Topic: Writing Tips: What not to do.?
July 16, 2019 / By Belynda Question:
I need advice on writing so instead of telling me what makes good writing, tell me what makes it suck? That way I can make sure I don't do it.
Adriane | 9 days ago
You are required to write one or two theses during your graduate student career: a PhD and maybe an MS, depending on your department.
Writing a lot more than that gives you practice.
Academia runs on publish-or-perish. In most fields and schools, this starts in earnest when you become a professor, but most graduate students in our lab publish before they graduate. Publishing and distributing papers is good politics and good publicity.
Writing down your ideas is the best way to debug them. Usually you will find that what seemed perfectly clear in your head is in fact an incoherent mess on paper.
If your work is to benefit anyone other than yourself, you must communicate it. This is a basic responsibility of research. If you write well more people will read your work!
AI is too hard to do by yourself. You need constant feedback from other people. Comments on your papers are one of the most important forms of that.
Anything worth doing is worth doing well.
Read books about how to write. Strunk and White's Elements of Style gives the basic dos and don'ts. Claire Cook's The MLA's Line By Line (Houghton Mifflin) is about editing at the sentence level. Jacques Barzun's Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers (Harper and Row, 1985) is about composition.
When writing a paper, read books that are well-written, thinking in background mode about the syntactic mechanics. You'll find yourself absorbing the author's style.
Learning to write well requires doing a lot of it, over a period of years, and getting and taking seriously criticism of what you've written. There's no way to get dramatically better at it quickly.
Writing is sometimes painful, and it can seem a distraction from doing the ``real'' work. But as you get better at it, it goes faster, and if you approach it as a craft, you can get a lot of enjoyment out of the process for its own sake.
You will certainly suffer from writer's block at some point. Writer's block has many sources and no sure cure. Perfectionism can lead to writer's block: whatever you start to write seems not good enough. Realize that writing is a debugging process. Write something sloppy first and go back and fix it up. Starting sloppy gets the ideas out and gets you into the flow. If you ``can't'' write text, write an outline. Make it more and more detailed until it's easy to write the subsubsubsections. If you find it really hard to be sloppy, try turning the contrast knob on your terminal all the way down so you can't see what you are writing. Type whatever comes into your head, even if it seems like garbage. After you've got a lot of text out, turn the knob back up and edit what you've written into something sensible.
Another mistake is to imagine that the whole thing can be written out in order. Usually you should start with the meat of the paper and write the introduction last, after you know what the paper really says. Another cause of writer's block is unrealistic expectations about how easy writing is. Writing is hard work and takes a long time; don't get frustrated and give up if you find you write only a page a day.
Perfectionism can also lead to endless repolishing of a perfectly adequate paper. This is a waste of time. (It can also be a way of semideliberately avoiding doing research.) Think of the paper you are writing as one statement in a conversation you are having with other people in the field. In a conversation not everything goes perfectly; few expect that what they say in a single utterance will be the whole story or last word in the interchange.
Writing letters is good practice. Most technical papers would be improved if the style was more like a letter to a friend. Keeping a diary is also a way to practice writing (and lets you be more stylistically experimental than technical papers). Both practices have other substantial benefits.
It's a common trap to spend more time hacking the formatter macro than the content. Avoid this. LaTeX is imperfect, but it has most of the macrology you want. If that's not enough, you can probably borrow code from someone else who has wanted to do the same thing. Most sites (including MIT) maintain a library of locally-written extensions.
Know what you want to say. This is the hardest and most important factor in writing clearly. If you write something clumsy and can't seem to fix it, probably you aren't sure what you really want to say. Once you know what to say, just say it.
Make it easy for the reader to find out what you've done. Put the sexy stuff up front, at all levels of organization from paragraph up to the whole paper. Carefully craft the abstract. Be sure it tells what your good idea is. Be sure you yourself know what it is! Then figure out how to say it in a few sentences. Too many abstracts tell what the paper is generally about and promise an idea without saying what it is.
Don't ``sell'' what you've done with big words or claims. Your readers are good people; honesty and self-respect suffice. Contrariwise, don't apologize for or cut down your own work.
Often you'll write a clause or sentence or paragraph that you know is bad, but you won't be able to find a way to fix it. This happens because you've worked yourself into a corner and no local choice can get you out. You have to back out and rewrite the whole passage. This happens less with practice.
Make sure your paper has an idea in it. If your program solves problem X in 10 ms, tell the reader why it's so fast. Don't just explain how your system is built and what it does, also explain why it works and why it's interesting.
Write for people, not machines. It's not enough that your argument be correct, it has to be easy to follow. Don't rely on the reader to make any but the most obvious deductions. That you explained how the frobnitz worked in a footnote on page seven is not a justification when the reader gets confused by your introducing it without further explanation on page twenty-three. Formal papers are particularly hard to write clearly. Do not imitate math texts; their standard of elegance is to say as little as possible, and so to make the reader's job as hard as possible. This is not appropriate for AI.
After you have written a paper, delete the first paragraph or the first few sentences. You'll probably find that they were content-free generalities, and that a much better introductory sentence can be found at the end of the first paragraph of the beginning of the second.
