Aphorisms for Professional Writing
There are two parts: cognitive and political. In
most of my professional writing, I usually adhere to the advice in
both parts; otherwise I sometimes adhere only to the advice in
I will add more to this as more ideas come to me. For now, here it is.
Aphorisms for professional writing I: cognitive aspects
- A1: Write as if you were speaking loudly across a noisy room.
In academic writing, the noise is not acoustic but conceptual.
- A2: Think the sentence twice before you write it. The order
in which the thought first occurs is not the order in which it is most
- A3: Be a bricklayer. Don't write by piling words one upon
another; check the strength of the wall before you build it higher.
- A4: Read what you've written. Your sentences should not
float freely; they should anchor themselves in their predecessors.
- A5: There are no synonyms in professional languages. There
is a right word for each old idea. Use it, or you will confuse.
Aphorisms for professional writing II: additional political
Preamble: I consider the style of writing that is produced by
adhering to the following additional precepts to be highly unethical.
It is, however, very well received by authoritarians of all kinds.
- A101: Write as if you were reminding your audience of things
they already know, but which it is understandable that they have
forgotten. Nobody likes to be taught, or even to be made to feel
- A102: You are the owner of your subject, but you must not
offend the neighbours. Be neither proud nor defensive; but do not be
- A103: It takes ten units of assurance to purchase the rights
to one unit of tentativity. If you are first assured, and then in small
measure tentative, you gain credit for humility; but if you are only
tentative then you are thought a fool.
- A104: There are things that cannot be said. If you say them,
you will be judged on the tidiness of your shoelaces, the cleanliness of
your fingernails, and the correctness of your punctuation. If you wish
to say what is unwelcome, you must be immaculate.
- A105: Do not be vulnerable.
- A106: What is new is vulnerable. Speak as if you tell old
lore even when you say new things.
- A107: Do not let them see you explore, or you will be
vulnerable. Report on your explorations as you would report on
Columbus' landing: as big successes in the distant past, carried out
with illustrious assistance.
- A108: Do not surprise them. Let them feel that they have
co-discovered whatever you say. Do this by leaking clues to them about
what will come next.
- A109: To gain credit, you must be seen to respect the credit
of others. Know the names that go with the old ideas.
- A110: There are no synonyms in professional languages. There
is a right word for each old idea. Use it, or you mark yourself as an
These aphorisms were brought to you by a cynical mood belonging to
Richard Reiner, Ph.D..