An easy-to-use guide for writers, editors and students
The Mini Style Guide covers the fundamentals of good writing and explains how to present a manuscript for publication. It is written in a direct and accessible manner suitable for all ages and backgrounds, and assumes no prior knowledge of the writing trade or the publishing industry. Explanations are accompanied by plentiful ‘real life’ examples, and each chapter opens with a humorous quotation. The book consists of three parts.
Part 1 covers the essence of good writing, both factual and non-factual. It covers the principles of Plain English; words that are often misused or misspelled; and common grammatical and punctuation errors. Differences between Australian, British and American English are explored; inclusive writing is defined; and copyright law as it applies to writers is clarified.
Part 2 explains the technicalities of how to present a manuscript. It examines the advantages and disadvantages of working exclusively on computer and working partly on hard copy; outlines the structure of a manuscript and the order of its various components; and explains how to compile a contents page to reflect the heading hierarchy. It explains how to treat quotations, lists, abbreviations and numbers; offers advice on presenting illustrations, tables, charts and graphs; and discusses bibliographical material and indexes.
Part 3 explores possible publishing avenues; that is, commercial publishers, literary agents and self-publishing. It defines the role of each; explains which one is best suited to which type of writing; and includes advice on how to write a synopsis, select sample chapters and draft a covering letter.
The Appendix contains templates of standard forms and letters that can be photocopied and tailored to suit individual needs.
The Glossary contains commonly used terms to do with writing, publishing and printing.
The Bibliography contains sources used and recommended.
Foreword by Robert Fairhead, book reviewer at Writing NSW.
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About the Author
Robert Fairhead is editor and writer at TallAndTrue.com and book reviewer for Writing NSW.
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Styles of writing
If any man wishes to write in a clear style, let him be first clear in his thoughts ...
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German writer, 1749–1832, quoted in Conversations of Goethe , Kessinger Publishing, Montana, 2005, p. 79
* * *
What you are saying, and to whom you are saying it, determines how you say it. As a writer you share a special relationship with your reader, so consider the nature of your address and the level at which to pitch it.
Writing can be divided into two main categories: factual and nonfactual. We encounter factual writing in newspapers, business letters and the like, and more so if we read histories and biographies. When we seek out fiction, poetry and drama, however, we do so largely for pleasure, drawn in by the power of imaginative writing.
The aim of factual writing is practical: to convey information. Both the depth of subject and the level of linguistic complexity are determined by the readership. If you're targeting professionals, you may assume greater knowledge of the subject and familiarity with terminology, and your language will accordingly be more sophisticated. On the other hand, if you're addressing the general public, you will use short, direct sentences, explain technical or specialised terms in simple, informal language, and use visual displays where possible.
Compare, for example, these two extracts:
The beauty industry is opaque and many harmful chemicals are silently present in everyday products. Product labels should be scrutinised, and the alternative and compound names of listed chemicals examined.
To cite some examples: parabens (methyl, ethyl, propyl and butyl) are also known as hydroxy methyl benzoates; the toxic chemicals phthaltes are used as solvents and plasticisers in perfume, shampoo and nail polishes; formaldehyde precursors such as quaternium-15 and bronopol are widely used as preservatives in baby products (though not carcinogenic themselves, they can break down to release harmful formaldehyde).
Increasing awareness of such chemicals has boosted the organic beauty business as it has the organic food industry.
Health industry specialist's notes
Read product labels carefully. Some chemicals go under different names. Here are the main chemicals to avoid, their various names, and where you might find them:
Parabens (methyl, ethyl, propyl and butyl), also called 'hydroxy methyl benzoates' — beauty products.
Phthaltes — perfume, shampoo and nail polishes.
Quaternium-15 and bronopol — baby products.
Paraphrased version of the above
The same information appears in both extracts, but whereas the first is directed at people within the industry and assumes an awareness of both the products and their marketing strategies, the second is a simplified summary for a general audience that avoids the subtler distinctions. This difference is reflected in the typographical design of the respective extracts. The first relies on straight text and paragraphing; the second uses a bullet list and italics to help the reader quickly grasp what the main chemicals are and where to look for them.
Not all factual writing is transparent. Any category is by definition limited, and some writing that is primarily informative (such as that in travel books or journalism) is memorable because it takes elements from other types of writing and weaves them together to create something new.
Consider these two descriptions of Cairo at the turn of the century, for instance:
Occupied Cairo was a city of veils and mirrors. Britain exercised power from behind a screen of niceties, downplaying its role as first among equals of the controlling powers. The khedive stayed on his throne and sustained his nominal allegiance to the Ottomans. Britain's consul–general merely 'advised' him as to who his ministers and what their policies should be. Like the khedive himself, these morning-coated, tarboosh-capped officials were shadow puppets: European under-secretaries made sure they jigged to London's tune.
M Rodenbeck, Cairo: The City Victorious, Picador, London, 1998, pp. 173–4
By 1900 Britain's control of Cairo was strong though less evident. The khedive kept his throne, paying formal allegiance to the Ottomans. In theory he was simply 'advised' by the British consul–general on who his ministers should be and what policies they should follow, but in reality he remained an instrument of European power.
Paraphrased version of the above
The passages are equally informative about Cairo under British rule and the relationship of the British consul-general with the khedive and his ministers. The first passage, however, expresses itself with eloquence and lyricism, giving us the flavour of the times: against the backdrop of Cairo as a 'city of veils and mirrors' which hints at layers of secrecy and self-deception, the khedive's ministers dance like 'shadow puppets' to the tune of their colonial masters, a playful image which evokes the real power behind the scenes.
By contrast, the second passage simply extracts the unadorned facts in a straightforward manner, devoid of emotion. Directed at younger readers, it aims to elucidate rather than delight.
If the boundaries of factual writing are nebulous, those defining nonfactual or imaginative writing are more so. In 'creative writing', the hallmark of fiction, styles of expression vary. All, however, draw us into a created world and keep us in a state of suspense: we not only want to know what will happen, we want to know why. This ability to evoke curiosity and empathy lies at the heart of storytelling.
Reading about writing can be a time-consuming experience. Most libraries or bookshops today have an array of books on literary and critical theory, as well as hands-on guides to writing fiction. The latter traditionally analyse the standard categories of plot and narrative, description, character, dialogue, point of view, and beginnings and endings. While technically invaluable — writing is a craft as well as an art — beware the implication that a novel can be dissected like a specimen on a laboratory table, and writing 'learned' by following a set of guidelines.
To deepen your appreciation of fiction, read as widely and as well as possible, acquiring a sensitivity to various texts as well as an understanding of the literary strategies of their writers and prevailing critical opinion. Don't lose sight of the fact that there are as many ways of writing as there are books in a bookshop, and that while literary criticism is obliged to pick novels apart, in a successful novel all aspects work together seamlessly to create the whole.
Take description, character and dialogue, for instance. Descriptive prose blends with dialogue; characters are defined by their choice of words and manner of speech as much as by their actions:
'I don't see,' said the Queen, 'why there is any need for a press release at all. Why should the public care what I am reading? The Queen reads. That is all they need to know. "So what?" I imagine the general response.'
'To read is to withdraw. To make oneself unavailable. One would feel easier about it,' said Sir Kevin, 'if the pursuit itself were less ... selfish.'
'Perhaps I should say solipsistic.'
'Perhaps you should.'
Sir Kevin plunged on. 'Were we able to harness your reading to some larger purpose — the literacy of the nation as a whole, for instance, the improvement of reading standards among the young ...'
'One reads for pleasure,' said the Queen. 'It is not a public duty.'
'Perhaps,' said Sir Kevin, 'it should be.'
'Bloody cheek,' said the duke when she told him that night.
A Bennett, The Uncommon Reader, Faber and Faber, London, 2007, pp. 45–6
'Zofia is going to make bolls,' Edek said. 'There are no bolls in New York. No bolls what are good, I mean. There are a few such Italian bolls but there is not one boll shop.'
Zofia and Walentyna looked expectantly at Ruth.
'What is a boll shop?' Ruth said.
'A shop what does sell bolls, off coss,' said Edek.
'And what are bolls?' Ruth said.
All three of them looked at her. They looked at her both in amazement, and as though she was retarded.
