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My guide to writing and revising

Over the past 20 years of teaching, writing, and editing, I have compiled a set of tips, tricks, and pet peeves that I share with students and colleagues. I've decided to make this writing guide more widely available in case others will find it useful. The emphasis is on scientific writing, but the same principles apply to most non-fiction (including journalism). The most recent version of the file is available from the link below (direct link: http://goo.gl/Z66gq).

The first part of the guide gives some broad principles of effective writing. The next section provides suggestions for editing and revising a manuscript. After that comes a list of common writing mistakes and my pet peeves. The last section provides a revision worksheet. The worksheet is perhaps the most useful part of the writing guide. It is a systematic way to edit papers, progressing from high-level organization to the word level, with a box to check after you complete each step. By following the steps in the revision worksheet, your writing will be more concise, more precise, and easier to read.

If you use this guide or the worksheet for one of your own revisions, I'd be curious to hear whether it helped you. If you have suggestions for future versions of this file, I'd love to see those too. Please post them in the comments. Feel free to share or +1 this post if you think others would find it useful, and feel free to share the file itself with your students or fellow writers.
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28 comments
 
My pet peeve is related to your Mistakes & Pet Peeves #10 (less vs fewer)... it's when students use "amount" when they mean "number" for something countable, for example, "The amount of times...." Thanks for this, it's great!
 
+Callum James Hackett -- I don't see how they are contradictory. 3 says to avoid using forms of "to be" (e.g., is, are, was, were) as the primary verb in a sentence. In most cases, you can rewrite the sentence with a more interesting and engaging verb. Number 4 says to avoid trying to sound sciency. Using interesting verbs doesn't make your writing sound sciency. In fact, I find that students often use forms of "to be" to make their writing seem more scientific because it often results in overuse of passive voice. Maybe I'm misunderstanding your comment, though. If so, please let me know.
 
A great guide! I'll give the checklist a try when I next revise something =)
 
Couldn't have been better timed! Thank you +Daniel Simons. Just starting my Doctoral research plus doing a lot of blog posts and certain that many of the mistakes you point out are littered throughout my writing. Hopefully not for much longer !Very helpful.
 
+Daniel Simons Very interesting! :)

I especially appreciate the "Structure and Organization" section and will refer back to this when I work on my next manuscript. Thanks for posting!
 
My former student, Xiaoang "Irene" Wan, passed along this link to an article by Bob Sternberg from the APA Observer on how to write a journal article.


http://www.csustan.edu/psych/todd/sternbrg.html
Not surprisingly, our overall guidelines are similar. His piece is focused more directly on writing for psychology journals, but many of the same principles apply.
 
A preface justifying why "easy to read" matters in the first place? Students happily blow hundreds of hours in the lab but then disastrously leave only a few hours for writing it up. Then they wonder why the referees were confused.
 
A really small thing (for now): #1 under "rules of engagement" is missing a "the" ("The ability to compare pages, make
notes, and flip rapidly to _ right paragraph"). Otherwise, thanks for this! I'll definitely use it.
 
Thanks +Rajiv Khattar -- I'll fix that typo in the version 1.1 release. That release might not happen for a while -- I want to incorporate feedback from people who have used the guide. If any of you use the guide and have suggestions for improvements, please post them here or email me!
Tom Man
 
Daniel!
It is very nice guide, however I am sure that many things (everything?) depends on your aim and target group (audience). If you are writing to inform people about your findings and hobby - it should be made in a different way than you are talking to the people on the conference or lecture. At least I hope so ;).

I am a chess passionate and blogging quite often - most of the time I am trying to inform, encourage and even shock my audience. However when I am writing a scientific paper (I mean - one which has the goal of showing my thesis and their positive verification) it is different kind of langauge.

