The world is full of people who will tell what rules to follow when writing, and include some frankly made up rules about what not to do. Many of these should be ignored and dismissed as the worst sort of control freakery. I’d argue that there is no such thing as incorrect writing – because if ee cummings is wrong, I don’t want to be right. There is, however, bad writing, which I would define as writing which obscures meaning, or more simply just makes your piece harder to read. This post includes some things that I see lots, and that I think worsen writing.
In terms of the use of particular words, there are superb online resources for this – I’m particularly fond of the slyly humorous The Guardian style guide. I’m going to avoid discussing words here, except to discuss one thing.
When you write about humans and their conditions or diseases, it is important that the human comes first and the disease comes second. As I point out to my team on the ward, when I am an irritating old man who has had a stroke, I will be just that – I will not be “The stroke in bed 6”. By the same reasoning, I really hate it when people write about asthmatics, bronchiolitics, paraplegics, and so on. If this seems at all difficult, just mentally insert the word “spastic” in place of your description and see if you still feel comfortable. Even if it feels a little bit clumsy, you should always write “children with asthma” “infants with bronchiolitis” “people with paraplegia” and so on. Ultimately our journal is about making life better for children, and this maintains the focus on the child, rather than the disease.
Enough about words, let’s get on to punctuation.
Punctuation is breathing.
If you can’t easily read what you’ve written aloud, it needs different punctuation. It is usually better to write shorter, clearer sentences.
Some punctuation tells you that you need to re-write.
Brackets are a particular example of this. A bracket is an afterthought. I’ve used them in these blog posts, because they suit my style. But in a serious piece, there should be no need for brackets. An afterthought can be edited into the main text. If it really is a minor point, you might not even need to make it.
Exclamation marks are not needed.
Exclamation marks have a role if you are reporting declaratory speech, or are writing in a birthday card. If you write a joke, the joke stands alone. The exclamation mark will just serve as an irritant – like canned studio laughter. The people who get the joke will get the joke and don’t need to be patronised. The people who don’t get the joke don’t need to be reminded of the failure of their – or your – sense of humour.
That’s enough for now. More in the next post. But I’d be interested to hear if there are any posts we’ve written, and you’ve read, which you feel obscure meaning for you.