All I know about writing II — grep for wishy washy.

This is a quick follow-up to an old post called All I know about writing — double square brackets. I’ve learned something else(!) that seems useful.


I find that when I type I have a habit of using wishy washy little qualifiers. I do it almost all the time and it nearly makes my work seem kind of grey and pale. I find that even when the qualifier is technically correct, it is often not needed for the sense of the sentence and the reader can be relied upon to work out when what I am saying is almost true and when it is completely true. By grepping (searching) for words like ‘almost’, ‘nearly’, ‘seems’/’seemed’, ‘kind of’ and so on, and excising them where reasonable, the narrative gains definition, speed and colour. I can often (‘often’ is another one) cut a few words, speed things up, and fix a passage just by getting rid of qualifiers. Especially…

…if I also search for ‘was’/’were’, ‘had’/’has’/’have’ and ‘could’/’would’ and ask myself if there isn’t a better way of expressing the sentence. This is really the oft-quoted ‘use the active voice where possible’.

These changes often take a few percent off the length of the story.

I can’t help wondering if my overuse of the terms is partly a result of all the science I have written. In science we rarely if ever never make absolute claims1 because experimental outcomes are indications of the truth but can never establish truth absolutely.

1Except this one, perhaps.

How I waste my time!


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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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