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Clear writing

Sometimes people ask me to help them write more clearly. A common difficulty is that the way that first seems natural to write something, is not always the best way.

For example, I just (in an email) wrote the sentence, “The ultimate goal is to understand the causal effect on asthma of traveling to/from Puerto Rico.” I started to write it as, “The ultimate goal is to understand the causal effect of traveling to/from Puerto Rico on asthma.” This made more sense (the causal effect of X on Y), but it’s more confusing to read (I think) because “on asthma” is at the end of the sentence, so when you get there you have to figure out where it goes. The sentence I actually wrote has the form, “the causal effect on Y of X,” which is more awkward logically but easier to read.

P.S. Yes, I’m sure I’ve made at least one writing mistake in the above paragraph (otherwise I’d be violating Bierce’s Law, and I wouldn’t want to do that). But I think my main point is valid.

8 Comments

  1. paulse says:

    I'm still having trouble locating helpful references for clear writing. One of the nicest little things I've found is an essay by George Orwell. Also, the introduction to Shades of Meaning: The Use and Abuse of the English Language is worthwhile reading.

    Any recommendations for other useful material would be greatly appreciated.

    Also, there are automated readability tests that were, I believe, introduced by Rudolf Flesch. Is anyone aware of where current research is with these?

    This post shows how badly I'm in need of help!

  2. Richard Zur says:

    I've been struggling with clear academic writing for months now. My advisor recently got me "Scientific Writing for Graduate Students: A Manual on the Teaching of Scientific Writing" by F. Peter Woodford from 1968 or so. It does a good job stressing clear precise writing for scientific audiences.

    It points you to some of the classics on style (Elements of Style – Strunk & White), but most of its advice relates to getting organized before writing, avoiding jargon, revising, etc.

    I would recommend it for any grad student (it's written for biology students.) or anyone who finds their writing style leads to obscure scientific articles. Oh, yeah… it's out of print but you can get it used.

  3. paulse says:

    thanks. Here is something funny that I happened upon while wasting time today. It got me to thinking, I wonder if the "researchers" ever tried re-spelling words to make them more readable.

  4. Fun Fact :: Prepositions
    In German, one says "replace X with Y" (substituiere X durch Y) instead of "substitute Y for X".
    I get it wrong more than 50% of the time. ;-D
    You can substitute beef for pork if you don't eat pork. You can substitute beef for pork if you don't eat pork. You can substitute beef for pork if you don't eat pork.

  5. John says:

    I'm not sure I understand your sentence. "The ultimate goal is to understand whether traveling to/from Puerto Rico can cause asthma." Is that what you're trying to say?

  6. Thanks for all the references. The link from Chris's second comment is particularly amusing!

    Michael: This reminds me of other language-barrier issues. For example, to plot in R you do plot (x,y). But in Stata I think it's plot y, x. In R, the lm function is lm (y ~ x). But the old lsfit function was lsfit (x, y). And students often find it difficult to remember that it's "plot y vs. x" and not "x vs. y". (Which is related to the common error of plotting predicted vs. actual instead of actual vs. predicted.)

    John: yeah, what you said. Or maybe even clearer if we replace "cause" by "increase the probability of". It's good to see that I'm not immune to Bierce's law.

  7. derrida derider says:

    Surely you should just write:
    "We want to know whether travelling to or from Puerto Rico causes asthma"

    The rest is ugly, unnecessary and confusing.

  8. John, Derrida:

    As a statistician, I prefer "increase the probability of" to "cause." Since, ultimately, "how much" is the issue.