'Ruthie, are you stupid?' Edek said. 'You do know off coss what is a boll. Everybody does know what is a boll.' Edek was agitated. 'Even a person what does not eat bolls, what does eat such food with leafs like you, does know what is a boll,' he said.
'I don't eat leaves,' said Ruth. 'I eat a variety of fruit and vegetables and grains and fish and non–fat dairy products, and sometimes chicken. I eat a pretty healthy diet.'
'Pheh!' Edek said. 'You do eat food what is not normal.'
'Edek, Ruthie is right. The food she does eat is very good,' Zofia said, patting Edek on the head.
Ruth, too, was now agitated. And perplexed. Why did Edek have to bring up her eating habits? And what was a boll?
'A boll is a boll what is made from meat,' Edek said.
'Oh, a meatball,' said Ruth.
'Yes, a meatball,' Zofia and Walentyna half shouted with a degree of relief.
L Brett, You Gotta Have Balls, Picador, Sydney, 2005, p. 142
Both passages are notable for their accomplished dialogue and comical flair, but how different they are! The first passage is marked by restraint, understatement and a very careful verbal sparring as Sir Kevin dares to question the Queen's flippant — as he sees it — analysis of reading as largely a private and enjoyable activity.
The second passage verges on the farcical, using deliberate repetition and an emphasis on accented and grammatically idiosyncratic language as Polish-born Edek openly ridicules his daughter's edgy, inner-city, quasi-vegetarianism.
Descriptive passages vary as much as dialogue, depending on point of view and to what degree the writer wants us to identify with a character — in these cases, victims of a crime:
The corpse was that of a young woman, slim and yellow-haired; she had been pretty, but death had robbed her of her features and now she might be a carving in soapstone, primitive and bland. Something, his pathologist's instinct perhaps, told him what the name would be before he looked at the label tied to her toe. 'Christine Falls,' he murmured. 'You were well named.' Looking more closely he noticed the dark roots of her hair at forehead and temples: dead, and not even a real blonde.
B Black, Christine Falls, Picador, Sydney, 2006, p. 10
The girl, about fifteen or sixteen by the look of her, lay on her back in the long grass behind a huge Victorian sepulchre, upon which stood a marble statue of an angel. The angel had its back turned to her, and through the fog Banks could make out the chipped feathers of its wings.
Her eyes stared into the fog, her long blonde hair lay fanned out around her head like a halo, and her face had a reddish– purple hue. There was a little cut by her left eye and some discolouration around her neck. A trickle of blood the shape of a large teardrop ran out of her left nostril ...
P Robinson, Innocent Graves, Pan Books, London, 2003, pp. 3–4
Both passages deal with the death of a young, blonde girl. In the first passage, however, the pathologist Quirke resists the impulse to feel emotionally involved. His caustic observation that the girl was 'not even a real blonde' is, we recognise, an attempt to distance himself from the death at hand.
In the second passage, our empathy for the victim is, to the contrary, shaped by Inspector Banks' sense of tragedy, heightened by the fanciful suggestion that the angel had perhaps turned its back on the dead girl, and his likening her fanned-out hair to a halo, and the blood running from her nose to a large teardrop.
In both cases, however, our feelings are expertly manipulated: we identify more with Banks than Quirke, and share Banks' point of view to a greater extent than we do Quirke's.CHAPTER 2
Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words, when short, are best of all.
Attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, British politician (1874–1965)
* * *
Clear thinking is the key to clear writing, and the basis of what is known today as Plain English. In fact, its values were advocated by the likes of George Orwell and Sir Ernest Gowers long before the term 'Plain English' was coined in the UK in 1979. What began as a reaction against prevailing officialese turned into a widespread campaign to draw together the principles of good writing, and is now formally accepted as the foundation of written and spoken expression in academia, industry and government. Equivalent plain language campaigns are rapidly being adopted in other countries.
Why did language become so 'unplain' in the first place? Interestingly, obfuscation brought its own advantage: lawyers in medieval Europe discovered that the more words they used, the greater the fee they could charge — a practice which naturally encouraged lengthy, pompous and obscure expression. Once established, the habit became hard to break and inflated writing became for many a reassuring symbol of status. More recently, an 'official style' characterised language in bureaucracies, where expressions of individuality — as they were often regarded — incurred their own risk, and company statements had as much to do with increasing the perceived dignity of the business as informing the public of their products.