If you put off writing until you've done all the work, you'll lose most of the benefit. Once you start working on a research project, it's a good idea to get into the habit of writing an informal paper explaining what you are up to and what you've learned every few months. Start with the contents of your research notebook. Take two days to write it-if it takes longer, you are being perfectionistic. This isn't something you are judged on; it's to share with your friends. Write DRAFT-NOT FOR CITATION on the cover. Make a dozen copies and give them to people who are likely to be interested (including your advisor!). This practice has most of the benefits of writing a formal paper (comments, clarity of thought, writing practice, and so forth), but on a smaller scale, and with much less work invested. Often, if your work goes well, these informal papers can be used later as the backbone of a more formal paper, from an AI Lab Working Paper to a journal article.
Once you become part of the Secret Paper Passing Network, you'll find that people give you copies of draft papers that they want comments on. Getting comments on your papers is extremely valuable. You get people to take the time to write comments on yours by writing comments on theirs. So the more people's papers you write comments on, the more favors are owed you when you get around to writing one good politics. Moreover, learning to critique other people's papers will help your own writing.
Writing useful comments on a paper is an art.
To write really useful comments, you need to read the paper twice, once to get the ideas, and the second time to mark up the presentation.
If someone is making the same mistake over and over, don't just mark it over and over. Try to figure out what the pattern is, why the person is doing it, and what they can do about it. Then explain this explicitly at length on the front page and/or in person.
The author, when incorporating your comments, will follow the line of least resistance, fixing only one word if possible, or if not then one phrase, or if not then one sentence. If some clumsiness in their text means that they have to back up to the paragraph level, or that they have to rethink the central theme of a whole section, or that the overall organization of the paper is wrong, say this in big letters so they can't ignore it.
Don't write destructive criticism like ``garbage'' on a paper. This contributes nothing to the author. Take the time to provide constructive suggestions. It's useful to think about how you would react to criticism of your own paper when providing it for others.
There are a variety of sorts of comments. There are comments on presentation and comments on content. Comments on presentation vary in scope. Copy-edits correct typos, punctuation, misspellings, missing words, and so forth. Learn the standard copy-editing symbols. You can also correct grammar, diction, verbosity, and muddied or unclear passages. Usually people who make grammatical mistakes do so consistently, using comma splices for example; take the time to explain the problem explicitly. Next there are organizational comments: ideas out of order at various scales from clauses through s
1) lots of describing words. It's like the Charmin commercial says: less is more.
2) Using words like 'questioned' or 'retorted' in the place of 'said' in dialogue. Let me tell you, a lot of aspiring authors think that if you use 'said' you're being boring. This is a load of crap. 'said' is a very good word to use during dialogue.
3) Telling instead of showing. I've read the work of some of my friends, and I can't stand how they write. "John had brown eyes and wavy blond hair". How uninteresting is that?
4) When a piece of writing sounds similar to something else. For example, I've seen a lot of people on this site that want to do a story about a vampire falling in love with a human girl, and the conflict is they can't be together because he might bite her. That's Twilight, people, and it's already been done.
5) Cliche-ness. Need I say more?
6) Undeveloped characters. If a writer doesn't know his characters as well as he knows himself, he hasn't done enough.
7) Predictable plot. Readers should not be able to know what's going to happen next. If they do, they'll lose interest.
8) A boring beginning. A lot of my friends let me read their writing, and before they start, they'll say, "It isn't very interesting at the start, but it gets better". No. It should start out as interesting as it finishes. How many successful stories do you know that begin boring? You need to hook the reader.
9) Stereotypical characters. Your characters need to be original. See #10 for more details.
10) The best advice I can give you is to read Eragon. If you have, read it again, but this time really look at the writing. Paolini does so many things wrong--Eragon is basically a book on how NOT to write.
There are so many other things that I can't fit on this page. You might try reading On Writing by Stephen King. It helped me learn a lot about writing.
-Not knowing where your story is going.
-Going overkill with details - this is VERY common. Be careful to not get distracted with making sure people understand the /precise/ color of your favorite character's eyes, et cetera. The story is far more important.
-Not knowing your characters inside and out. Find out the little details - their birthdays, their favorite colors, what they like in friends; make them real. Stuff like that will rarely be used in your story, but it's the kind of thing that if you don't know, it's glaringly obvious when your readers read your story. Know them well; hollow or 2-D characters will destroy a book faster than anything else.
-Make sure your plot is original.
-Be passionate about your story. If you find yourself not liking writing the major events of the story, it's not going to work. Readers can tell when a story flowed easily and when it was forced. If you don't like it, don't do it. Find something else to write about.
When I write, what I figured out that works best is when you make a huge outline of the entire plot, you never get stuck in the midddle or get writers block :))
Speaking for myself, I think one should write as one would speak. If it sounds good coming out of your mouth it will sound good on paper. If it "sucks" coming out of your mouth; it will suck in print.
Don't write on things you don't know. There is nothing worse than "pulling it out your..."
Make sure your characters can relate to the reader.
Here's a good way to check: