Notes About Writing

Lewis Pulsipher

This was originally written for graduate students. Nonetheless, it all applies to writing of any kind, so I offer it to you as advice about what you can do to “get it right the first time”.

Remember, the entire objective of most non-fictional writing, including scholarly writing of any kind, is to make clear to the reader exactly what you mean. Clarity is the primary tool, with an effort to be concise coming close behind. Of course, if you aren't sure what you mean, you'll have a hard time writing clearly. Given the slapdash construction of language, and the propensity of people to misunderstand, being clear is a very difficult task.

In many kinds of fictional (and some kinds of non-fictional) writing, the primary goal may be to engender a particular emotion, such as anger or sadness. Poetry is the extreme of this type, but any kind of polemical writing (political or otherwise) can have a related goal: to convince the reader, in part by obscuring the other side of an argument.

Similarly, some people write (or talk) to try to impress the reader or listener, rather than to communicate. In government writing, such people often overreach themselves, using words in ways that don't fit. While they may think the big words will impress ordinary folks, they make themselves look like fools to well-educated people. Another symptom of this attitude is use of jargon, such as acronyms. If you feel a need to impress someone by being deliberately obfuscatory (take that!), save it for office games, not school. ("Obfuscatory" could be replaced by "obscure" without any loss of meaning, right?)

Do your best to be clear, and be concise--don't waste words, or your reader will get tired--and hope that your best is good enough to avoid misunderstanding. This requires revision. Even Isaac Asimov, who wrote over 300 books, revised his work (though he once sold a first-draft short story on a bet!). I get many papers that look like unrevised drafts. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that you wouldn't give such a thing to your boss in the real world, you shouldn't give it to your instructor. (There's nothing wrong with last-minute ink corrections, though nowadays, computers make it easy to incorporate such corrections in another printout.)

It’s unfortunate that many people who teach English don’t understand this. At one extreme, to them the “rules are the rules”, and following rules is all that counts, even if it results in something awkward or unclear. At the other extreme, they tell people to do whatever they like, so as not to “confine their creativity”. Hogwash. Creativity isn’t worth a hoot if no one can understand what you said. If you can write what you mean to say, so that someone you never met understands exactly what you intended, you’re doing pretty well.

By the way, when you print, don't use right justification unless you can print proportional spacing. With monospacing, a program justifies by adding spaces between words, instead of between letters. This white space looks awful. And don't forget to use page numbers in any “academic” submission or manuscript.

In any writing, you ought to at least warn the reader of what to expect. Reading (of non-fiction, at any rate) should be illuminating, not adventurous. You can overdo it, but I remember what the old sergeant is supposed to have said about teaching something to troops: "First I tell 'em what I'm going to tell 'em, then I tell 'em, then I tell 'em what I told 'em." In other words, introduce your topic and intent, then say what you have to say, then remind the reader of what went on and close it all down. Granted, a few pages isn't much, but a limitation of length is no excuse for abandoning transition, where transition improves clarity.

Language has a "feel" to it. Experienced writers, who are usually experienced readers as well, have a better feel for language than inexperienced writers. (I greatly admire good writers for whom English is not their native language; they have had to develop a feel for English from scratch. It's hard enough for the natives!) You develop a feel by paying attention to how good writers write. But everyone also gets some feel from listening to good speakers speak. One of the best ways to check your own writing is to read it aloud (or at least, "aloud" in your head). You may hear awkward or just plain wrong phrases that you didn't notice while writing. I often pronounce every word in my head when I read or write. (Unfortunately, that's one reason why I'm a slow reader--I'm paying too much attention to how things are written.)

Believe it or not, most "rules" of grammar are designed to help a reader or listener to avoid confusion. When the language changes, and the rule is abandoned, it's sometimes because it no longer clarifies. (See my comment on "data", below.) And while you must tailor your writing to your audience, who might not know all the rules any more than they know all the ten dollar words, in most cases you must assume that some well-educated people will read your writing, and avoid doing anything that will make your text less clear.

Of course, archaic usages are sometimes still "right". No one ever uses "datum", and as far as I'm concerned, "data" ought to be singular: but officially it is plural, and oldtime mainframers seem to be comfortable with using it as a plural. ("Data are being transferred" sounds awkward to me, but "data is being transferred" is 'wrong'. Bah, humbug!) This will change when the oldsters die off, just as it has happened in the past with split infinitives and other one-time "no-nos".

Sometimes such changes improve the language, sometimes not. Words sometimes lose meaning to the point that you cannot use them any more. “Bi-annual” originally meant once every two years. (Semi-annual means twice a year.) But now so many people think it means twice a year that the dictionary has both meanings. So you can’t use bi-annual any more for fear of misunderstanding. “Gay” is another word that now has two (or even three) vastly different meanings, and is consequently unusable at least in its original meaning of “happy-go-lucky”.

I remember reading that Jacques Barzun (a famous historian and writer) detested the use of the word "concept" as a substitute for "idea". Probably, to people of Barzun's generation the use of concept in this way sounded wrong. But to me, and probably to you, who grew up without realizing the difference between the words, it doesn't sound wrong. Maybe someday "impacting on" and "transition to" and “and/or” won't sound wrong to anyone; but the language will be poorer for it, because we'll lose clarity. Unfortunately, we get both clarifying and confusing changes as time passes, and given the short attention span of modern society, I suspect we'll get more confusion than clarification.

Common mistakes that ought to sound bad to you when you read them, and which negatively influence anyone reading your text, include subject-verb number disagreement, confusion about possessives and plurals, lack of parallel structure, and wandering verb tense.

If your subject is singular, your verb also should be singular. Unfortunately, some of you lose track of what your subject is in a given sentence, usually because a subordinate clause separates verb and subject. For example, "rapid technological advancements in this industry has caused..." The subject is "advancements", so the verb should be "have".

