Thursday, April 30, 2015

How not to write badly (4): Do not sprawl

I'm cheating a bit because this is more of a "how to write" than how not to but I think it just about fits.

I'm going to share my method to fix two problems writers often have: loose structure and writing too much. I'm aiming this at assignment writing but the same principles actually apply to writing fiction, playwriting, any form of writing that requires structure.

What do I mean by loose structure? It's easiest to say what is desirable and you can think about how you might stray from this. A great assignment is driven by ideas. It pops from idea to idea without losing its drive. You can readily follow its thesis and the writing has thrust.

The same principle applies to writing, say, a novel. You should have narrative drive. It's what makes a reader want to keep turning the page. If you waffle, you start to lose the reader.

What do I mean by writing too much? Well, for assignments we generally mean you can't stick to the word count. And for a novel, you write too much filler. Or not enough words. Writing too little is just the same problem from the other way round. Assignments with decent word counts can seem daunting. If you ask someone to write 3000 words on a particular thing, they might flinch from the job, procrastinate, see it as a mountain that's hard to climb. How to fix that?

Here's my method. I use a tree.

The first thing to do is to think about what your assignment says in the simplest of terms. You are going to explain it to a child. In fact, your goal in most formal writing is to write at a level that would be comprehensible to a bright 10-year-old. If my Zenita cannot understand what you're saying, you are writing badly. You aren't Heidegger. You are a student trying to get a good grade. Teachers don't want to wade through shit any more than the rest of us do.

So you need the star idea. I'm going to help you grasp this by using an example from an essay I might have written for my degree.

STAR: Generative semantics was a competitor to TG grammar that was discarded because it could not resolve some utterance types

So I have done a literature review on generative semantics, an approach that briefly flamed and then died away. My thesis is that it died away because it could not explain some utterances (sentences, basically) in English. This idea will drive my whole assignment.

I did this approach for a friend. It took a while to elicit what the star idea was because it's probably easier for me to summarise concepts in plain English than it is for her. That's because my brain works that way. But you can do it quite easily. Just remember you are trying to explain it to a child. Write keywords and think about how they link together. Her assignment is a literature review on hyperlexia. She tells me that it was once considered a savant skill and is now considered a learning disability because it shows a cognitive deficit.


STAR: Hyperlexia used to be considered a savant skill but is now seen as a cognitive deficit.

Now, notice straight away that both star ideas have concepts that a child can't understand. The words are meaningless. These are things we must explain.

And what if you were writing a novel? STAR: Young man meets a convict and it changes his life.

These ideas provide drive for your work. You will avoid the common mistake of "narrating" an assignment, where you begin then start to tell the reader everything you know. "And then... And then... And then..." This lacks the thrust you want your writing to have and also is very hard to structure properly (because it's unstructured).

So I have my star idea. Next I create five or six heads. Doesn't have to be any particular number but generally five or six is about right. These can and usually should take the form of questions. They are the questions a child might ask you when you express the star idea.

HEAD: What was generative semantics?
HEAD: How did it differ from TG grammar?
HEAD: Which utterance types did it fail to resolve?
HEAD: How did TG grammar prove superior?
HEAD: Was it correct to discard generative semantics?

So now you answer the questions set out in the heads. Generally, a bullet list of six points is enough here.

SUB: A semantics-based approach
SUB: contrasting with syntax-based approaches
SUB: developed by whoever developed it
SUB: which abandoned the tree structure and strict rules-based approach of TG because
SUB: it aimed to more closely mirror actual cognitive processes
SUB: which was necessary because the previous approach was thought over formal

So for my essay I would have 30 subheads. I have 3000 words. 200 for the intro and conclusion, leaves 2800. Roughly 90 per subhead and a spare 100 to use as my bank.

Now I write each subhead in turn. I have 90 words and should try to write that many for each one. If I write too many, I must borrow. Because I have a bank, I can borrow from that first. If I don't, I must borrow from another subhead. You probably have a feel for which subheads can stand to be a bit light, but if your structure is tight enough, you should avoid too much borrowing. Because you have to pay back. If you had a limit of 90 words for each sub and write 100 for one and cannot cut, you must pay it back from another by only writing 80.