In a summary: your guide is really nice, but I am convinced that is requires many improvement. That way it might be much more useful for broader group of people. Anyway - I really precious it and thank you for sharing! I would love to edit and translate it and share with my close friends and chess audience. I believe that source will help me to write and share my thought in a clear way! Thank you :)

PS. If someone is interested in chess at passionate and amateur level - I invite everyone to my blog (it is in Polish, but it might be translated by Google translator): http://beginnerchessimprovement.blogspot.com
 
Excellent guide! So glad it was shared on the CDS listserv. Potential pet peeve to add: Using the phrase "whether or not" when only "whether" is needed.
 
+Melissa McInnis -- That's an interesting one. I've heard grammar sticklers argue that "or not" is always required when using "whether." I don't have strong feelings about that one, but I know people who view either approach to be a pet peeve, so I was hesitant to add it. What's the CDS listserv?
 
Yes--I'm definitely in the "drives me nuts" camp. CDS = Cognitive Development Society.
 
+Melissa McInnis -- Ah. Makes sense. I didn't know it was shared there, but that's great. Please let me know if you spot other peeves to consider.
 
Hi! I submitted it through the CDS Student Listserv - I'm a student rep, and thought those on the list would find it useful. It seems they have! I have a question - would you say that any word that does the same job as "very" could also be replaced with "damn"? For instance, "quite sensitive" is similar to saying "very sensitive"...is "quite" just as useless as "very"?
 
+Robyn Kondrad -- Absolutely. Qualifying words like "quite" and "very" almost never add anything. "Very" is the one I dislike most, but "quite" falls into the same category. Glad the CDS listserv found it useful!
 
"Secondly" is an adverb, not an adjective. If it were an adjective, then the -ly would indeed indicate the quality of "secondness". You might not like it, but "secondly" is correct usage.

Secondly, your list should be a Word file, not a PDF, so we can use it (and edit it). I posted my editing checklist at andreas.com/downloads/edit-checklist.doc (free). You're welcome to copy it and add it to your list.
 
edited for clarity

+Andreas Ramos -- Ordinal numbers (e.g., first) can be either adjectives or adverbs. I find the the use of "first" and "second" rather than "firstly" and "secondly" to be clearer, and many grammarians agree (e.g., http://languageandgrammar.com/2008/04/14/ordinal-numbers-first-not-firstly/.  If you search for "first or firstly" you'll find many other sites that say the same thing). In my view, the "ly" is superfluous—it sounds less like fake formality to use use the non-ly form.

I'm sorry the format doesn't suit you, but I've had others complain about posting word files (preferring pdf). I post it as a free resources and I hope you find it useful even if it's not in your desired format. Thank you for your suggestions as well. I'll look them over.
 
Very helpful! Rather...Helpful. I heartily concur and have two more peeves.... Consecutive and/or numerous prepositional phrases in one sentence. Makes one, I mean makes me scramble to understand the sequence and relationships. The second peeve is repetitive redundancies.
 
Excellent guide...thanks Dan! I am bringing it into a writing class for Masters students today.

One suggestion: Qualify your rule of engagement no.4. I suggest a friend-reader should be someone who lacks your expertise but has some knowledge of the general field. I find students who give drafts to partners and friends can get in trouble when they ask questions that are 'too' basic.
 
Excellent reference, if I had a bound copy, I'd place it next to my "Elements of Style".

I do have one comment regarding #25. Sometimes it's appropriate to interject your own opinion in a piece, especially if it's on a topic you are well-versed in but that lacks scientific consensus. In such situations, it's appropriate to be clear with the reader that I'm imparting an opinion, well-informed or not. It's certainly better than the alternative, which is to continue your argument without making explicitly clear that it is now overreaching what is actually known or is consensus.

Perhaps it's just a pet peeve of my own, but I often encounter generally well-referenced blogs which suddenly have a paragraph or two in the middle with no references. If you pay attention, you'll notice the references are gone and infer that you're in opinion-land now, but the intent of the blogger seems to be to pass off opinion as consensus by sandwiching it in between science.

It may be a special circumstance, and good writers don't try to pull the wool over their readers' eyes, but it's better to verbally own an opinion than to let the readers infer it and possibly miss it!
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