These notes contain my personal suggestions for style improvement (suggestions = commandments for 6.803 assignments). These suggestions overlap considerably with the suggestions offered in a terrific book written by Lyn Dupré, my developmental editor during my book-writing phase. The title of the book, BUGS in Writing, suggests that the text is for computer scientists and engineers, but I recommend it for all people who write technical material.
Use of Quotations
Use quotations to support your conclusions, rather than to tell your story. After all, it is your thoughts about which the reader wants to learn, rather than those of the quoted person.
Quote supports your conclusion:
Patrick seems to be deeply attracted to Saab automobiles: “I’ve driven Saabs for 20 years,” Patrick said.
Quote coopts your story:
Patrick has “driven Saabs for 20 years.”
Use of Trivial and Simple
When in doubt, use a dictionary. Random House says this:
Trivial: of very little importance or value
Simple: easy to understand
Simple ideas are often presumed, incorrectly, to be trivial.
Use of We
We means the author and the reader or the authors. Unless you are a king or queen, or you are one of multiple authors, do not use we when you are referring to yourself. Someone, somewhere, decided it was egotistic to use I, but the we prescription can lead to confusion about who is actually responsible for the work.
Former and Latter
Do not use the former and the latter and related phrases. They force your reader to stop reading, to scan back, and to reread previous material. Use an unambiguous reference instead.
I like fast cars and cold beer. I like the former because ….
I like fast cars and cold beer. I like fast cars because ….
Above and Below
When you refer to another place in your writing, use the most precise pointer possible.
I could have committed the below above.
I could have commited the below blunder in the first paragraph of this page.
Since and Because
Because means that there is a causal connection. Since means that time has passed.
He took 6.803 since it is a gut course.
He took 6.803 because it is a gut course.
He has taken gut courses since he decided to go to law school.
That and Which
That introduces phrases that identify referents. Do not use that if the referent is already unambiguous; use which instead. Which adds information. Do not use which to introduce a phrase that is helping to disambiguate a referent.
Patrick lives on Creepy Street in the house that has a Saab parked in the driveway.
Adds information, house already unambiguous:
Patrick lives on Creepy Street in the third house on the left, which has a Saab parked in the driveway.
Whenever I write a book, I do a query-replace, after everything else is done, to replace all misused which instances. Many authors and editors refer to this process as the which hunt.
When Nothing but Your Maximal Effort is Good Enough
Hire a developmental editor, or at least a good copy editor, to go over your thesis or book or other great opus. I always do.