Now you have made your 3000-word assignment into 30 90-word assignments. A much easier task, right?

And you can readily answer another question: how many references should I include? You should include at least one for each subhead. These ideas don't belong to you. You're simply bringing them together. So provide support for each one with a citation. You don't need more than one but you should have at least one.

Can you see how this would work for a novel?

The star idea is the hook, the story in a sentence. The heads are what we call crisis points: big turning points in the action that drive the story. The subheads are action points: the things that happen, the "scenes" if you like. If you were aiming at 80,000 words and had 36 action points, that's about 2300 words for each action point, or about sevenish pages. You can probably break the action points down a bit further by analysing them a bit. Novels aren't quite like assignments after all. The point of this method is that we analyse each idea down to its atoms: the ideas that cannot be analysed further. In an assignment, that is usually the ideas that support the five or six elements of the central thesis. In a novel, we can conceive of plot as: concept > crisis points > action points > subscenes that build action points.

Monday, April 20, 2015

How not to write badly (3)

3. Write tight

Most of what I have to tell you is covered by this commandment. Be concise and avoid redundancy. As a writer, your task is to convey your meaning in as few words as possible. Less is most definitely more.

Of course you already know that you should not write "in order to" (just "to" or sometimes "so that") or "prior to" ("before") but do you get tempted into deploying "with the intention of" ("meaning to") or "having made an agreement to" ("having agreed to")?

And do you think a "collaborative partnership" is different from a "partnership"? It isn't. "Partnerships" are for collaboration in one way or another. Take care not to use combinations of words that one of the words imply. "Joint meetings" are "meetings", "team meetings" are also "meetings" unless you also have "personal meetings" but context is usually enough to clarify which type of meeting you refer to. Don't write "could potentially". "Could" implies "potentially". Don't write "ended finally".

If you write "some people consider that", you may as well have put "some think". "It is the intention of those people with different ideologies to introduce their strategies to change the world in particular ways" is the same as "People with different ideologies want things their own way". Results are always "end results" and if you just wrote a sentence with "process" or "situation" anywhere in it, you shouldn't have.

Words must do work. When you reread your writing, you should be able to justify every word in it. If you can't, rid yourself of the passengers. This isn't necessarily easy. If you knew the most succinct way to put what you wanted to say in the first place, you wouldn't have written that garbled mess. But you can help yourself by following a simple process. For each sentence, ask who did it and what they did, and express that in the simplest way you can, as though you were explaining it to a child.

You'll then find that instead of writing:

The collaborative effort of the team led to a strategy to complete the eradication of excessive meetings.

you write:

The team found ways to cut meetings.

or even:

The team cut meetings.

You can also help yourself by asking whether you have too many clauses and whether you could instead have written more sentences. The rule is to have one thought for each sentence, which can be equally well understood as one verb for each sentence. At base, a sentence includes someone or something who does something, what it does and who or what it is done to. Sometimes there's an adverb or adverbial phrase that you can't live without because it situates the action in time or place or creates an idea of modality. This idea is why I dislike "however". Writers are fond of using it to extend sentences to torturous lengths when ideally they could have expressed the same idea in separate sentences. If sentences are contrastive, they often do not need to be contrasted.

Be wary of "while" and "when". The first introduces scene setting that is often unnecessary or confusing (and often you would in any case be better off tacking on the contrasting element with "but"); the second adds whole landscapes of bullshit that you didn't need to indulge in. "And" is also your enemy. You can easily fall into the trap of creating quasi-run-on sentences by stringing together clauses with "and" that would be better as separate sentences.

Writing tight runs deeper than being concise and avoiding redundancy, of course. You should also avoid padding if you can. If you are writing an essay or assignment, you should include only what is to the point. Your work should move from point to point in a remorseless march of meaning. Avoid digressions that aim only to show how much you know. Your knowledge is implied in your mastery of what you choose to include. Don't neglect planning for this type of writing. One method I think is useful is to set out what you intend to say in five or six plain English sentences. Use these as heads. Then for each head, write five or six more plain sentences that lead through the argument you plan to make. These are your subheads. This disciplines your writing and helps put you into the mindset of expressing yourself plainly.

