Monday, May 08, 2006

Some writing tips

Having delivered the thesis, I've figured out how I'm going to use this blog.

I'm going to continue posting here, writing about web content management, but also about software development in general and other stuff. But the first thing I want to note down are my thoughts on how it was to write the thesis, sharing some writing tips with you.

Writing English

My first advice is: Don't. Unless its your native language, of course. I have had the pleasure of a bi-lingual upbringing, and seeing the English of many other Norwegians, I'm sorry to that generally, Norwegians write lousy English. Its not that we make grammatical or syntactical errors, but the feeling of the sentence is just.. wrong. And don't be fooled: Word or any other another spell-checker is not good enough. I've gone over another thesis which was already "fixed" by Word, and I still managed to empty a red-ink pen in the process.

Another point is that you don't *think* in English. You keep falling back into articulating difficult sentences in your native language, and then you have to translate it. This breaks down productivity, and you also get those Norwegian-English sentences.

If you still have to write English, make sure you know a native speaker who will go over the thesis for you and point out any mistakes and sentences you should reformulate. Train. Write English, and read English books aloud.

Writing flow

Write down what you think. Use notebooks, and get things down. You can always remove things later. Or don't delete things, just move them over to a "snippets" document, saving your thoughts in case you want to include them later (you could always blog about them).

Don't read your thesis too many times. You get tired of it. Write things once, and move on to the next section. Write through what you wrote a month ago. This will give you a fresh view of the content and allow you to

Turn off the spell-checker when you are writing. Those red-lines are also disrupting your writing flow.

Sentence rythm

Bad sentence structures easily bore the reader. Think short-medium-long-medium-short and so on.

Don't use too many "helping" verbs. The subject verbs the object. To will, to be, to have, are helping verbs you can put around the verb, but avoid this. Put the power of the senctence in the verb. Can't think of any good examples right now, but I might get back to that. Also, reduce the amount of adjectives, and put the meaning of them in the verb if this is possible.

Structure and Disposition

Write a disposition. You'll change it later, removing or adding chapters as you see how things are coming along, but a good disposition is the skeleton of your thesis. Write through it many times, each time adding a little more flesh to the bone (ugh, nice picture).

Document-driven development

Plan, and keep track of your changes. I kept a Todo-list. When I completed an item on the list, I moved it to the changelog . Each time I thought of something I should write about, I added it to the Todo-list. I also made checklist, where I added things each time I though "Oh. I'll have to see if that thing is done through the whole document". It was something like this

  • Acronyms (WCM, WCMS, ECM, XML, JSP, WS, JSR, JCP, JCR, WYSIWYG)
  • Use of modification/extensibility/extendability/customization or variations of these
  • Use of company/organisation/corporation
  • Use of "you", "I", "we" etc.
  • Upper Cases in Headings
  • Who am I? Programmer/developer/technician/researcher/author , we, I, our, us, me,
  • Who is the user? user/author/content manager/customer/visitor
  • A/applet, J/java
  • Check that all h3 are default formatting (some small ones)
  • Remove apostrophes' (Don't use apostrophes in formal documents.)

Red flags

Stay clear of these, or reformulate them:
  • very
  • little
  • think
  • I thought
  • easy
  • hard
  • seem

The reader

Learn the mind of the reader. I read this book which had some good points on how your thesis is read. For example, the reader wants to see a crystallized research question.

Any how, that's all I've got time for now. I've got some other ideas as well, but I'll have to add them later.