Practical Authorship: What not to do when writing, 2.

Quill_penWhat not to do when writing?

Well! Where should I start?  (actually, I already have – check out the previous post where I covered loads of really good stuff like how to talk about people and things and punctuation and irritants generally.)*

Here I’m going to talk about the use of mathematical symbols, abbreviations and quote marks.

Use mathematical symbols very, very sparingly.

Unless you’re writing in a table or an abstract, the symbols <, >, =, +, -, and variations thereon should be written out in full.  The symbol is shorthand, and it jars the reader out of the reading – they need to make a further effort to translate what they’re reading.  The phrase “children under five years” is much easier for the reader than “children <5 years”.  You might even treat the reader to “children younger than five years”.

Use abbreviations very, very sparingly.  

Many abbreviations are ambiguous, are region specific and so confuse international readers, or are simply unnecessary.  If you’re in the UK, you know what FBC means, but in the US it is CBC.  However, you will probably be quite comfortable with the abbreviations UK and US.  When you’ve finished writing, look carefully at your abbreviations and think:  Is the meaning obscured?  Does this look like I sneezed over my keyboard while pressing caps lock?  And most importantly, do I define the abbreviation the first time I use it, at the end of the paper, and in each figure, box and table where I reuse it outside the flow of the text?  

Incidentally, a BM, which is a derivation of a trade name used to mean blood sugar estimation in the UK, is, in many parts of the world, a bowel motion.  This certainly obscures the meaning on ward rounds.  

Certain other abbreviations can also be done away with.  Both eg and ie can be replaced, and it might be argued that other abbreviations of latin – NB, etc – could be worked around.

Quote marks are for quotes, or for when you’re veering into euphemism or colloquialism.  

For example:  <<She grabbed hold of his “old man”>> implies that the old man in question may be, for example, the way that they locally refer to the male parent.  Quote marks are not for emphasis, or for the introduction of a term or phrase that’s not been used before.  


I’m sure you’ve got other things that annoy you in writing.  Please let me know what they are.

* You may note this is an example of annoying writing. If you’ve not noted this, please re-read the previous blog.

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