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the elements of style



Excerpted from recent List dialogue:

>  Here my point is that the long ascending taper of the first
>metatarsal in these forms (as well as those you list below) provides a
>contact to the second metatarsal that may in fact defer any ability for
>the digit to rotate. In birds this occurs in the joint, as you imply,
>however the utility of a reversible digit is for the purpose [as far as
>evolutionary scenarios can affirm] for perching, or grasping with the
>foot in simple mechanics, and a terrestrial form like dromaeosaurs,
>even assuming they are secondarily flightless, could not perceive then
>to retain a uselessly reversed or resersible toe without reasonable
>exaptation.

and another:

>>     And it should be laughed off this time.  On purely developmental
grounds it would be almost impossible.  While simple perforations are
obviously possible through variation in low-level genetics (e.g.
fenestration), highly repetative structures are the result of duplicated
controller genes, after which selection on heterochronistic variation
provides the refined struture.  Proximally branched dinofuzz (if Currie's
description holds up to SEM or other fine morphological analysis) would be
the ideal forunner to the genetic evolution of avian feathers.<<



        Not to nitpick- okay, this is nitpicking, but that's one of the
major functions of this list- but the above paragraphs demonstrate bad
writing at its worst. In the first, the structure is convoluted, long
words are used where simple, everyday language will do, and language is
not simply used imprecisely- words and their meanings no longer have
anything to do with each other. For example, "defer" should be replaced
with "preclude"; "perceive" is nonsense in this context. We're forced to
grope for what this piece of writing intended to say.
        In the second message, the author relies on sheer volume of words
to convey a message, or perhaps more accurately, to convey the impression
of a message. Meaning seems to take a backseat to words for their own
sake. For example, "genetic evolution" sounds fancier than "evolution" but
tells the reader nothing more- certainly one wouldn't assume that we're
discussing the cultural evolution of feathers. This cloud of words
obscures meaning rather than expresses it. For example, does "variation in
low-level genetics" refer to any particular biological concept, or does it
just serve to vaguely gesture in the direction of developmental biology?
Is "heterochronistic" even a word (or should it be "heterochronic")?
        Both writers have fallen into the trap of confusing tangled
structure, large vocabulary, and impenetrability with good writing.
However, both writers are perfectly capable of writing well, it's just a
matter of fixing these mistakes. Good writing is precise, not vague;
clear, not confusing and confused. Good writing communicates ideas and/or
emotions rather than  laying out words and sentences for the sake of
laying out words and sentences. Using fewer, simpler words instead of
more, longer and more elaborate words almost always improves your writing.
While learning to write well is difficult and takes years of practice, I
can recommend two works which will make this job infinitely easier:
 
        Strunk and White. _The Elements of Style_. 
        Orwell. "Politics and the English Language"

        These works contain an extraordinary amount of wisdom; take it to
heart. _The Elements of Style_ is E.B. White's (_Charlotte's Web_)
revision of a style manual. Skip past the bits on punctuating and joining
sentences to the meat: how to communicate effectively. It is a short read
and one of the best pieces ever written on writing. Available in virtually
any bookstore.
        Besides _Animal Farm_ and _1984_, George Orwell published a
collection of essays titled _As I Please_. You can skip his commentaries
on pop culture, musings on buzzbombs and Cold War prophesy (although
they're really good) and read "Politics and the English Language". It is
also a short read and one of the best pieces ever written on writing. It's
available online any number of places, just one of the many I found is
http://eserver.org/langs/politics-english-language.txt . 

        It may look like I'm a jerk here. But if you ever want to write
seriously, sooner or later you have to confront rejection, lots of it,
correction, lots of it, and understand just how much you don't know about
writing well, and have your ego shattered several times... then you'll
actually be able to begin. I speak from harsh experience.

-N




"I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor
the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to
men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance
happeneth to them all."
        -Ecclesiastes

        ...and George Orwell's translation into modern English:
"Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion
that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to
be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of
the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."