Tips on Writing

I just came out from a really awesome tutorial about how to improve on one’s writing. Many of the points were familiar, but it’s amazing how easy it is to forget them. In fact, when I was reminded about them today, I realised that I have committed a lot of mistakes which I should not have in the first place.

So, for the benefit of all who may need to write non-fiction, here’s a series of important lessons in writing that I’ve picked up over the years. Practice them and you will be on the path to awesomeness! Haha… I’m still not that awesome yet, but I do know that when I follow these pointers, my writing improves in its clarity. I hope that you’ll learn and benefit greatly as I have from this. =) One thing I know is that if you practice this regularly, it helps to clarify your own thinking as well. =)

#1: Define the problem.

Good writing is focused. It does not try to cover too many things. No. It focuses on just one thing, and one thing alone. But how do you ensure that your writing is focused? Phrase your problem as a question. If your question is vague, clarify it further. Is your question clear? If not, refine the question by narrowing what it is that you are asking.

Another good way to determine if your scope is sufficiently focused is to say what you want to prove in just ONE short sentence. No, long sentences filled with a myriad of punctuations are not allowed here. If you cannot phrase what you want to do in one short sentence, i.e. you have several sentences or just a long sentence, it’s an indicator that you are trying to say more than one thing. The general rule is that a single idea is best expressed in the form of one sentence. Long, or multiple sentences are indicators that you have too many ideas running around in your head. In this case, it’s an indicator that you’ll need to re-articulate the problem with a much narrower scope.

#2: Introduction.

An introduction states clearly what it is that you want to achieve in your paper/article. It provides a brief introduction into the matter, the problem, your solution, and how you will demonstrate it.

Avoid writing fancifully as it can be a distraction. Not everybody is a literature major. Few will therefore be able to understand what it is that you are trying to say if you were to do that.

It is also useful to define terms, and to discuss certain limitations which you are unable to handle in the paper/article. Sometimes, we are constrained by a word limit, and very little can therefore be accomplished. Sometimes, covering a related topic will make the paper lose its focus, and so it is better not to talk about it.

#3: Presenting Other People’s Claims.

Sometimes, you may need to say what so-and-so has said. It is always important to ensure that you have provided a very faithful account of what the other has said. If the person’s points sounds ridiculous, the problem is usually not with that person, but with you. It should be an indicator that somehow, there has been some misunderstanding or misinterpretation.

The best rule of thumb is to always provide the best interpretation possible. Especially in philosophy, do the opponent a favour by giving him/her the strongest interpretation possible, without distortion. This way, you (and the reader) will know that you are not doing injustice by presenting a straw-man argument, that is, a caricature of the actual claims.

#4: Refuting an Argument.

Before talking about how to refute an argument, it is important to understand how an argument works. An argument is not an explanation. Explanations assume that X is true, and provides an account of it. Arguments make no assumptions, but instead attempt to prove the conclusion.

Arguments are made up of premises that lead to the conclusion.

Here is a standard example of an argument:

Premise 1: All men are mortal.
Premise 2: Socrates is a man.
Conclusion: THEREFORE, Socrates is mortal.

When ALL premises are true, the conclusion is NECESSARILY true. This is how our reasoning operates. We believe certain things to be so because they are supported by other facts/premises which we know to be true.

When refuting an argument, arguing against the conclusion does absolutely nothing. Let us assume that our imaginary friend, Bob, has the following argument:

Premise 1: A [True]
Premise 2: B [True]
Conclusion: THEREFORE, C. [Therefore, true]

Arguing against C, i.e. not-C, will have no effect against Bob. Why? Bob still believes in the truth of premises 1 and 2, and therefore he is compelled to believe in the conclusion, C.

The first move is to weaken the argument, by introducing doubt about the certainty of such an argument. This can be done by showing that one of the premises is false. For example, I could argue that Premise 1 is false. When you do this, this is what happens to Bob’s thinking:

Premise 1: A [False]
Premise 2: B [True]
Conclusion: THEREFORE, C. [Therefore, not certain about the truth of C]

By proving one of the premises false, your opponent will not be compelled by his argument to believe that his conclusion is 100% true (unless he/she becomes emotional, in which case, there’s no point proceeding).

Once you have introduced uncertainty into the true-ness of the conclusion, you can now proceed to prove the conclusion false, i.e. not-C. You will need to supply your own argument, not merely assert that C is false.

There are other strategies in arguing against the opponent, but I will not cover them here. Nonetheless, the main point of this advice is this – you do not refute your opponent just by arguing that his/her conclusion is false. You need to first weaken the argument by showing a problem in one of the premises.

#5: Examples.

One important rule when it comes to examples: NEVER USE EXAMPLES TO DO THE JOB OF ARGUING. Examples are meant to support your arguments, to give it greater strength. This includes raising thought experiments. These things show something, but they do not prove anything. In fact, examples are always open to interpretation. And therefore, you must contextualise your examples by arguing your point, and proceed to show how the example strengthens your claim.

It’s also important to note that stating a list of facts does not constitute a valid argument. Facts are always open to interpretation. Telling me that everyone in this room has black hair doesn’t say anything. People can interpret it in many ways – “There are many Chinese in the room”; or “Everyone in the room has dyed their hair.” One must say what’s significant about these things to make a valid point.