Words to avoid

hence -- hence means "from here" and you should almost never have cause to use it. If you mean "because of this", write "therefore". Sometimes what you want is no more than "so". By the way, "thus" means "in this way" and a careful writer does not use it as a synonym for "therefore". For instance: "He used the screwdriver to lever out the nail. Thus he avoided damaging the plaster" is fine; "He used the screwdriver to lever out the nail. Therefore he has a spare nail" is fine. Using "thus" in the second sentence is horrible.

actor when you mean actress -- I'm all for nonsexist and nonracist language where possible but you can take it too far. I don't particularly mind "actor" for women who act. However, you should be aware that sometimes you need to use the word "actress". Many films have two leads, a man and a woman, and it's unnatural to describe the female lead as the "lead actor". You could say "one of the leads" but whenever you use periphrasis to avoid the natural expression, you are probably going wrong.

dangling participles -- Do you see what is wrong with this sentence: "Being so young, cancer was far from my mind." Yes, we are saying the cancer is young. I think we all know this is an error in English, although it's a common idiom in speech. But it's hard to be quite so clear in more complex sentences. The best way to avoid mismatching participles and subjects is to recast the sentence if you're not sure ("Cancer was far from my mind because I was so young"). Not that avoiding this mistake is an impossible task. When you read back your work simply note on a separate piece of paper each time you have a participle and then note the corresponding subject. Does the participle refer to the subject? No? You messed up.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

How not to write badly (2)

2. Write sentences the right way round

I remember editing a book on Asian history in which the author insisted on writing sentences something like this:

As the Manchus had banned the queue, many men felt a loss of face

which I would of course correct, and he'd be very upset, mostly because I replaced "as" with "because". He insisted that one had learned at school that one should not begin a sentence with "because". Was he right?

Yes, he was. But not because "because" is on some list of words that you're forbidden to start sentences with but because you should not put the causal clause first.

Instead of:

Because I do not like foreign places, I staycation in Cornwall.

you ought to write:

I staycation in Cornwall because I do not like foreign places.

In the first sentence, the adverbial phrase has been fronted and generally you should avoid this, particularly in formal writing and even more so if your sentence is long.

Some are fond of fronting "while" clauses:

While they did not like the outcomes, the participants were enthusiastic about joining the programme.

 Which is better as:

The participants were enthusiast about joining the programme but did not like the outcomes.

I apologise for the examples I have given being rather marginal but I'm struggling to come up with anything better. You know what's bad when you see it though. Something like:

Because the individuals with diabetes have restricted diets, they cannot eat the chocolate biscuits.

is bad and:

The people with diabetes cannot eat the chocolate biscuits because they have restricted diets.

is better or:

While the implementation of the programme had its difficulties, it was considered successful

is simply:

The programme was a success although there were difficulties.

(Side issue: you should be very strict in avoiding impersonal passive constructions such as "it was considered". Write them out completely if you can or replace them with either something that explicitly states who did the considering or a more active version. "It is necessary to introduce new protocols on the distribution of memoranda" is better as "New protocols on distributing memoranda need to be introduced" or even better "New protocols on distributing memoranda are needed", since if there are new protocols, they will have been introduced. "It is thought that broader distribution is necessary to be fostered"? Who thinks it? If you absolutely cannot say, just write "Some think distribution needs to be broader". Note that in the past two example sentences, we got rid of extraneous concepts. In the latter, we don't need to say anything is being "fostered" because if distribution is broadened, someone is broadening it, and this is all "foster" means -- that someone is doing something. We'll say more about that when we discuss writing tight.)

The model for an English sentence is Subject Verb Object. Subordinate, adverbial or conjoined clauses should generally come at the end of the sentence. You can almost never be wrong if  you stick to this model (almost but not always: "I usually don't eat chocolate" is idiomatic; "I don't eat chocolate usually" is a bit awkward, and of course, there are times when adverb fronting is acceptable -- "Usually, I don't eat chocolate" -- but not so much in formal writing).

