Developing a writing style

This is just one person’s view. Others will want to stress other virtues and vices in writing. I originally put together these notes as part of a ‘Training Programme’ aimed at philosophers just starting out on that postgraduate careers: but more or less everything here in the central sections applies to writing undergraduate essays too. Make what use of these remarks you can!

Introduction

I used to edit the philosophy journal ANALYSIS. This means that, for a dozen years, I read three or four hundred submissions to the journal — and yes, I did read them all.

Like the other major journals, ANALYSIS could accept less than 12% of submissions in my day (and significantly less now). So standards are fierce. Many submissions are ruled out of court for being badly argued or for re-inventing the wheel or for being plain boring. But a fair proportion end up on the rejection pile simply because they are badly written. I saw far too much bad prose (to be sure, some of the prose that gets published is not exactly wonderful: I assure you that a lot that doesn’t get published is very much worse).

Since ANALYSIS publishes relatively short articles, it attracts a lot of papers from philosophers in graduate school or starting out on professional careers. And bad writing is perhaps particularly common in the pieces by these younger authors, your almost-contemporaries. The pressure to publish early is ever more intense. So you need from the very beginning to work on developing a good style. After all, the faults that make for bad writing in potential articles equally make for bad writing in essays, dissertations, and other projects.

So the idea of these notes is that I try to impart some of what I’ve learnt about bad writing and the mistakes to avoid.

However, it is one thing to be able to recognize bad writing when you see it; it is quite another thing to be able to say, crisply and clearly, what makes it bad. Prose can be dull, stodgy and unreadable; yet it may be rather difficult to say exactly what makes it so or to suggest how to improve things. And while I think I am a fairly reliable judge of the quality of writing, I certainly claim no special expertise at therapy for bad prose. I’ll be making points that it doesn’t really need an editor’s eye to spot. Still, if you follow the advice below, that at least will be a good start.

Writing and reading

Some of the great English authors show just how much can be achieved in well-crafted plain prose, written without affectation or self-conscious stylishness. Choose your favourite examples. My first and very unoriginal choice as an author for philosophers to emulate is George Orwell. Do look at some of his essays — there are various collections. Read in particular ‘Politics and the English Language’, both for Orwell’s reminders about how bad writing corrupts thought and for his own rules about how to improve our writing.

You will have your own favourite modern philosophical authors — I’m talking about style rather than content — who strike you as especially clear and direct, whose work makes you think “I wish I could write like that”. Ask yourself: what is it about their writing that enables it to speak directly to you? Try to work out what makes it particularly approachable and attractive. That must be time well spent.

Eye and ear

If I had to give just one rule to help improve your writing it would be this. Read aloud what you have written. Jonathan Bennett reports that Ryle once said to him “What doesn’t read well to the ear doesn’t read well to the eye”. And I endorse that emphatically.

Imagine an audience, and read out a few of your completed paragraphs (yes, aloud, and trying to put some real life into the performance). If you can’t do this with conviction, you will know that something is wrong with the writing. If your tongue stumbles over laborious sentences, or if a sentence sounds ugly or flat or tedious when read out, then it needs revision. If the passage from one sentence to the next is jerky or unnatural, if a paragraph lacks shape and rhythm, then (again) revision is needed.

I can’t stress enough the effectiveness of this “read aloud” test. Even better, if you can bear it, is to get another philosophy student to read your prose aloud to you (and you are not allowed to follow on paper while you listen). If your reader finds it difficult to give shape to the sentences and to the paragraphs, if your reader stumbles when trying to your prose read aloud, then why suppose she will do any better when trying to read the same passage quietly to herself? If your writing sounds ugly or banal or repetitious or unclear when you have to listen to it (and you at least have the benefit of knowing what is supposed to be going on), then it is going to seem at least as bad to everyone else.

So Rule One: read your work aloud. Don’t inflict on your supervisor or an editor anything that falls down at this hurdle.

The virtue of brevity

If you follow the “read aloud” rule, you are likely (even without thinking about it) to keep close to three of George Orwell’s cardinal rules for decent prose. But let’s state them explicitly all the same. Two of them are: Never use a long word where a short one will do (thus, don’t always write “exhibit” when you could write “show”; don’t use “demonstrate” when “prove” will do as well). And Never use the passive when the active will do. So don’t use

It is claimed by Jones that realism is refuted by Putnam’s argument

when you could write

Jones claims that Putnam’s argument refutes realism

And so on.

But Orwell’s most important rule is If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out. And we can generalize this: If it is possible to rephrase a sentence to make it shorter without serious loss of content, do so. Thus, don’t write the likes of

He advanced an argument for the proposition that …

when you could write

He argued that …

And so on.

The journal submissions I saw for ANALYSIS were, of course, authors’ final drafts. The work had already been lovingly revised and polished a number of times. Yet quite often I used to ask authors to cut their work by ten or fifteen percent. And almost invariably, when I did this, authors commented (when they sent in their shortened revised version) that they thought that their paper is improved by being made leaner and fitter. If final drafts can usefully be trimmed by ten or fifteen percent, then there is likely to be a lot more redundant material in earlier drafts. Be firm: take your prose to the gym, and keep working at it until the bones and sinews show through! That’s Rule Two.

Three more rules of thumb?

If you follow those two master rules — test your writing by reading it aloud, and keep your prose very lean and brisk — then you’ll certainly be on the right road. And if you look at (say) Fowler’s Modern English Usage you’ll find plenty of more detailed suggestions for cultivating good writing habits. We could spend a lot of time on such detailed suggestions: I’ll mention just three (fairly arbitrarily selected).

