A little writing about writing

A while back — a distressingly long time ago, actually, as it seems like only the day before yesterday — I wrote a couple of pages (that were linked here)  primarily aimed at beginning graduate students. One was on developing a decent and effective writing style, the other was about getting published; both were based on sessions I’d given a few times in a ‘graduate training programme’.

Rereading them, I thought the page about getting published managed to now look both banal and in certain respects rather dated. And I’m now too out of the swim to want to improve and update it, so I’ve dropped the link.

But general advice on writing surely doesn’t date in quite the same way, and I still quite like the page I first wrote a dozen years back. So I’ve tinkered with it a bit (and followed my own advice in trimming it down where possible). Here’s the latest version. Comments welcome — also, I’d like to link to other people’s similar pages of advice if you have any particular favourites to recommend.

What I didn’t add was a warning about how much time getting work from being acceptably written to being quite well written can take! Reworking my intro logic book involves composing some new chapters. It seems to take me as long again to get the prose in a state I’m happy with as to first fix the actual contents of a chapter in a late draft. On the other hand, there is real pleasure to be had when things do click into place. The polishing stage can be mightily frustrating and rewarding at the same time.

4 thoughts on “A little writing about writing”

  1. What is the reason for avoiding the 1st-person pronoun?

    It was something I was told as a child in school, and it took me a long time to get my “inner editor” to stop complaining whenever I wrote an “I think”, “it seems to me”, or “I will” or “want to”. Yet it’s often natural to write that way, and awkward to come up with an alternative. “We” gets pressed into service, as a way around the rule. And if something is something I think, rather than know or want to assert as definite, what should I say instead? “It is possible that …”?

    BTW, I think it would be better for the advice not to be so apologetic about itself, and for every use of “banal” to be expunged. For example:

    I certainly claim no special expertise at therapy for bad prose. A lot of what I’ll be saying, then, will no doubt be pretty banal and obvious. I’ll be making points that it doesn’t really need an editor’s eye to spot. Still, even if you just follow the banal and obvious advice below, that will be a very good start.

    could become:

    I certainly claim no special expertise at therapy for bad prose, and I’ll be making points that it doesn’t really need an editor’s eye to spot. Still, following the advice below will be a very good start.

  2. Hermógenes Oliveira

    I also think that an unqualified recommendation to avoid the first person pronoun is a little misguided.

    It is indeed a good rule to avoid pronouns whenever possible, but there is nothing special about the first person (singular) pronoun in this regard. So, “in this section, I want to discuss the liar paradox” is better written as “this section discusses the liar paradox”, but I don’t think that “in this section, we want to discuss the liar paradox” is an improvement.

    The first person pronoun is the more natural and correct choice when the author is conveying information about herself, her views, her opinions etc. The alternatives would be using the first person plural “we” or talking about oneself in the third person, both of which sounds really ludicrous. Of course, we should always ask ourselves whether our own views, insofar as they are essentially related to our persons, are of any concern to the subject matter. But that is another issue entirely, and has nothing to do with the stylistic question of whether or not to avoid the first person pronoun.

    In mathematical contexts, it is common to use pronouns to make the presentation and prose more dynamic, to convey proof strategies, and to engage the reader. But even here, I think a good use of *both* “I” and “we” *can be* justified.

    For instance, in a proof, one can write “Let us (you, the reader, and I) assume that X. I will show (you, the reader) how that leads to Y. First, we construct Z…”. I think this explores the dynamic between “I” and “we” in order to engage the reader and present the proof like an exchange, explaining the proof strategies and their rationale. The same effect is difficult to achieve if we are limited to the use of “we”. However, people seem to think that the use of “I” in this context is somehow obnoxious or indicative of vanity. I don’t necessarily agree.

    In his book “A Primer of Mathematical Writing” (section 1.10), Steven Krantz shares an anecdote:

    When I was a child, I once asked a mathematician why mathematics was usually written in the first person plural: “We now prove this” ; “Our next task is thus” ; “We conclude our story as follows.” The rejoinder that I received was “This is so that the reader will think that there are a lot of you.”

  3. Thanks for those two comments! Points taken. I’ve killed those “banal”s. And I guess I didn’t intend a stern ban on the first person singular. So I’ve revised to the more anodyne “Second, don’t overdo the first person pronoun”. Still worth saying, I think.

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