In one of my classes during grad school I received a few sheets titled, "Tim Radford's Manifesto for the Simple Scribe - Rules of Prose." Given that this is a site for writers, especially those with a science bent, I thought I'd share the first half of the rules and see what you all think (the second half will follow in the next article).
1. When you sit down to write, there is only one person who matters in your life. This is someone you will never meet, called a reader.
2. You are not writing to impress the scientist you have just interviewed, nor the professor who got you through your degree, nor the editor who foolishly turned you down, nor the rather dishy person you just met at a party and told you were a writer. Or even your mother. You are writing to impress someone hanging from a strap in the tube between Parson's Green and Putney, who, given a chance, will stop reading in a fifth of a second.
3. So the first sentence you write will be the most importance sentence in your life, and so will the second, and the third. This is because, although you - an employee, an apostle or an apologist - may feel compelled to write, nobody has ever felt obliged to read.
4. Journalism is important. It must never, however, be full of its own self-importance. Nothing sends a reader scurrying to the crossword, or racing column, faster than pomposity. Therefore simple words, clear ideas and short sentences are vital in all story-telling. So is a sense of irreverence.
5. Here is a thing to carve in pokerwork and hang over your typewriter: "No one will ever complain because I have made something too easy to understand."1
6. And here is another thing to remember every time you sit down at the keyboard: a little sign that says, "Nobody has to read this crap."
7. If in doubt, assume the reader knows nothing. However, never make the mistake of assuming that the reader is stupid. The classic error in journalism is to overestimate what the reader knows and underestimate the reader's intelligence.
8. Life is complicated, but journalism cannot be complicated. It is precisely because issues - medicine, politics, accountancy, the rules of Mornington Crescent - are complicated that readers turn to the Guardian, or the BBC, or the Lancet, or my old papers Fish Selling and Self Service Times, expecting to have them made simple.
9. So if an issue is tangled like a plate of spaghetti, then regard your story as just one strand of spaghetti, carefully drawn from the whole. Ideally with the oil, garlic and tomato sauce adhering to it. The reader will be grateful for being given the simple part, not the complicated whole. That is because (a) the reader knows life is complicated, but is grateful to have at least one strand explained clearly, and (b) because nobody ever reads stories that say, "What follows is inexplicably complicated..."
10. So here is a rule. A story will only ever say one big thing. If (for example, and you are feeling very brave) you have to deal with four strands of a tale, make the intertwining of those four strands into the one big thing you have to say. You may put twiddly bits into your story, but only if you can do so without departing from the one linear narrrative you have chosen.
11. Here is an observation. Don't even start writing till you have decided what the one big thing is going to be, and then say it to yourself in just one sentence. Then ask yourself whether you could imagine your mother listening to this sentence for longer than a microsecond before she reaches for the ironing. Should you try to sell an editor an idea for an article, you will get about the same level of attention, so pay attention to this sentence. It is often - not always, but often - the first sentence of your article anyway.2
12. There is always an ideal first sentence for any article. It really helps to think of this one before you start writing, because you will discover that the subsequent sentences write themselves, very quickly.3 This is not evidence that you are glib, facile, shallow or slick. Or even gifted. It merely means that you hit the right first sentence.
The remaining rules will appear in the following article...
1 I think this rule, as well as perhaps rule #2, also demonstrate how quickly words fall out of favor, or don't translate across cultures. I had no idea what pokerwork was and had to look it up (thus negating his "easy to understand" point). In addition, what kid today has seen and/or used a typewriter?
2 Again, be careful of words that may have once worked heuristically but now are considered stereotypes. If my mom reached for the ironing I'd probably lose my train of thought completely and wonder what the hell she was doing.
3 When I was working as a journalist I found this to be 100% true. Once you had that first sentence - which could take a very short or very long time to write - the rest of the story flowed so much more easily.