Tossing looms, weaving words

  • Writing in the Sciences is a free Stanford online course that tackles the specifics of academic writing. It consists of two major parts: how to write well, and how to write to get published. Each lecture presents a few useful items that together form a practical checklist of what to avoid to make your writing better. Instead of trying to be brilliant immediately, avoiding common pitfalls could be a simpler first step towards developing a good personal style!
  • The Elements of Typographic Style is hardly a guide on writing well, but I consider it a valuable resource when it comes to the specific question about accessibility. Beyond practical accessibility, there is also the concern that text can surely never be perceived in isolation from its presentation, so the way it is typeset must have some impact on the stance the reader takes on it; here, the book serves as a source of inspiration.
    The 2004 hardcover edition, by the way, looks and feels stunning, so much so that you would think it is strictly a display book. In reality I have been using my copy as a reference for several years, but without margin scribbles or dog-ears it takes me a fair bit of time to find anything!
  • The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker will make you think in tree structures. And, according to Pinker, this is just the way to think about your writing if you want it to make unambiguous sense. What I love most about this book is that in no way does Pinker present just another list of rules that we should blindly follow. Yes, he does come up with his own list of dos and don’ts which he is “prepared to try to dissuade you from using in their nonstandard senses”, but a later statement he makes sums up very well why it is necessary to keep some rules to a higher standard despite the generic indetermination that characterises English usage:
  • How to Write a Sentence and How to Read one complements Pinker’s practical guide in a way that focuses more on style, and attempts to teach the reader to recognise and produce sentences that are not only structurally sound, but a pleasure to read. I’m not convinced that good style can be acquired through learning alone. Still, the abundance of example passages presented that leverage one stylistic device or another will at the least encourage more mindful reading, creating more opportunities for picking up effective techniques through conscious or subconscious copying.
  • The Elements of Style is the classic early 20th century reference book (or should I say booklet?) for correct writing. Pinker and other authors suggest that this guide be taken with a grain of salt: not only is it out of date, but strictly following all of the rules within is a recipe for making any writing bland. When it comes to looking up specific grammar or spelling rules, though, it is a good resource.

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Elise Hein

Elise Hein

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I’m a designer and software engineer building products for medical research at London-based Ctrl Group.