Writing better

This is possibly a little offtopic for many KDE peeps, but relevant to the stuff I do with KDE. It may be relevant to you if you write articles, announcements, press releases – or even blogs ๐Ÿ™‚

I spent the last couple of days attending a โ€œresults-based writingโ€ course hosted by my university. The main aim was to learn some things about writing concisely for scientific papers and finding a good structure for my thesis, but the lessons are applicable to all many kinds of writing.

The training I attended was provided by Cognitrix and was excellent. These are key points that I took away from the course:

  • Know your audience
  • Identify the concepts and how they link
  • Don’t try and hide uncertainty with vague language
  • See the opposite point of view
  • Cut the waffle
  • If you can’t say a sentence in one go then it is too long

They maight seem obvious, but many scientific papers fail on a lot of them. More detail on each follows below.

Know your audience

What jargon can you include? What explanation is necessary? On the Dot I insert hyperlinks to applications, jargon or concepts that I think might not be widely known, but mostly base that on what I understand.

Identify the concepts and how they link

We took a science paper, wrote its concepts out on paper and drew arrows to link them. Those with the most outgoing links are probably good starting points; those with mostly incoming links conclusions. Some items were not linked at all (these were mostly irrelevant and could be removed). Others had few links coming in and needed more background.

Don’t try and hide uncertainty with vague language

I know I’ve tried this in the past when I haven’t quite understood something. Not on the Dot, because there are far too many knowledgeable people reading and I’d get found out ๐Ÿ˜‰ If you can’t explain something well then you probably don’t understand it properly yourself.

Try and imagine the opposite point of view

Particularly useful for science. Scrutinize statements like “it is obvious” to see whether they are true. Do you need to provide justification?

Cut the waffle

Some of us (I am guilty) can be a bit verbose. Being brutal with every word, we cut a sentence from 50 to 19 words with no loss of information.

If you can’t say a sentence in one go then it is too long

If you can’t remember at the end of a sentence how it started then the information is hard to take in. A good test is whether you can say the sentence aloud without pausing for breath.

Summary

Applying some of the above, I just cut the length of this post by 21%. I’m going to be trying to apply these lessons not just in my dayjob but also in my work with KDE. So you should read a bit less from me ๐Ÿ™‚

9 Responses to “Writing better”

  • Tommy.S says:

    “If you canโ€™t remember at the end of a sentence how it started then the information is hard to take in. A good test is whether you can say the sentence aloud without pausing for breath.”

    That is not good advice. Not everything can be short. And it is very important to keep pauses when speaking but it depends about subject how and when to do them. If it is a techinical subject, it is more important trying to be a logical. If it is a story, it is again totally different.

    Good article is long and informative. It gives multiple different points of view and tells the conclusions why every thing is said and how the conclusions are developed. They are not just short and tough sentences what are very poor or very difficult, bringing only one point of view.

    We have common language so that we can discuss, share ideas and toughs.

    When we discuss, over 90% of our information is made with bodylanguage. under 10% is the thing what we actually say. When we speak, big part of that 90% is the pauses and tension in our voice.

    But when we write, over 90% of information gets lost right away. And if we try to push it to be short, we loose even more information. Information can not be counted by how many words or letters we are using. We need to understand the context and proof read multiple times when we are doing a scientific or otherwise very important text.

    We all can just delete lots of words from text what we write. But more we do, more it becomes just one point of view. And more misunderstandings are possible because we need to cut so many different ways. If the world would be black and white, we could just say everything in short ways. Like “I Like it” “I dont like it”. There would be no different opinions. And that has be the current trend on last decade to teach young people to write short text where they do not need to explain themselfs at all. It causes lots of less spelling and grammar errors but it makes the whole community a less aware what is happening and what others are actually thinking.

    Writing has always one great thing what is over speech. You do not need to read it right then when other is telling you. You can pause and read again the sentence in your time. You can develope your own opinions and grow your wisdom same time. Get new ideas etc. And the writer does not have a problem that someone would interrupt middle of sentence, or there would be a timer what you have time to use.

    Thats why we do have long novells and other books, but there is short preview of the book in back. There is index that we can see right away all the subjects.

    It really is great skill to say something in very short ways. But it does not work most times at all.
    And what comes to bodylanguage what I mentioned, check out Charlie Chaplin how well did he get the muted movies work. Long stories but not single word at all. Or same ideas of that, the TV series of Mr. Bean. Children’s animations etc.

    And teaching and knowing are two different things. Many persons might be genius and real “wisdom-masters” about topic. But they lack totally the talent to teach things, to explain them selfs and their ideas. Many people has lots of problem to explain them selfs by writing while many when speaking.

    And when it comes to speaking, there are shy and fearless people. Those who want to sit down when speak and those who want to walk around. But one thing is very typical for all of us. When our hands are tied and we need to explain something what is very familiar to us, for someone else. It becomes very difficult if not impossible.

    And we should always remember that we want to discuss among other people. We are in the end a group animals. We need to listen others and wait that others has questions, opinions and critic from all what we do. And it is always very important to know multiple other sides of our point of view, not just the “other side”. Because there is no “other side”.;)

  • Heidi says:

    โ€œ’If you canโ€™t remember at the end of a sentence how it started then the information is hard to take in. A good test is whether you can say the sentence aloud without pausing for breath.’

    That is not good advice.” …

    Actualy, I have to disagree. It is pretty good advice (in a general sense. Naturally there are exceptions to every rule). The reason that saying that sentence aloud helps is that when you read, your brain pauses too, just like your lungs. When a breath unit is too long, your brain becomes overloaded, just like your lungs get overloaded.

    When you read, you automatically give the same amount of time to breath units, regardless of how long they are. This means that if you have a long breath unit, you are going to try to read it really fast. A short breath unit gets more emphasis because you can take it slower.

    Now, this concept can be used effectively. If you are trying to express panic or overwhelming feelings, using long breath units can help make the reader feel panicked and overwhelmed as the pace of their reading goes faster and fast to try to keep up. But, if you want the reader to be comfortable and breathing, breaking up your writing into readable segments is a good idea.

    It’s really just a matter of using the style at the right time.

  • dj says:

    Tell them what you are going to tell them.
    Tell them.
    Tell them what you told them.

    I like to read the first paragraph, hopefully it’s a summary, and if it is something I can apply now or in the near future, I read more, otherwise I move on. Our most precious asset is our time. Once spent, we are never getting it back. Writers or speakers shouldn’t waste it.

    You might be interested in, “Becoming a Technical Leader: An Organic Problem-Solving Approach”, by Gerald M. Weinberg. Or, “One Minute Manager”, by Kenneth H. Blanchard.

  • jospoortvliet says:

    funny how the first comment by Tommy proves itself wrong. He claims you should be verbose as 90% of info gets lost anyway. He does this in an incredibly verbose message I’m sure almost nobody fully reads. Surely 95% of what he sais gets lost. No kiddin’… He could’ve made his point in one paragraph, short, consise, and much more powerful.

    I greatly focus on getting texts shorter and less verbose. The release announcement for 4.4 was written over a long time, where we tried to shorten it and make it more effective. In the end, I decided to rewrite it one last time, keeping only the essential information. Ppl don’t like reading so keep it short with a high informational value. Remove the fluff ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Stu says:

    @ Tommy.S: Wow that’s a lot of stuff. I’m going to stick by the “If you canโ€™t remember at the end of a sentence how it started then the information is hard to take in” thing. I don’t think making sentences short enough prevents making a well reasoned argument and considering other points of view – you can use more short sentences to convey as much information as fewer longer ones. To misquote Einstein, “Everything should be made as short as possible, but no shorter” ๐Ÿ˜‰

    @ Heidi – yep, it does depend on exactly what you are writing. I’m about to change “all kinds” to “many kinds” ๐Ÿ™‚ Afterall, in poetry and some fiction the style is more important than the content and it is nice to use additional words to build some kind of atmosphere.

    @ dj thanks for the suggestions. Yep, if I can’t work out early on where someone is going in a piece of written text I often just move on.

    @ Jos. Yep, particularly when there are multiple authors or writing over a long period, repetition tends to creep in. I sometimes go from text -> bullet points -> new text. That seems to work quite well.

  • clinton says:

    Hmmm, I’m going to have to agree with what Tommy.S is saying for subjects where you are teaching new information to people who might be skeptical or unfamiliar with the subject. For instance, textbooks should be long and repetitive, and should reapproach their central topic and themes from all possible perspectives.

    But if you’re just conveying some news update, or make a simple comment, then yeah, cut the fluff. If the information you’re conveying doesn’t need emotion or elaboration or body-language, then whatever you include is just marketing.

    Just use the right approach where appropriate. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Diederik says:

    I fully agree here about removing fluff. I’ve stopped reading long tutorials these days, and try to keep things short myself too.

  • Stu says:

    @ Clinton – I think you, and Tommy.S, have misinterpreted me a bit. I’m advocating using sentences that are not so long that you lose the reader. I’m not saying that every piece of text should be short. If, as you suggest, you are dealing with a complex, new or contentious issue then it could be quite a long text. As you say, it depends on the purpose.

    As for textbooks, I’m not sure about repetition in the main text being good. I prefer to have things presented concisely, then have some exercises or examples to practice (and repeat) the concepts.

  • sovi says:

    many people said that body language is more meaningful than words…

    nice info.. thank you..