Dave Patterson's Writing Advice
first advice is to read aloud what you have written. Generally your ear is
better than your eyes, and if you read it aloud you are much more likely to find
awkward sentences, bad tenses, and other errors.
find many people are good at sentences, but less good at forming paragraphs.
Ousterhout has a solid rule, which led me to write shorter paragraphs. A
paragraph is about a single idea, with a single key topic sentence. This
sentence is almost always the first, but sometimes the last sentence of the
paragraph, and the rest of the sentences somehow support that topic sentence. If
it works, you can get a quick summary of a section just by reading the topic
I get most of my specific
advice from Strunk and White, "Elements of Style", which I call "S&W," I try
to read it every few years to learn things. I'll quote from it here on common
errors I find in grad student writing. (The proper citation is "The
elements of style," by William Strunk, Jr. ; with revisions, an introduction,
and a chapter on writing by E.B. White ; [foreword by Roger Angell]. 4th ed.
Boston : Allyn and Bacon, c1999. xviii, 105 p. ) My most recent incite is to use
the Grammar Checking in M/S Word 98. I did this in my chapters for the 3/e of
CA:AQA, which consisted of copying and pasting the text from Framemaker into
Word. To turn on the tool, check the "Check grammar" box and then click on
options. I selected "Technical" for Writing style (which was at the bottom of
the menu, with the default being casual); I think this was important, as it was
much more helpful after I selected this option. (I turned off the spelling
checking since it was spell checked in Frame.) I then selected "Settings" to see
what I wanted it to check. It found passive voice problems, too long setences,
and verb-noun tense problems among other problems. Many of the issues listed
below are checked in Word. It really helped.
Active voice: (S&W rule 14) For example, use
"Figure X shows ..." rather than "... as shown in Figure X."
Also, it is much better to mention a Figure that
summarizes a lot of information early in a paragraph rather than go into details
and mention the figure at the end, as early mention gives the reader a framework
to refer to while reading the text.
Ambiguous use of pronoun "This" to summarize sense
of previous sentence. (S&W page 16)
writing is virtually always clearer if you sane for every occurrence of "This"
(case sensitive) or "This is" and put a noun after "This" to make it clear what
you are referring to. I'll find sentences where I'm not really sure what I
meant, which must make it harder for the reader! So search for "This " in your
text to see if a noun follows.
"While" instead of "and", "but", "although".
(S&W pages 63-64)
general while should be used only in the strict sense of "during the time time";
S&W give several better ways to convey the same message. So search for
"While " in your text to see if the sentence is about time, or could be replaced
single numbered subsection
strange to have a single subsection (e.g., 5.2.1 in section 5.2). Why do you
need to number it if there is only one? Either eliminate the single subsection,
or change the part that precedes the subsection into a second
Refering to Chapters, Figures, Tables.
not a easy to understand rule, but normally these names are capitalized when
used to refer to a specifuc number. So its Chapter 1, Table 3.1, Figure 1.2. I
have seen some people not capitalize section 1, but I don't understand the logic
behind it, so I'd capitalize it also.
Little things: label percentages in tables with %,
dollars in tables with $
much easier to look at a list of numbers that are percetages and immediately
realize that its a column of percetages if every number has a % after it, vs.
just labeling the column as Percent. No one will be confused that this is
percent of a percent of if you do both. Similar arguments for prices and
Numbers spelled out vs. numerical.
general rule of thumb is to spell out one to ten and use numbers for numbers for
11 and up. However, I find its much better to consistently use numbers when the
reader might naturally compare or do arithmetic with the numbers with a sentence
or a paragraph. For example, " The 8-processor case (model 370) needs only 4
computers to hold 32 processors. " Blindly following the rule of thumb would
change the sentence to " The eight-processor case (model 370) needs only four
computers to hold 32 processors. " Its easier to read and understand we use
numbers (8*4=32) instead of words (eight*four=32).
case you are not familiar, learn about INSPEC from MELVYL so as to make it MUCH
easier to get proper citations. I would adopt its citation style to reduce the
amount of typing.
you would like more writing advice, other books are:
Frederick Crews and Sandra
Schor, "The Borzoi Handbook for Writers (2nd edition)", Alfred A. Knopf Inc.,
Linda Flower, "Problem Solving
Strategies for Writing (3rd edition)", Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.
There are probably newer editions of these