Interpretive writing needs to engage visitors quickly with a fascinating story or fact. But so does writing for the media, websites and social media. That’s why this month’s newsletter is about Succinct, Simple and Stylish Writing.
In Econnect team news, Sarah Cole has left Australia with her young family to live in Germany and Jane Ilsley is leaving Econnect after 7.5 years to start a new science communication position at the University of Queensland. They will both be missed, and we wish them all the best.
Our exhibition partner, Brandi Projects, sets a limit for how much text we can have on a flip panel (25), image caption (50) or display panel (200).
This means we need to distil our text from pages and pages of scientific knowledge. Our task is to engage visitors while maintaining accuracy. It is like making perfume from a profusion of flowers.
For example, I recently had fewer than 25 words to describe the male yellow-footed antechinus (Antechinus flavipes) on the top of a flip panel that then reveals a photo of the animal. I was given 164 words of technical information from the client, and distilled it to 22 words:
“After mating my chosen females for a frenzied 12 hours, I die from starvation and stress, less than one year old.”
How did I do this?
I looked for the most interesting facts
I rewrote those facts simply without technical terms
I wrote in the first person to make the sentence active
I chose visual words like ‘chosen’ and ‘frenzied’ to replace longer technical phrases
I re-read the sentence and cut or substituted words
Writing for the reader: fresh, brief, interesting, clear
By Toss Gascoigne
George Orwell, author of 1984, thought the English language was in a bad way. His career was a battle against totalitarianism and his writing had one purpose — to defend language from those who wish to ‘make lies sound truthful and murder respectable’.
Orwell listed six rules for writing to arrest this decline:
1. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
2. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
3. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
4. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
5. Never use a common metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
In other words, be fresh, be brief, be interesting, be clear. Sounds good.
Try reading aloud one of your recent pieces of writing. The ear can hear mistakes and extraneous words that the eye glosses over when you read silently. It’s astounding how many words you can cut from a draft without changing the meaning.
Using the right short, plain words
By Claire Heath
Good writing not only uses short, plain words: it uses the right ones. That means words that are precise and strong.
Nouns and verbs are the heavy lifters in a sentence. When they are primped by adjectives and adverbs, they lose their power, and so does the whole sentence.
When nouns and verbs are allowed to speak for themselves, their meaning is succinct, rather than general, and they add energy and colour. For readers, such writing takes less effort to comprehend.
For example, you could go very slowly. But when you trudge, shuffle, saunter, or dawdle, the reader gets a focused picture of the story you are telling.
By all means use adjectives and adverbs—but sparingly, and only those with precise meanings that contribute to understanding.Mark Twain’s advice is still worth heeding:
“…don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.”
Reducing phrases to words
By Michelle Riedlinger
“Good things, when short, are twice as good” is a quote I like from Baltasar Gracian.
Can you eliminate phrases where a word will do the job just as well? Here are some well-used phrases that you can replace with a word.
Rather than using…
in the event that
at the time that
at the present time
has an effect on
due to the fact that
as a means of
during the period
in a timely manner
in regards to/with reference to
in the near future
until such time as
with the exception of
allow an opportunity
Writing simply and clearly
By Toss Gascoigne
Here is an example of the sort of alienating and impenetrable language which turns readers off. It’s on science communication!
“The layering of boundary objects into knowledge infrastructures creates a form of irreversibility marked by a constant flow of incremental innovations.”
Long sentences and words of many syllables make a piece of writing difficult to read. Short sentences and simple words are easier to understand, particularly for a lay audience.
You can test a text for readability. Google ‘readability tests’ and you’ll find Gunning Fog, Flesch Reading Test and others. Paste at least 100 words into a text box and click, and the site generates a number.
When the sentence above is pasted five times to make up 100 words, Gunning Fog rates it “extremely difficult to read” while Flesch Reading Test says: “It is impossible to comprehend”.
A cautionary note: a slavish use of readability indexes leading to a monotonous succession of short sentences and simple words can make your writing dull and uninteresting.
I like Matthew Arnold’s advice, when asked if he could teach people to write with style: “Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.”
Turning science into Haiku
By Maddie Stirrat
We used Haiku to describe the science behind the scents that visitors will be able to smell when visiting the new Boondall Wetlands centre. This Japanese poetry with 5/7/5 syllables in its three lines seemed appropriate, given the sister relationship between Brisbane’s Boondall wetlands and Japan’s Yatsu Higata wetlands.Here’s my two favourites:
A salt forest teems
Brackish nursery of life
Thick mud nourishes
Giving of itself
Fragrant timber, resin, gum
Evergreen leaves adapt