You can readily abide by this rule by simply doing the following. When you have written a sentence, take a look at it. Is the first word or group of words the person or thing that carried out the action of the sentence? No? Then you probably need to think again. There are of course many counterexamples but you should be able to justify them readily. (There's an example in this paragraph: clauses that indicate temporal succession can be fronted, so I write "When you have written a sentence" first -- I could write "Take a look at a sentence when you have written it" and that would be fine. See also "If... then..." "If you like it, you can take it" is fine and you can also write "You can take it if you like it".)

Words to avoid

however -- If you have a really long sentence, hooked together with a "however", you have likely committed the sin of writing a sentence that's too long and could just as well have been two sentences. Even on a smaller scale, something like "They had always wanted to go to Paris but they never found the time" is much to be preferred over "They had always wanted to go to Paris; however, they never found the time". "But" is much underused but it's a lovely, versatile word. Use it for most contrasted clauses and you'll be happy with the outcome.

individual -- Anyone who wants to write well must of course study Fowler. And this was a word he particularly deprecated. In his day, it was used largely as a facetious version of person but now it is a somewhat elegant variation for that word. Politically correct writers love it because it stresses the individuality of members of groups of people. But it is rarely correct to do this. A friend of mine loves to write about "individuals with autism" (it is the commonly used terminology). But they are simply "people with autism". Nothing about that phrase suggests they are not individuals. It does not, as some seem to think, imply that the people in question are identical or have the same issues, just the same as, for instance, "dogs" does not suggest every dog is a Labrador. You should only use "individual" when you specifically wish to distinguish an actual individual from a group and you will rarely enough wish to do that that you can simply exclude the word from your vocabulary. Oh, and forget using it as an adjective, lest you fall into such horrors as "an individual portion" (portions are by definition individual). You may use the adverb "individually" when you write something like "I spoke to them individually" (not as a group) but often you'd prefer some other construction anyway: "they worked on their own" is better than "they worked individually" for instance.

impact on -- It's easy to see how we drifted into this abomination. "Have an impact on" was already horrific but that was just not egregious enough for some. Or perhaps some, tired of being told that "impact" is not a verb, decided to create a new phrasal verb instead. Why even go there though? There's a perfectly decent English word that means what you want to say: "affect".

action -- Don't "action these proposals". Either "Do what I propose" or "Act on these proposals". Don't "Put these proposals into action" either. This is using nouns where you should use verbs. Remember that?

implement -- Nearly always when you write "implement", you meant to write "do" or "make", sometimes "create". I'll have more to say on using Anglo-Saxon words in preference to Romance words later. This is a good example of something many people don't seem to be able to avoid when writing formally: using what they take to be the more "erudite" word over the more commonly used one. They "attempt" instead of "try"; they "establish" instead of "make"; they "consider" instead of "think"; they use "implements" instead of "tools". To avoid "implement" you'll often have to recast your sentence but it'll be worth it.

How not to write badly (1)

Writing well is a skill that can only be acquired by working hard at it. You cannot overnight become a good writer. But you can quite easily avoid being a bad writer by following simple rules. I'm going to write a few posts in which I set out some of those rules. I won't be schematic: I'm just going to post whatever occurs to me as I go along. Mostly they can be summed up as: write short sentences, write simply, write tight, use common words, aim to replicate the flow of speech.

Of course, most rules are there to be broken and there are times and places for not doing what I suggest. But you need to know what the rules are to know when you can safely break them.

At the end of each post, I'll give a few words and phrases to avoid and give better choices.

1. Use verbs not nouns

Possibly the quickest way to improve writing is to understand that nouns are your enemy. Everyone knows you shouldn't use adjectives much but most people are unaware that it's nouns that clutter your sentences.

Look at the following:

They made a joint effort in the establishment of a team.

Yuk. In this sentence your meaning swims away from you in a morass of nouns. There are four. You needed to write: "They came together to build a team." Just two nouns (we are counting pronouns as nouns).

