Good writing is clear thinking made visible

I often get requests for advice on writing, particularly from scientists and engineers who feel that writing is difficult. Yes, writing is hard work, but it is not a black art that can be mastered by only a few people.

May 1st, 2001
Th 0501bairstow
Click here to enlarge image

I often get requests for advice on writing, particularly from scientists and engineers who feel that writing is difficult. Yes, writing is hard work, but it is not a black art that can be mastered by only a few people. Writing is a craft that can be learned and can be improved by frequent practice. Here are a few suggestions that will help you develop the craft.

Your first step should be to "get the little book." This famous book is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White. William Strunk was a professor of English at Cornell University who wrote the book in 1918. E. B. White was a leading writer for The New Yorker magazine who revised the book and added a chapter on style. The book is barely 70 pages long, and covers the elementary rules of usage, principles of composition, words and expressions commonly misused, and has a chapter on style. "Get the little book."

Your second step should be to get a rather bigger book, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, a Yale professor who was the editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Subtitled "The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction," this book was first published in 1976 and has been updated several times since then. Reading this book is like having a conversation with the author. Zinsser admits that writing is hard work. He's also of the school that believes writing is a craft that can be learned. "You learn to write by writing," says Zinsser. I heartily agree.

Of course, you need a good dictionary, such as Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary—the spell-checker on your computer is just not enough—and a style guide such as that of The New York Times or the Associated Press. Style guides help you with matters of capitalization, abbreviations, acronyms and so forth. In addition, I often refer to the book version of Roget's Thesaurus.

You should also read good writing in your field. For scientists, I recommend Scientific American or the British magazine The New Scientist. For engineers, I would also recommend the IEEE Spectrum, an engineering magazine that has won National Magazine Awards competing against the leading consumer magazines. Just as it takes practice to get to Carnegie Hall, it takes practice to write for the publications I've just listed. As William Zinsser says, "About 98 percent of people who hold a doctorate in science can't write their way out of a petri dish, but that's not because they can't. It's because they won't. They won't deign to use the simple tools of the English language—precision instruments as refined as any that are used in a lab."

When you do sit down to write, your first action should be to decide whom you are writing for. Who will read your writing? Are the readers to be your peers, a broader audience of scientists or informed lay people? I find it helps to have a mental image of a person that you can describe for yourself. Writing for Laser Focus World means you will have a potential readership of many thousands of people who do not have your detailed knowledge of your topic. Remember to take the space to explain complex concepts. A trick here is to put your explanations in boxes (called "sidebars" by editors) so they will not interfere with the flow of your article.

Your second action should be to decide what is the point of your article. Decide before you crank up your computer on the one point you would like to make clear for your readers (you already know who they are). Do you want to convince the readers that silicon can be made to lase commercially? Clear your thoughts for your readers. Write down the one sentence that makes your point. I'll bet that sentence becomes a headline when you've finished the article.

So go ahead and write—you are already well on your way. When you are done, take a break and then come back and rewrite your article as I did with this column. As William Strunk says, "Omit needless words." Writing is hard but you can learn the craft.

Jeffrey Bairstow
ATD Technical Editorial Director
jbairstow@pennwell.com

More in Research