How to Alienate Your Readers

on 28th of July, 2011 in Writing, Publishing & Presenting
About the Author:
Vicki studied chemistry at the University of Aberdeen (graduating in 2005), before moving to the University of Edinburgh to complete her PhD in synthetic organic chemistry. Following this, she spent one academic year as a transferable skills demonstrator at the University of Strathclyde, running tutorials and workshops covering topics such as scientific writing, presentation skills and team working.

This was followed by a move into industry within a pharmaceutical CRO, where she was first a clinicial research scientist and laterly marketing manager. Vicki currently works in public policy within the science and technology...

There’s no doubt that one of the best ways to improve your written communication skills is to read widely. And I’m not just talking broadsheets or the odd Bill Bryson novel; you can actually take some of your best advice from badly written prose. Find out what bugs the life out of you as a reader, and simply don’t do it!

This is a very subjective topic I know, but here're 5 writing habits that are sure to alienate me immediately.

1. Tautology
Tautology: ‘needless repetition of an idea, especially in words other than those of the immediate context, without imparting additional force or clarity’.
While doing no real harm, it’s technically incorrect. Using phrases like the following is a sure way to irk those of a pedantic disposition:

  • ‘The reason why the data is inconclusive…’ (‘why’ is redundant)
  • ‘The plane circled around the base’ (if it was circling it, it was clearly going around it and there’s no need to state this).
  • You get the idea.

2. Ambiguity
Arguably the most common offence. Most perpetrators probably don’t even know they’re doing it, haphazardly cobbling sentences together erroneously in ignorant bliss, confusing the uneducated reader and irritating the life out of the educated one. Really, think about what you’re saying:

“Hydrogen bonds which are weaker than covalent bonds can be disrupted by certain solvents.” Here we have an annoying sentence. I could probably choose to take this to mean one of two things:

1. Specifically those hydrogen bonds that are weaker than covalent bonds can be disrupted by certain solvents.
2. Hydrogen bonds (all of which are weaker than covalent bonds) can be disrupted by certain solvents.

I know that the second option is factually correct (even though there ought to be parenthesis separating ‘which are weaker than hydrogen bonds’), but oh it does annoy me so that I have to use my own knowledge, rather than any unambiguous presentation on the part of the author, to deduce this. Incidentally, if the writer had intended the first meaning, I’d have used ‘that’ instead of ‘which’. I’d be curious to hear others’ opinions on this though.

3. Vague and meaningless cross-referencing
Phrases such as ‘see above’ and ‘as will be discussed below’ are utterly meaningless. I mean really, ‘see above’, where? The sky? We would like to know exactly where you want to direct us please (e.g. ‘as discussed in Section 1.2’). If you are hell bent on avoiding naming specific sections, at least use tense, e.g. ‘discussed previously’.

Writers also often seem keen to remind us of what they have already said… ‘as has been discussed’ (a horribly clunky sounding phrase anyway), or ‘as mentioned earlier’. We know you mentioned it earlier; we’ve already read it.

4. An unfathomable obsession with the word ‘thus’
This may well be a personal bugbear so I shan’t go into it too much save to say that after reading more than 3 sentences that start with the word ‘thus’, it becomes unbearably annoying, thus I may stop reading. There are many lovely alternatives to the word ‘thus’ (hence; therefore; ergo, if you must…).

Please note however, that ‘and so’ is not one of them!

5. Sentences that, given that you are communicating science, which is factual by nature and should be presented succinctly, are so long-winded and randomly peppered with commas and other punctuation marks (which could include em dashes, hyphens and semicolons, which incidentally are often used in the wrong place) that by the time you’ve reached the end of this needlessly wordy piece of text you’ve genuinely forgotten what was said at the beginning of it. Zzzzzz…

Just a handful of many ways you can annoy your reader.
I’d be interested to hear your own bugbears when it comes to the written word. Indeed this article itself is open to attack; I’d welcome it!

Further reading
1. Everything!

2.  Those who are particular sticklers may wish to read Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (Lynne Truss) for a thoroughly enjoyable rant on the tragic daily abuse of punctuation.

3. Make Your Manuscripts More Readable in 5 Minutes Per Day

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