"Made a joint effort" feels more formal to the novice writer than "came together" (or simply "joined") but the aim of formal writing is not to feel formal. You don't seem cleverer when you are harder to understand. You convey your knowledge by leaving the reader in no doubt about what you're saying.

Verbs such as "do", "make", "grow", "build", "take" are your friends. They are short words that convey solid meaning. You don't need to "implement" things. You can just "do" them. You don't need to "formulate" things. You can "make" them. And so on. Notice that I substituted "build" for "establish" in this sentence. Where possible, this is what you should do. Use the commoner, simpler word.

Try this:

We began the implementation of a strategy to diversify our products.

Write instead:

We began diversifying our products.

Or this:

The lessons we abstracted from the process of the interviewing of the study participants facilitated our understanding of the differentials in their processing of social situations.

OMG: What we learned from interviewing study participants helped us understand how they saw social situations differently.

"The --- of" is your enemy. Eradicate it. At worst use the verbal noun instead. "The interviewing of" is just "interviewing".

Worse still:

They were engaged in the building of understandings of personal dynamics.

Which means:

They built an understanding of how people worked together.

I often sub real estate pieces and the journos love to say a house "is located in close proximity to a park". They mean to say "is right next to a park". Note another error in the journos' rendering, which you should avoid. "Is located", "is situated", these say no more than "is". People like these quasi-passive constructions but they are clumsy (and they break the rule to "write tight", which I'll refer to later). Similarly, "we found ourselves unable to" is an egregious rendering of "we couldn't". If you find yourself tempted by complex verb phrases, resist the temptation and stick to the simple verb.

Words to avoid

enhance -- it's probably a losing battle to fight against the encroachment of "enhance" on "increase", "improve", "better" but I still think it's worth fighting. "Enhance" means "improve or increase the quality of". You enhance flavour in food with salt. You enhance pain by rubbing salt in a wound. If you mean "increase", write "increase". If you mean "improve", write "improve".

"I enhanced my understanding of French by learning vocabulary"? Nope. You just "grew" it.

foster -- you can nearly always replace "foster" with "grow" or "encourage", sometimes spread. It's become a vogue word in quasi-academic writing but you look like an idiot if you use it.

on a regular basis -- if you find yourself writing the word "basis" with any kind of adjective, you've made a mistake. "On a regular basis" means "regularly". "On a daily basis" means "daily". The same goes for "fashion", which you should nearly always restrict to clothes, and "manner", which you probably could live without ever writing at all. For some reason people think using adverbial phrases is more elegant than using adverbs but they're wrong. You can nearly always use the corresponding word ending in "-ly". "In a different fashion" is "differently". "In a hopeful manner" is "hopefully". Yes, I do know that "he did it timely" feels awkward to you and you want to write "in a timely fashion". But don't. You'll get used to it.

as when you mean because -- "as" means "at the same time as" (and if you find yourself writing "at the same time as", you probably want "as"!). It's often used to mean "because" but avoid that usage if you can. It can create ambiguity that is easily avoided. "He handed them sweets as he liked them" says "he handed them sweets while liking them", when what you meant was that his liking them was the cause of handing them sweets. "He left as he was hungry" does not say hunger made him leave. It just says he was hungry as he was leaving. Learn to love "because" for causes. Also, while we're on the subject, learn to love "because of" too. "Due to" has a fairly restricted meaning. I won't get into it here because all you need to know is that if you just wrote "due to" you probably meant "because of". You might have meant "owing to" but I think that distinction has pretty much died and isn't worth fighting over.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

yeah whatever

then I realised you did not want a boy to play with
but a glowering Victorian
all morality and tight trousers
because I frown you think I'm forbidding and you like it

but I was thinking it would be fun
if we just weren't who we are all day long
because life is short and you don't get to be
anyone but you anyway

and I realise that was something of a mistake
if I wanted to keep you and you know
keeping someone is not necessarily
what I wanted but
then I realised keeping them seemed better than losing them
and that's why you end up with regrets

and yeah I would like you to know who I am
but just like anyone I've ever met
you want to know I'm who you know I am instead
and I have to want the same thing
if I want women in my bed

and I do

(crossposted from Your own planet)