Thursday, May 5, 2011

Ten rules for good writing

Henry Gee writes about The ten rules for excellent writing. Not that there's actually ten rules in the article, but it's a nice title. The rules he does discuss are:

Rule 1: Write Every Day
Rule 2: Write as you would speak
Rule 3: Stick to the point
Rule 4: Take A Break
Rule 5: Finish it
Rule 6: Avoid cliché

I am trying to follow Rule 1 more often: this blog helps, and I also have a backlog of papers to deal with.

Rule 2 ties back to the idea of having a narrative in scientific papers, as discussed in this post. Scientific articles do expect a certain level of formality and a certain writing style: I have even heard of an author having to fight to get a journal to accept an article written in the active voice.

Sticking to the point (Rule 3) isn't all that hard for me, but I know I can improve - I have been told that my writing is a bit "information light".

Take a break (Rule 4) - always a good idea, and the best thing about having multiple projects on the go is that you can take a break from one project by working on another. That way, you are getting being productive while taking a break.

I also need to follow Rule 5 with more care: my backlog of papers isn't getting any smaller. One pitfall with this in science is that most papers have multiple authors, and they tend to be just as busy, if not more so, than you are. So, papers get delayed, because your coauthors don't have time to deal with them. One tactic I have found useful to is set a deadline: if they don't get back to you before the deadline, you assume that the paper is OK and can be submitted as is.

Rule 6 - are there cliches in scientific writing? Submit your favourites in the comments.