hands) to evaluate their choices. In creating this list of ‘rules’, I’m hoping to enable people to unpick alternative viewpoints which may colour their reading of text; and as with any set of ‘writing rules’, the most important thing about any rule book is that you know when the break them.

This will be an evolving story, where I’ll come back and add new words and phrases as I come across them.

Actually

‘Actually’ is a terrible word. Use of this word assumes that I know your current understanding and point of view, and then actually I am going to undermine you and point out how much cleverer I am than you.

Actually, sod off.

In fact

‘In fact’ joins my list of condescending faux pas. In fact, it’s even worse than many of the others, as this is pretentious filler sitting at the front of the class like a know-it-all madly waving its hands to seek your undivided attention.

Please re-write, where you start with a positive sentiment, and empower your reader with a (sometimes) generous assumption of their prior knowledge. You can qualify how this differs from the (not their) status quo in the sub-clause.

An exercise for the reader

In a journal article, if you ask me to do an exercise, I’ll throw my book at you. I physically groan when reading something is “left as an exercise for the reader”, as I know there will be much suffering and many pages of scrawl on my desk (often resulting in minimal satisfaction or utility).

Ultimately, an exercise for the reader is a lazy way of getting out of typesetting something difficult and concurrently feathering your pompous know-it-all cap with apparent splendour.

We have appendix sections for a reason, please use them, and spare your reader the nonsense of your self-affirmation.

(If you are writing an educational text book, rather than a reference text, please provide more exercises — we love them).

TLAs

The inherent brilliance of a TLA is that everyone who knows what you are talking about is already on-board with your story. The inherent travesty, is that you shut the door on everyone else. Most of the time you do not need to use an (three letter) acronym, and if you do, you should spell it out the first time you use it, or include a glossary; otherwise, GTFO.

Jargon

Pedagogically, there is an opportunity window where we can draw out our inner scholar and enable our readers to become thought-spired. Ultimately, we can share our inspiration intentions with our well thumbed thesaurus, and in stretching everyone’s inner lexicon, we can enhance our sector wide understanding of our content. We can score bonus points, if we can effortlessly entwine subject matter focused jargon too.

However, it is transparent to anybody else, that we’d rather conduct some intellectual masturbation and attempt to curry favour with our learned friends, because we feel an unusual need to enhance our self worth.

Alternative, we can demonstrate effective communicate effectively using plain English.

Clearly

Clearly you haven’t been following my arguments so far, and so I am going to ram the point home until it is embedded with your thick skull akin to a real life Halloween costume with a requisite six inch nail. Except, clearly, this costume is for real.

If you need to spell out something ‘clearly’ you have demonstrably failed in articulating your argument. If something is clear, it is self evident.

Oh, and I am clearly joking that you needed a six inch nail. The average human skull is about 7 inches wide, so we need a 10 inch nail to make sure its gone all the way through.

Surely

Surely is in the list, quite near to ‘clearly’. Often when something is ‘surely true’ it is not and you are winging it.

And while we are on the subject of winging it…

Better, bigger, more amazinger

A comparative adjective can contextualise the relative merits of one over another: “David was better than Goliath.”

And yet, the absence of a comparative yard stick, i.e. the facet of your story with which you temper your inequality, provides a jarring false equivalence. Ultimately, if you wish to expound the energy to propel your subject to the stratosphere, at least do your subject some credit and just call it the bestest.

Otherwise you are no better than the rest.

‘etc’ and ‘various’

These are various vacuous, extraneous, superficial, necessary etc. additions to your story. These works do not add any extra colour, and add limited new information. Predicate your list with ‘such as’ to enable people to make up their own minds that there is more to explore. etc. is a lazy footnote that devalues your story.

If you felt thought-spired by this piece, you can actually clap for it and let more people get involved. Finding the button might be a bit of an exercise for the reader, but fortunately there are no pencils involved.

Anyway, I hope I’ve been clear here. If not, express your wrath and indignation via twitter to @bmatb.

Will update more when I can…

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Dr Ben Britton

Dr Ben Britton

299 Followers

Atomic sorcerer, based at UBC (Canada). Plays with metals. Discusses academic life. Swooshes down ski slopes. Pegs it round parks. (Views my own)