6 Writing Rules

April 29, 2015

Image of a book cover entitled, "Politics and the English Language, An Essay by George Orwell"George Orwell was an English novelist, essayist and journalist; among some of his most famous works are the novels 1984, Animal Farm and Down and Out in Paris and London. He outlined six rules for better writing in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” He noted “But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails.”

The following rules will cover most cases:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
    Orwell encouraged you to ask yourself: “What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?” Overused phrases like “leave no stone unturned” or “toe the line” often fall flat because they are so common.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
    It is great to have a robust vocabulary, but don’t fall into the trap of trying to find fancy synonyms for all of your words. Many break this rule when writing personal statements or cover letters in an attempt to impress the reader.

  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    Clear and concise writing often doesn’t happen in the first draft. You will need to edit, edit, and then edit some more.

  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    Writers frequently break this rule, especially when writing resume bullets. An active voice is better because it is often shorter and more powerful. Not sure of the difference between an active voice and passive voice? Here is an example.  Passive: The boy was bitten by the dog. Active: The dog bit the boy.

  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    This rule applies to non-academic writing because obviously scientific literature and publications will contain highly specific and technical language. For non-academic writing, it is important to follow this rule so that a layperson can understand.

  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
    This last rule seems to be tacked on as a reminder to use your common sense about the application of the first five rules. Also, it seems Orwell could have followed rule #2 more closely and found another word for barbarous.

NOTE: Orwell applied the rules to politicians and political speak. You might be interested in his thoughts. Whether you are writing a personal statement, a cover letter or simply just an email, try these rules out.

Let us know what you think? What are some of your rules for writing well?

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Improving Your Writing Skills

September 29, 2014

Picture of a stick figure holding a big pen. Image courtesy of Microsoft Images.Employers almost always seek candidates with strong communication skills. In a world where much of our interactions are digital, written communication skills take precedence. Maybe you have always struggled with writing, or maybe you have to write in a language that is not your native tongue. Whatever the case may be, writing can be difficult for many. However, as it is a critical skill, it is important that you keep working to improve.

How can you improve your writing skills?

  1. Practice, Practice, Practice.

    The first answer is simple in theory, but not in practice. Writing is a skill. Like most other skills, it is perfected through committed practice. Most writing workshops and articles agree: write often. Additionally, it is important to measure your progress – word by word, sentence by sentence, and page by page. Set a manageable and measurable goal; for example, “I will write three pages of my dissertation each day.” 

    Perhaps you are no longer a student or writing is not a major task in your job description. Maybe you don’t feel like your daily responsibilities allow you to further hone your writing skills. If this is the case, it will be even more important for you to seek opportunities to do so. Volunteer to write articles for your institution’s newsletter or periodicals. Enroll in classes or workshops that will provide you with a structured time and place to work on your writing. The Writer’s Center is a local organization which focuses on in-person writing workshops in Bethesda. There are also many online writing workshops such as Gotham Writers, and don’t forget to take advantage of the educational world’s newest initiative – MOOCs. Many schools and programs offer Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) on a variety of topics. You can view the full schedule at: https://www.edx.org/ . UC Berkeley has a class in progress now which might be of particular interest: Principles of Written English, Part 1.

  1. The second answer is by asking for feedback/help.

    Some people struggle with sharing their writing with others, but remember that being able to receive constructive criticism is an important part of strengthening your writing skills. Most universities have school writing centers with trained tutors to help you out. At the NIH, you should check with your specific institute to see if they offer trainees scientific document-editing services. Also, career counselors at the OITE are available to help provide input on written documents like your cover letters or personal statements.

  2. Offer up your editing help.

    Editing other people’s work can help you do a better job of critiquing and improving your own work. It gives you insight into common mistakes, which you might be making yourself, and it helps to expand your vocabulary and your knowledge of different writing styles.

You never know when you might be called upon to write a grant application, a report, part of a press release, or even a perfectly crafted cover letter for a job application. Whatever the situation, strengthening your writing skills now will enable you to communicate with clarity and ease to a wide variety of future audiences.


The Need for More Inquisitiveness in Science

February 10, 2014

Post written by guest blogger Dr. Howard Young, Principal Investigator at the National Cancer Institute.

Recently, I attended a seminar with talks given by two younger scientists.  The audience consisted mostly of fellows, postbacs and some students.  The subjects of the two talks were different and there was sufficient time for questions and a discussion.   To my surprise and disappointment, other than my questions, only one other question was asked and it did not come from a trainee.   I left the seminar wondering why younger scientists are not more inquisitive with respect to science outside of their personal domain.

A few of my colleagues have suggested some possible explanations for the lack of questions. Maybe cultural differences are to blame, since  in some cultures it is not considered appropriate to question more senior individuals.  Others suggested that the presence of senior scientists at a seminar is intimidating and younger fellows would not want to take the chance of embarrassing themselves in front of these individuals.  Another possible explanation could be that the seminar was so far out of their field that they were completely lost from the start.   Even if any of these were true, we still need younger scientists to learn to be more active in the discussion of science.

So, how can we encourage inquisitive questions?

  • Mentors should make an effort to stress that curiosity is encouraged and active participation in seminars and meetings through questions and input is expected.
  • Talk about how being inquisitive in science is necessary, regardless of your culture and you standing on the “totem pole.”
  • Stress that an open and inquisitive mind is needed for whatever career path a scientist chooses.
  • Model good questioning, and perhaps provide a “seed question” that will get the thought processes rolling.

To help frame your own questions, think about three things:
1) How can the speaker help me with my research?
2) How can I help the speaker with their research?
3) Why am I at this talk?

In truth, there are no easy or foolproof answers to this issue.   Please let us know your suggestions and thoughts about how you learned to ask questions and be inquisitive.