An apostrophe usually is possessive (Joe's dog, a year's work), except where a contraction already exists (it's means "it is", so "its" is the possessive form). If you aren't sure whether something is a possessive, try inverting it to read "of ____", as in "the dog of Joe" or "the work of a year" in the above examples. If it makes no sense that way, it probably isn't a possessive after all.

Moreover, to make plurals you never use an apostrophe, unless it is needed for clarity. If you wanted to say that ten students got A's, you use an apostrophe, because without it most people would read the word “as”. But 1970s doesn't require an apostrophe, even though 1970 is not a "normal word".

For the most part, you put a comma where you'd pause if you were speaking rather than writing. If you speak like most people, that advice will be enough. We could talk about subordinate clauses and a series listing, but if you use commas as pauses you can't go far wrong.

I’ve heard of English teachers who, faced with the above advice, haul out a list of 20-some “rules” of commas. Not only do people disagree on the rules, who can figure out what’s right after wading through so many rules? The language changes, and preferences change, so the rules themselves change over time. Let’s go with the simple method I’ve suggested.

The most common comma error I see is that a comma is often left out of a series, with a reduction of clarity of meaning. For example, If I wrote "IBM makes mainframes, minicomputers, and PCs" I mean one thing, while "IBM makes mainframes, minicomputers and PCs" means another: because there's no pause between minis and PCs, they're associated in the mind of the reader, with the implication that they're somehow associated more closely in IBM than mainframes and minis. (Of course, this is the opposite of the truth.) In a series, separate every element in the list with a comma, unless you intend to associate two elements with "and". (I recognize that this may be different from what you were taught in school; remember, the objective is clarity, to avoid misunderstanding; unfortunately, a lot of English teachers don't understand this as well as they ought.)

As for verbs, if you use the past tense, stick with it--don't wander into present tense. At best, this is very distracting, at worst, confusing.

Commonly misused words and phrases. "Affect" and "effect" are often interchanged, which is incorrect. "Affect", as a verb, means "to influence". (There's another meaning of affect, a noun related to emotion, that is hardly ever used.) Effect, as a verb, means to cause or to accomplish. It is more often used as a noun, meaning roughly "the result" or "the consequence".

Avoid clichés. Originally, every cliché was a clever turn of phrase, but so many people have used it that it has become trite. That makes it stand out and distract from what you're trying to say.

"User-friendly" is an awful cliché that was abandoned by the computer industry years ago, because it had come to be meaningless. Try "easy to use". "Intuitive" is the replacement for "user-friendly", and has become just as useless. You might try "easy-to-understand".

"I.e." is a Latin abbreviation for id est, which means "that is". It is followed by a specific list that may well include every possible item that would fit the situation. "E.g.", short for "for example" (I don't remember the Latin), is followed by one or more examples drawn from a large group. The first abbreviation is often wrongly used where the second one is appropriate. As most people know, “etc” is short for “et cetera”, “and so on”, so do not say “and etc.”

Avoid the phrase "impacting on". It's so widely used that there's hardly any meaning in it. There are lots of other words, usually more specific, that you can use when you might otherwise use "impacting on".

"Transition to" is a strictly military verbal phrase, and as with most such, an invention that should have been aborted. It tends to be used as a substitute for thought on the part of the writer (just as "impacting on" can be used). There are more specific ways of saying that one thing changes to another.

“To include” is a strictly military way of saying “including”. Skip it.

“And/or” means exactly the same thing as “or”. It is just plain ignorant to use it. Blast the government dude who invented it!

There is no such thing as "softwares"; nor can you talk about "a new software", though you say "this software" instead of "these software"; so "software" is not a direct substitute for "program" in every case. It's a word that doesn't fit the rules.

Be careful how you use the words think, feel, and believe. Think denotes reason; feel denotes emotion (which is often regarded, quite rightly, as less reliable); believe denotes something that cannot be proved (as in a person's belief in the existence of a god), that is known “intuitively”. They are very different words that should not be used interchangeably.

Parallel structure. Lack of parallel structure is sometimes a tough problem to identify or explain. Unparallel structure leaps out at many readers (I'm one of those); others have to look for it. In general, if you have a sentence with several clauses, often in the form of an extended list, each clause ought to have the same structure. Incorrect example: "The planners wanted to ensure the economic and social progress of their countries, improve the living and working conditions of their people, and cooperative development of economic activities." This sentence requires another word before cooperative, to parallel the use of the boldfaced words: for example, and arrange cooperative... or perhaps and cooperate in development... In other words, each of the three clauses in the list ought to start with a verb. If you use “to” to start one clause, use it to start all the clauses. Etc.

Personification. Don't personify intangibles. In other words, don't treat non-persons as though they were people. For example: "Computer technology throughout the world is making some of the most dramatic changes since the invention... " This sentence makes sense only if "computer technology" is a person. But computer technology is a collection of ideas and procedures, not a thing, let alone a person.

Active and passive voice: When something is spoken or written in the active voice, the usual fundamental pattern is that someone (the subject) does something (the verb), often to something else (the object). In the passive voice, the pattern is that something has something done to it by someone. The latter is often weak, uncertain, indecisive, even though the result is the same in both cases. For example, you can say "Joe kicked the dog" or "The dog was kicked by Joe". The former is active, the latter passive. (The term passive comes from the "being done to", passively.) Most people would say the first form sounds much better and is clearer.

Occasionally, passive voice states your point more forcefully or more clearly, but most of the time the active voice is better.

Anyone who has worked in management knows that communicating in writing, both to levels above and below yours, is a big part of the job. It is also a big part of the electronic game industry, as games are produced by teams of people who need to understand each other. Don't depend on other people to "fix" what you have to say. Get it right on your own.