This post fits into the category “the hard part of writing.”
Perhaps the most important rule in good writing is to proofread your work. I wrote an article about proofreading a while back, but almost nobody reads it. I think the title isn’t catchy enough. Anyway, I re-read my previous post, and I found something to fix.
Here’s the passage that needs work:
I think maybe, perhaps, the use of “born” instead of “hatched” fits rather well, even in an article that later gives the scientific name of antibiotic-resistant fecal bacteria, especially if you read the entire article.
Think about that last clause, starting with “especially. ” It doesn’t quite fit. The sentence says that the article gives that scientific name especially if you read the entire article. That’s nonsense. The meaning I intended is that you can tell that “born” instead of “hatched” fits rather well if you read etc. So we should move that “especially…” clause closer to the front of the sentence, perhaps after “rather well.” But if you do that, the reference to the scientific name is too far away. I caused the problem by going for a chatty effect (by using “maybe, perhaps) and leaving out the important phrase, “you can tell” after “I think.”
I see two respectable ways to fix this bad sentence.
- Put in “you can tell” and put the “especially…” clause after “tell.”
- Make two sentences: “Read the entire article. I think maybe, perhaps, etc.”
- Leave off that final clause altogether. You probably went and read the entire article already anyway.
(Oops, that’s three. Don’t say I never gave you nuthin.’)
What do you think? Maybe you have a fourth rewrite. Post a comment.
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If you haven’t already done so, read the previous post.
Here’s a professionally-written article on a scientific subject. The article is about house flies spreading germs. I’m not going to say the writer is wrong; I’m pointing out that you have a choice when it comes to picking what word to use, and your choice affects the tone of what you write. The farther from the literal truth, the more, well, poetic. Another reason I chose to comment on this article is that it begins with a poem by my favorite Chinese poet, Kobayashi Issa. Here’s some of the first paragraph:
Each day, in each country, a housefly is born. Lots of houseflies really. Houseflies have been being born around us for thousands of years. They are born of what everyone else abandons, corpses, cakes, and excrement.
Within four sentences, the writer uses “born” three times referring to flies hatching. The whole first paragraph of this Scientific American article about flies spreading contagion is full of imagery. I think maybe, perhaps, the use of “born” instead of “hatched” fits rather well, even in an article that later gives the scientific name of antibiotic-resistant fecal bacteria, especially if you read the entire article. What do you think?
Who was on the other side of Castor’s wall? A rooster. He was hatched.
One characteristic of good writing, at least good expository writing, is that your reader effortlessly knows what you mean. That means you don’t want to be ambiguous. You want to pick the exact right word that has the exactly correct meaning. That’s the kind of writing I usually write about.
If you’re into poetry or riddles, the heart of your writing might be to play with these ambiguities, be deliberately ambiguous. A well-handled ambiguity creates an enigma. The reader of your statement is puzzled until you dispel the ambiguity with the answer to your riddle, and consternation turns into delight. That’s why we like riddles. I used the word “statement” on purpose, by the way. Nowadays riddles are often framed as questions, but they used to be statements. The nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty was a riddle.
In the book of Judges, Samson’s statement about the lion carcass with the honeycomb inside was a riddle in statement form (see Judges 14:14).
Here’s another statement-riddle that plays on the choice of a certain word in the article I want to quote later.
As I looked over Castor’s wall,
I heard a man let out a squall.
His beard was meat, his mouth was horn.
Such a man was never born.
You’re supposed to figure out who this ‘man’ is, like you were supposed to figure out that Humpty Dumpty was an egg, except every nursery book I’ve ever seen was so copiously illustrated that most kids never even realize the poem was a riddle in the first place.
That’s enough for one lesson, class. I’ll continue in the next lesson.
One of my favorite errors to point out is an unhyphenated compound adjective. A compound adjective is when two words work together to modify a noun, and you need to connect those two words with a hyphen. If you leave out the hyphen, you get the first word modifying the second word, and this can lead to serious ambiguity. I wrote about missing hyphens recently here. Go look at the article—it contains examples. People don’t usually put in the hyphen if they don’t need it, but I found an unnecessary hyphen today. The article is interesting, too, if you like astronomy.
By blowing a wind prior to exploding, the white dwarf was able to clear out a huge “cavity,” a region of very low-density surrounding the system. The explosion into this cavity was able to expand much faster than it otherwise would have.
You’re reading along, and suddenly you wonder, “a region of low-density what?” That hyphen told you “compound adjective here” so you expected a noun. Maybe you filled in the noun yourself—low-density vacuum. Or perhaps you re-arranged the whole sentence, “…a very low-density region surrounding…” Or maybe you picked the simplest solution and removed the hyphen—a region of low density.
Perhaps some science writer has been reading this blog and got over-enthusiastic about hyphens. (I flatter myself. I’ve never gotten a comment from a science writer about anything.) Here’s the picture that goes with the article.
Oh—one other thing I need to be curmudgeonly about: Don’t write “prior to” when you mean “before.”
I don’t generally quote others because what they say is good. I prefer to quote mistakes. But I ran into something the other day that is so good, and so in line with one of my guiding principles, that I have to share it. My humblest thanks to astronomer and writer Phil Plait, and to the American Geophysical Union, where he got this table. Phil’s article (click his link) is particularly worth reading. He also mentions the original source, an article by Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol, from the October 2011 issue of Physics Today.
The guiding principle is that you must write for your readership. Before you publish, have an idea of your readers’ knowledge of the subject you’re writing about, and understand what stake they have in your content; in other words, work at figuring out what they know coming in, and what you want them to take away. This means, among other things, that you should reflect on your use of specialized words—either define or don’t use vocabulary that your readers might get wrong.
Without further ado: