The Study Dude – On Writing Well

Study Tips from a Semi-Anonymous Friend

There is nothing more that The Study Dude wants for you than to write up the snappiest thing someone you interviewed ever said.

Well, in these articles, as The Study Dude, I’ll try to give you the study tips you need to help make your learning easier. I’ll also give you straight and honest opinions and personal anecdotes?even the embarrassing ones that you wouldn’t ever dare read about from any other study tip guru.

This week’s Study Dude article takes on part two of the look at William Zinsser’s iconic book On Writing Well. He shows you the ropes of writing, of making science accessible, and of interviewing.

Writing Advice
The best piece of writing advice came to me from my editor. Write like you would speak in everyday conversation, he said. I’ve read tons of books on writing for these Study Dude articles. Many books hint at that piece of advice; few come out and state it.

The next best writing advice came from Dr. Helen Sword’s book Stylish Academic Writing. She reveals everything you need to know about how to write clear and elegant prose. She even makes light of nominalizations by calling them “zombie nouns.” Her book focuses on fit writing versus flabby writing, with a tongue-in-cheek way of pointing out writing errors.

William Zinsser outlines writing errors similar to those discussed by Helen Sword, but Zinsser likes to use excerpts to illustrate his points. In his book On Writing Well, he uncovers, in the scope of a single chapter, multiple rules for writing that you shouldn’t take lightly:
– Use active verbs at every opportunity. Avoid passive verbs as they weaken the writing.
– Use no more than two syllable words. Short words are punchier and livelier.
– Use words that convey imagery or sound: “glitter, dazzle, twirl, beguile, scatter, swagger, poke, pamper, vex” (p. 68)
– Try not to use verbs that rely on a preposition such as “turn off”.
– When choosing adverbs, make sure they don’t just repeat the verb’s meaning. Try to get a surprising contrast with the adverb and verb combinations wherever fitting. Otherwise, your adverb is likely redundant.
– Similarly, don’t use adjectives that repeat the meaning of the noun. Everyone knows a sunset is beautiful, but few think of the sunset as death. [Sometimes, writers attribute adjectives to things that reflect a mood of a character. A person who just witnessed a crime, for instance, might see the sunset as deathly red.]
– Don’t use too many qualifiers like “sort of”, “somewhat”, “rather”. Just come out and boldly say what you want to say.
– Make two or three short sentences out of a long one. Write short sentences.
– Don’t use exclamation points. Use your word order to create emphasis, where important words come at the very end of a sentence or paragraph.
– Use dashes and periods instead of semi-colons, generally.
– Put words like “however” in the middle of a sentence, not at the very beginning or very end.
– If you have a choice between a noun or a verb, use a verb.
– Avoid multiple nouns. Rely instead on a single noun or verb.
– Make your paragraphs short. Long paragraphs discourage readers.
– Whenever there is a shift in time, place, or mood, signal these changes with a transitional word.
– Don’t use “there was” or “it is”. Just get to the point.
– Write about things that inspire your passions, such as your hobbies, work, or discipline.

Make Science Writing Understandable
Once, a math professor showed me his academic research. His paper looked like a mumbo-jumbo of symbols, numbers, and equations. Nothing on that page looked coherent to me in spite of my years in the math department. I think he was trying to impress me with the foreignness of it all. Needless to say, I felt ill-suited for tapping into an NSERC grant to be his research student. If I couldn’t understand the end product, what help could I be along the way?

Zinsser and others show that writing science isn’t about making things less transparent. Writing science isn’t about hiding behind jargon. Writing science is about clarity, simplicity, and elegance. Jargon-like writing reminds me of medical students passing off poor medical knowledge with sloppy, unreadable writing. If your writing looks more like Hebrew than English, then med school is a sure thing.

Zinsser wants you to write personably when you talk about science:
– Pretend your reader has no clue about the science you discuss. Write so clearly that the most dumbfounded reader can easily grasp your scientific discussion.
– Start with a single scientific fact and branch out from there.
– Try to use visuals in your scientific writing to simplify complex topics.
– Write personably, not scientifically.
– Don’t write about science. Put the human in it; write about people doing science.
– Restrict your technical words to a handful.

Interviewing and Writing About Others
This segment of the Study Dude article does look at a more journalistic style of interviewing and writing about people. However, these journalistic principles could be applied to reporting on any subjects you interview for your thesis or papers.

Recently, I wrote an article in a print magazine that required me to interview a subject for forty-five minutes. He said some rather off-the-wall and telling comments, and these made excellent fodder for a story. I tried to take his most unusual anecdotes and weave them into a narrative. I saved the funniest quote for the end, foreshadowing it in my first sentence. It made for a cute cover story.

Whether you work on your thesis or do actual interviews in a research design course, ensure that you create compelling quotes to weave into your writing. Sometimes the unusual comments make for the most interesting discussion. Similarly, common patterns and themes that run through your interviews expose the backbone of your findings.

Zinsser presents some interview tips that hold mostly for journalists, but can work nicely for academics interviewing people or writing up the interviews.
– When interviewing others, try to get them to speak about their passions, their interests, their joys and fears.
– Nonfiction writing, such as journalistic writing, requires a large number of interesting quotes.
– Interview people with fires in their bellies.
– Practice interviewing people at any opportunity. Like anything, the more you do it, the better you get.
– Interview someone who has an unusual, fascinating, or relevant story.
– Interview feminists.
– When interviewing people, don’t hold back. They tend to love the spotlight and want your questions.
– Create a list of potential interview questions before the interview takes place.
– Isolate the punchiest responses.
– Be respectful of your interview subject. Don’t fudge his or her quote. Add two at most words to clarify meaning when the quote needs work.
– Keep your best quote for the end of your write-up.
– Your first paragraph (or lead) should reveal why your subject is worthy of a write-up.
– In journalist writing, just say so-and-so said. Don’t try to find synonyms for the word “said”, although occasionally, words like “he added” might be fitting.
– You can chop up and change your interviewees words, just as long you don’t change the meaning.

So, there’s nothing to fear. The Study Dude is determined to make right for you all the wrongs I made in grad school?one A+ at a time.

Zinsser, William. (2006). On Writing Well. New York, NY: Collins.