cognitive science
and more
Six books to help you write

I like to write: blogs, papers, mediocre bits of fiction that never see the light of day, and even forum discussions. Each of these writings poses its own challenges, and requires its own style. When writing a blog, what is a good opening sentence? (Here I dived right in with "I like to write." Is that too blunt?) What's an acceptable length for a blog, given people's limited attention spans on the internet? (This blog is probably too long.) When to use, and when to avoid, parenthetical phrases? (Avoid, avoid!) When writing a scientific paper, how do you let the introduction flow naturally into the research question? When answering a technical question on a forum, how do you make sure that someone who is already struggling understands your answer?

And, in all cases, how do you avoid mistakes, and express yourself as clearly as possible?

Writing isn't easy, but it's not magic either. Below, in no particular order, are six books that I've personally found very useful in developing my own writing.

1. The Elements of Style

Let's start with a classic: The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. This 'little book', as William Strunk Jr. called it, has an interesting history. Strunk was an English professor at Cornell University, and privately printed the first version of The Elements for his students. This was around 1918. One of his students was E. B. White.

The collaboration between Strunk and White started only in 1957, a decade after Strunk's death. At this time, White was asked to revise the little book, which was to be published for the college market. Since then, the little book has been revised many times, and has become a classic. But it's still little, and still in the spirit of its original author; or at least I like to think so.

The Elements is (are?) written as a series of rules. The first are 'rules of usage', which deal with grammar and punctuation: let subject and verb agree in number, use a serial comma, etc. Next are the 'rules of composition', which deal with sentence-level style: use the active voice, omit unnecessary words, etc. Finally, Strunk lays out an 'approach to style' with general writing tips: revise often, don't use fancy words, etc.

Strunk's rules are useful, but also, in some cases, dated and idiosyncratic. You can tell the book's age from the way it emphasizes the importance of concise writing, while at the same time being wordy by today's standards. Also, some of Strunk's rules are overly dogmatic. For example, he objects to the use of 'hopefully' in sentences such as, "Hopefully, I'll meet my friend tomorrow." According to Strunk, and other grammar purists, this means that you will be filled with hope when you meet your friend tomorrow; whereas, of course, what is meant is that you hope to see your friend tomorrow.

Nevertheless, on the whole, The Elements of Style is a short, useful overview of the most important style guidelines.

2. The Elements of Eloquence

Let's move on to the similarly titled Elements of Eloquence, by Mark Forsyth. This book deals with figures of rethoric: things like alliteration (starting words with the same letter), litotes (an understatement that affirms something by denying its opposite), etc.

You have to be careful with figures of rhetoric, because they tend to make sentences unnecessarily complex. Rhetoric works better in a poem than in the abstract of a scientific paper. For example, litotes goes directly against the advice to write positive sentences (to write what is, rather than what isn't), which you can find in most style guidelines. Litotes is also awfully close to a double negative, which isn't none too good neither.

But The Elements of Eloquence is useful and entertaining. Even if figures of rhetoric should be used sparingly in non-poetic writing, it's good to know them. And, every now and then, you can throw one in. Titles are specially good places for stylistic tricks.

For example, take this great scientific manuscript title: A Thousand Words Are Worth a Picture by Stéphane Dufau and colleagues. This title has alliteration and assonance (words and worth start with the same letter and sound similar), and there is a neat symmetry around are. Best of all, it's almost a iambic tetrameter: ta-Tum ta-Tum ta-Tum ta-Tum (ta). The surplus ta, which comes from '-ture', is annoying. But we can lose the starting A and force the title into straight trochees: Thousand Words are Worth a Picture, or Tum-ta Tum-ta Tum-ta Tum-ta. This title is memorable, not because it adequately summarizes the research (it doesn't), but because it sounds ... just right.

3. Troublesome Words

Troublesome Words, by Bill Bryson, is a list of often-misused words and phrases. Some entries are just oddly spelled words, such as: "embalmment. Note -mm-." Other entries are short essays about style, such as those for "adjective pile-up" and "double negatives."

Interestingly, there is also an entry on "hopefully", and its use in phrases such as "hopefully the sun will shine". According to Bryson, there is no real reason to object to this use of "hopefully." But, being a pragmatist, he notes that it's controversial and thus best avoided—no need to offend the likes of William Strunk Jr.

Troublesome Words is one of those books that you have lying around and occasionally pick up to read a few pages. It's a fun book, worth having.

4. How to Write

The Guardian's How to Write is a compilation of advices, written by different authors. The book deals with all kinds and aspects of writing: from children's books to journalism, and from doing background research to approaching publishers. To me, the most useful chapter is the one about journalism, because journalism has much in common with academic writing and blogging—my kind of writing.

There are better books for learning how to write than How to Write, though. For example, I would recommend The Elements of Style (see above) and The Oxford Guide to Plain English (see below) over this book. But How to Write may be useful if you're looking for an accessible introduction to all aspects of writing.

5. Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris, copy editor at The New Yorker, is an interesting mix between style manual and autobiography. With a dry humor, Norris describes how she went from being foot checker at a local pool to being copy editor at The New Yorker. Writing is an important part of her life, and her story is therefore filled with anecdotes about proper use of commas, hyphenation, gender(-)neutral writing, etc.

Norris can talk endlessly about the beauty of a well-placed semicolon; if you share this passion, you will enjoy Between You and Me—I did.

6. The Oxford Guide to Plain English

I've saved the best for last: The Oxford Guide to Plain English, by Martin Cutts. This must-have book is all about clear and effective writing, and goes beyond most other style manuals in that it gives many examples. Cutts takes problematic sentences, and shows how they can be rewritten into plain English. For example, this monstrosity ...

We will implement additional expenditure on arbicultural pruning and maintenance to enhance the safety and visual amenity of street trees

... becomes ...

To keep our street trees safe and attractive, we'll be spending more money on pruning and maintaining them.

I particularly like the fact that the guidelines from The Oxford Guide to Plain English are fact-based: Different versions of the same text are rated on clarity and attractiveness by focus groups. Therefore, the book doesn't (only) reflect the taste of the author, but shows more-or-less objectively how you can write text that real people enjoy and understand: evidence-based writing.

In conclusion, all six books are worth reading. If you're looking for concrete advice, go for The Oxford Guide to Plain English or The Elements of Style. If you're looking for an entertaining book about writing, go for The Elements of Eloquence, Troublesome Words, or Confessions of a Comma Queen. And if you're looking for a bit of everything, go for How to Write.

Now go! You have writing to do.