First, avoid repetition. An obvious point, yet over-repetition is a sin that a lot of beginning authors fall into. Clarity is not helped by saying the same thing over and over again in slightly different words. And euphony is not helped by repeatedly using the same word or phrase. (If you are writing about utilitarianism, then-to be sure-that word is perhaps going to appear often. But not every three sentences, please!).

Second, don’t overdo the first person pronoun. A lot of those uses of “I think”, “in my view”, “it seems to me”, and “in this section, I want to” can and should be axed.

Third, avoid over-emphasis. Keep the use of italics to a minimum. Avoid over-using “very”, “extremely”, “really”, “crucial”, “obviously”, “it is important to note that”, and so forth.

Overall construction

Now let’s pass on from advice about how to write clear sentences and paragraphs to advice about the overall construction of your work. For is quite possible to write elegant sentences and even elegant paragraphs, and yet compose a whole which adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

If it is difficult to discern a clear line of argument in something you have written, perhaps that’s because there isn’t one. The bad construction may just reflect bad philosophy. But even when there is a good line of argument in the background, you may well not be getting it across. Here are three linked suggestions about how to check that your structure is working:

First, divide your essay/paper/thesis chapter into bite-sized chunks. Separate your piece into headed sections (and perhaps divide the sections into subsections), with no part more than about 500 words long. If you can’t do this neatly and naturally, that strongly suggests that your line of argument is rambling without sufficient direction.

Second, write yourself a brief abstract of each (sub)section. Can you give (at no more than 10% of the length) the headline news for each (sub)section? If you can’t do this neatly and naturally, that again strongly suggests that your argument is not under tight control.

Third, check whether the abstracts for each (sub)section add up to a coherent overall story. When, back in ancient history, O. R. Jones and I were co-writing The Philosophy of Mind there was a chapter which my co-author had drafted which he liked but I thought didn’t work well. So I asked “How can we frame an analytical table of contents for this chapter?” — and when we tried to compress the argument into brisk headlines and failed, we quickly agreed that something was indeed wrong. In this case, the material needed completely reordering. Likewise, if you find that the abstract for your whole piece doesn’t flow well, then try reordering your material. Make imaginative use of cut-and-paste: rearranging paragraphs or sections may suddenly reveal a much better order of presentation.

I think I’d headline this advice about breaking the work into sections and writing abstracts as the basic Rule Three, to be put alongside Rule One about reading your work aloud, and Rule Two about aiming for brevity. Following Rules One and Two will help you get the micro-structure right, sentence by sentence. Following Rule Three will do a lot to get the macro-structure right.

In the hey-day of linguistic philosophy, a volume of dissenting essays was published entitled Clarity is Not Enough. And indeed it isn’t enough. But complete clarity is certainly a necessary condition of any good philosophy (well, the ex-editor of ANALYSIS would say that, wouldn’t he?). Your aim, then, should always and everywhere be to write with transparent clarity. Following the suggested Rules must promote that aim.

Starting off

Finally, let me say something about a topic that is partly a matter of style, partly a matter of content.

Your teachers may be obliged to keeping reading your work rather carefully after the first couple of pages. Referees for journals aren’t. Nor are readers of journals, even if your work gets published.

So it is very important that (1) you make it immediately clear what your essay/dissertation chapter/draft paper is about, and what the exciting headline news is going to be, so that the reader might be gripped and want to read on to see how you make the case. And it is important too that (2) you get down to business quickly, with a minimum of scene-setting, so your reader isn’t impatiently waiting for something interesting to happen!

On (1), you will have read papers where it isn’t at all clear at the outset where the author is going, and you know how very irritating that can be. Don’t write another paper like that! Tell the reader what the destination is, and why they should care about jumping aboard and following the argument. I’m not suggesting you give too many spoilers at the beginning — you can say that you are going to be giving a new argument that P  without spelling out the new argument up front. But at least your announcement will have piqued the interest of those who care about whether P. 

On (2), I turned down quite a few papers for ANALYSIS simply because they started with far too much scene-setting. Now, a review of the current state of the debate and/or exposition of the position that you want to criticize are fine in their place (a supervisor may very well ask you to write something more or less purely expository as an exercise to help you get clear about basics). So I’m certainly not saying “never write anything that is mainly expository”. But do always ask — is this amount of scene-setting, in this context,  really necessary? Can’t I assume that my audience (your supervisor, your examiner, the readers of the journal you are trying to write for) will already know at least so-and-so and such-and-such? Give your audience the benefit of the doubt and assume they are reasonably up-to-speed (a supervisor or editor will always tell you if you presuppose too much: but relative beginners are pretty unlikely to do so). You will want to write about the background at greater length in your own notes: but when you are writing for others, be very selective. If in doubt, prune it out.

Afterword. This page is based on material first written at least fifteen years ago, back in the days when I pretended to be a philosopher. Having reverted to my mathematical roots, and rather lost contact with philosophy students, I read it now with a certain detachment. So is it time to pension off this “legacy” document? Well, this page was visited over three thousand times last year. It must still be being found useful, and so I will tinker a bit and leave the page available …

Last revised, October 2017

3 Responses to Developing a writing style

  1. Joe says:

    Another useful tool these days is the spell-check. :)

  2. Mary Bhalla says:

    If you have time , read The Elements of Style by Strunk White Kalman,published by Penguin Books.

  3. Jan von Plato says:

    Dear Peter, my rule has always been: don’t write if you don’t have to! First you have to have something to say that merits writing, then the writing comes easily. Career consideration is the most harmful thing here.

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