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Refactoring Prose

by Michael Nielsen on November 5, 2007

One of the most interesting ideas from software development is that of refactoring code.

A famous book on refactoring identifies a set of “code smells” that indicate when something is wrong with your code (blog). The book is in part diagnostic, explaining how to identify poor code and determine what the problem is. It is also prescriptive, explaining how to fix many common problems.

I like the idea of producing a similar list of “writing smells” that helps writers identify bad prose, figure out what the problem is, and how to improve it. Such a list would be much more useful than the laundry lists of do’s and don’ts that form the bulk of style manuals such as Strunk and White. Such laundry lists are usually focused on the problem of writing clearly, a problem for which it is possible to give relatively precise rules, not the vaguer problem of writing in a way that is interesting. For the latter problem, the concept writing smells and refactoring prose is, I think, just what is needed.

An example of such a list of writing smells is provided by the book “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath. Summarizing the book here doesn’t do it justice, but it does suggest the following list of prose smells:

  • Is the prose unnecessarily complex?
  • Is the prose surprising? If not, why bore your reader?
  • Are abstract points illustrated by concrete examples and stories?
  • Is the prose credible enough? Where are the most significant credibility gaps?
  • Does the prose engage the reader’s emotions at all?
  • Does the prose engage issues the reader considers important?

These are all “just” common sense, of course, but I definitely find that when I take the time to apply the Heath’s list my writing improves considerably.

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  1. Jon permalink

    I’ve found another similarity between coding and writing prose: the act of streamlining. Often a hastily written 10 line function can be turned into 3 elegant lines of code. Similarly, 10 hastily written lines of prose can be turned into 3 lines of elegant prose. The surprising part is, the thinking process is very similar in each case.

  2. Michael Nielsen permalink

    Nice point, Jon. To me, at least, it often feels as though it were necessary to write the bad ten lines before it is possible to write the three good lines.

  3. I like for smells to be as concrete as possible. One book that I have found useful in this regard is “Style : toward clarity and grace”, by Joseph M. Williams. I think that Richard Gabriel, computer scientist and writer, turned me on to this book.

  4. Michael Nielsen permalink

    Hi Eugene – I picked up Williams’ book after Steven Pinker strongly recommended it in his marvellous book “The Language Instinct”. For some reason I couldn’t quite get into it, and dropped it after a couple of chapters. I might go back and try again, perhaps starting later in the book.

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