Even today, despite the shorthand language employed in Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms as well as emails and text messages, we often mask precise facts or feelings in opaque expressions, and may find long, complicated sentences easier to write than short, clear ones.
Above all, make sure that your thoughts themselves are clear. As an anonymous diplomat once astutely observed, 'what appears to be a sloppy or meaningless use of words may well be a completely correct use of words to express sloppy or meaningless ideas' (quoted in Gowers 1986: 38).
There are many resources available on Plain English. All recommend that you create a clear and simple message that your reader or listener can easily understand. This doesn't mean that all subtlety should be filtered out from your writing, or personal style eradicated, but rather that your thoughts be clear and their expression simple and stylish. The layout and design of your text, including the typography, should enhance the communicability of your message.
Here is a summary of 10 'golden rules' for writing in Plain English.
1 Use everyday words Use simple, informal language. This applies to individual words (e.g. 'start' not 'commence'; 'buy' not 'purchase'; and 'use' not 'utilise') as well as to phrases (e.g. 'can' not 'has the capacity to'; 'now' not 'at this point in time'; and 'if ' not 'in the event'). For example:
If there is a delay, please use the second lounge is simpler than
In the event of a delay, please utilise the second lounge.
If you're unsure about the value of a word or phrase, try omitting it to see if it has any effect. For example:
He drew attention to himself by the fact that he was boasting about his travels
is perfectly clear when 'the fact that' is removed: He drew attention to himself by boasting about his travels.
Lessons begin the week commencing Monday 19th February can be condensed to
Lessons begin the week of Monday 19th February.
Guard against tautologies (i.e. the useless repetition of the same idea or meaning in different words). For example:
I urge you to cut out the unnecessary padding can become
I urge you to cut out the padding.
Unless you're writing poetry or deliberately recreating the diction of a particular era or location, avoid archaic phrases (e.g. use 'while' not 'whilst'; 'see' not 'behold'; and 'from now on' not 'henceforth').
Resist using foreign phrases where English equivalents do just as well (e.g. 'face-to-face' not 'vis-à-vis; 'instead of ' not 'in lieu of '; and 'a year' not 'per annum').
Foreign phrases are, however, perfectly acceptable when there is no precise English counterpart (which is why words like 'hotel' were imported in the first place and so fully absorbed into English that their foreign derivation is largely forgotten). For example, the phrase laissez faire, literally 'let (them) act' is more efficient than referring to 'an approach of non-interference in or indifference to the affairs of others'. In the political sense of a 'laissez-faire economy' the phrase is again more concise than 'an economy in which the government involves itself as little as possible'.
Foreign phrases are also acceptable when the closest equivalent lacks the same vigour or feeling. For example, we all know what is meant by 'the good life', but it doesn't have the ring of la dolce vita, nor the connotation. Again, in a poetic context, a 'bunch' of flowers doesn't work as well as a 'bouquet' of flowers.
2 Avoid jargon and euphemisms
Resist jargon and pretentious euphemisms (e.g. 'attitude' rather than 'mindset', and 'communication' or 'contact' rather than 'interface'). Even words whose original meanings are precise can become stale through overuse (e.g. 'initiate', 'facilitate' and 'implement') and are best replaced by simple words (e.g. 'start', 'help' or 'carry out'). Others are used so universally and indiscriminately that they are usually best left out altogether (e.g. 'absolutely', 'basically' and 'literally').(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Mini Style Guide"
Copyright © 2018 Denise O'Hagan.
Excerpted by permission of Black Quill Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART ONE: Good Writing
Styles of writing
Commonly misused words
British and American English
Tricky singulars and plurals
The perils of possession
PART TWO: Manuscript Presentation
The role of the computer
Correct sequence of parts
Proper names and titles
Literary and artistic works
Abbreviations, contractions and acronyms
Times and dates
Tables, charts and graphs
Bibliographies and references
In-text citations, footnotes and endnotes
PART THREE: Publishing Options
Self-publishing or independent publishing
Appendix: Standard forms and letters
Glossary: Common terms in printing and publishing
Bibliography: Dictionaries and recommended resources