It Must Be Clear

On Wednesday, I’ll give a seminar on Academic Writing to our research students as part of their generic skills course. Of course, my own experience is in technical writing for science journals, but our school of research has discovered that most postgrads find tips on writing very helpful, irrespective of discipline.

I guess the ability to state what you mean unambiguously is an important skill for any academic, whether you are writing an abstract, a grant proposal or a technical paper. In my experience, mathematicians and scientists do this rather well (contrary to public opinion). For example, I have often noticed that the written text in books on mathematics is usually extremely clear. Perhaps one reason is that we have to develop this skill – conveying the true meaning of relativity or quantum theory is difficult enough without introducing extra ambiguities due to clumsy punctuation.

Ah, punctuation. It’s amazing how good punctuation can clarify the most difficult of concepts, while poor punctuation can render a passage almost meaningless. The basics of punctuation are quite simple to learn and I’ve never understood why so few take the time to refresh their grammar. For example, did you know there are four types of comma? Or that the famous comma-and rule is a myth? (it depends on the context).

However, there is more to good writing than decent punctuation. In poor writing, the problem often runs quite deep – for example muddled thinking produces muddled writing. Another problem is lack of imagination. Some writers tacitly assume the reader already knows what is meant – they simply cannot imagine that the sentence they wrote can be read differently. A third sin is that of overload, again because the writer has not considered how this will read to someone new to the subject.

When I was writing my own PhD thesis, my supervisor refused to correct chapters of text. Instead, he insisted on seeing bullet points for each section, preferably hand-written. I still hear his voice when writing ;

What are the points you wish to make in this section?

Why is this point here and not earlier?

Does it hang together?

Use a new paragraph for every new idea

In real life, it’s fascinating how the professions write differently. Journalists often write well, but tend to state their opinions as established facts. Economists write more accurately, but must be read two or three times. Lawyers tend to use even more obtuse language, rendering the meaning impenetrable. Worst of all are writers in business and politics – they seem to enjoy using vague phraseology, deliberately allowing the text to mean whatever the reader wishes it to mean. To scientists, this is a terrible sin – if you don’t have a clear point to make, why write the piece at all?

You can find the slides I will use for the talk here. In the meantime, here are some hilarious examples of poor punctuation:

Julianna walked on her head a little higher than usual

I must get on my lover

No dogs please

Fan’s fury at cancelled match!

A panda bear is an animal that eats, shoots and leaves

A good book on punctuation, if a little longwinded

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