#6: Sentences.

Here’s a simple rule for writing – express only one idea in a sentence. If your sentence is too long, it’s because you have too many ideas. And when you try to cramp too many ideas into one sentence, it becomes confusing. If your sentence is longer than 3 lines, you should seriously consider rephrasing them for clarity.

#7: Planning the Body.

In #1, I mentioned how one way to focus your writing is to phrase it into a very specific question. This question is like your final destination. But before you can reach the destination, you will need stepping stones to cross the river to get to the other side. You can do this by specifying mini-questions that will act as guides to lead to answer your specific question. Here’s an example:

Specific question: How is X useful in the field of Y?

Mini-question 1: What is X?
Mini-question 2: What is Y?
Mini-question 3: How is X related to Y?
Mini-question 4: In what way is X useful to Y in that relation?
Mini-question 5: How useful is X in that regard?

These mini-questions form the stepping stones that will lead you and the reader to the final destination.

#8: Body Paragraphs.

Body paragraphs should contain only ONE idea, expressed in ONE sentence, to answer ONE mini-question. If you cannot state your answer in one sentence, that means you have more than one idea. In this case, you might want to redefine you mini-question(s), and even the specific question accordingly.

This has nothing to do with being intellectually dishonest, where one changes the hypothesis to suit the data. Usually, the problem is that we have failed to narrow our specific question enough. This exercise reveals the ambiguity in our thoughts, and makes us aware of just how far away we are from writing a clear, concise, and focused paper.

Each paragraph contains one sentence which answers the mini-question. And in the subsequent sentences, you will proceed to prove why your mini-answer is true. Examples are used to support the claim. But remember, they must never be used to do the job of proving your point.

#9: A Fair, Balanced View.

A fair, balanced view does not mean sitting on the fence. It means that you have considered the other perspective, and yet found that their arguments are problematic. How do you present a fair, balanced view in your paper? You can do this by raising objections against your own points, or defences for the opponent which you have attacked. After which, you should proceed to defend your position.

Once again, this can only be effectively proven by considering a non-trivial objection to your position. This demonstrates to the reader that you have not cheated by constructing a straw man argument.

#10: Conclusion.

A good conclusion makes no new points. Instead, it reiterates the points made thus far as a short one-paragraph summary.

This is optional, but sometimes, people find it useful to mention what else could have been discussed had the article not been limited by its scope or word limit. This can be useful in showing the broad application of your arguments in other circumstances. But be careful not to make new arguments at this point. You should only raise matters that are worth discussing, but could not have been done in the paper/article.

#11: Sign-posting.

This is a very useful strategy. Sign-posting is the use of certain words to make your important points visible to the reader. Sometimes, the main point does not appear as clearly as you would like it to be. So it helps to put a huge literary sign board there which says: “HEY! LOOK HERE! THIS IS THE POINT THAT I WAS TRYING TO PROVE IN THIS PARAGRAPH!!!”

For example, if you wanted to show that Bob had contradicted himself, you could say: “Bob said X. Yet Bob believes in not-X.” But this might not occur to the reader that a contradiction has taken place.

So, for greater clarity, you can put a sign-post there: “Bob said X. Yet Bob believes in not-X, BUT THIS CONTRADICTS WITH WHAT HE HAD SAID.” The meaning of the statement doesn’t change, but the point that you wanted to make becomes clearer.

#12: The Evils of Passive Voice.

Passive voice are sentences where the subject is on the receiving end of the action (verb).

Here are examples of passive voice (The active voice is indicated in brackets):

Bob was murdered by Tim. (Active: Tim murdered Bob)
The dog was bitten by the man. (Active: The man bit the dog)
The cake was eaten by somebody. (Active: Somebody ate the cake)

Passive voice is evil! Do not use passive voice unless necessary.

There is a disadvantage in using the passive voice. Active voice is easier to comprehend. Passive voice, however, usually involves more words and more prepositions, which can lead to confusion, and even a slower rate of comprehension.

The bigger problem with passive voice is that the actor of the statement can be ambiguous. I can say: “The cake was eaten.” But who ate the cake? When sentences are expressed in the passive voice, we make the assumption that the reader knows who the actor is. This can introduce unnecessary ambiguity into the paper, as the reader is left unsure of who did the deed.

But this can also confuse the writer, as it makes it easier for the writer to take for granted that he/she knows who is doing the deed. One should therefore avoid this ambiguity by refraining from using passive voice as much as possible.

#13: Making Comparisons.

Comparisons should always be about two things that are as similar as possible. You’ll need to compare apples with apples, and oranges with oranges. You cannot simply choose two things that have merely one common feature to do a comparison – there is no clear focus on what is being compared.

Furthermore, the two cases used must be justified. Anyone can simply pick two things out of the list of infinite possibilities. At the very least, you’ll need to justify why you have chosen to compare these two things instead of other things. This gives greater weight to the comparison made, and makes for a more credible argument.

There’s probably a lot more that can be said, but I think this short guide is already sufficient for the writing of a clear, focused, and awesome paper/article/essay. Hope you found it useful!