Writing and Data Graphics

Towards Better Writing

Here is a list of books that I found to be useful in learning how to write, along with my (necessarily idiosyncratic) perspective on them. (This list is still under construction!)

The Fowler book is the classic reference (the first edition was published in 1926, the second in 1965) and set the direction of usage for many years. I personally tend to look at all three books to see what they have to say about a particular issue, to get a sense of why the rule is the way it is. Sometimes, the rules acknowledge different practices (e.g., Strunk and White say to put a comma before the “and” in a series of terms, and Shertzer agrees, but she says that some writers prefer to omit the comma before the “and”), so it is wise to look at all the books. I tend to put less weight on Fowler's advice, since it was written a little earlier.

As a fun exercise, try looking up the following things:


From The Well-Tempered Sentence:

A hyphen connects parts of some compound words used as nouns or adjectives. It is also used in some words formed with prefixes.

"That was a curiosity-provoking peepshow," said the pseudosophisticated ball-of-fire to the pink-faced stick-in-the-mud as they cuddled halfheartedly over a pint of bitter in a Neo-Gothic hole-in-the-wall.

From The Transitive Vampire:

A dependent clause is incapable of standing on its own two feet (even though they are a subject and a verb) and therefore depends on some other part of the sentence. It is not that the dependent clause is lacking in the components of an independent clause; it is reduced to this abject condition by the subordinate conjunction that introduces it.

I fondled his lapel before I caressed his socks.
If she capitulates, we will reward her with a lollipop.
If this is love, I've made a terrible mistake.
If you let out the cat, I'll let out the last word.

Part 2 of the book gets into particular techniques of fiction writing. There are also useful exercises at the end of the book.


Towards Better Data Graphics

Here is a list of books about graphics and data graphics that I found useful.

There are many examples that explain the principles involved. For every "bad" example, there is a "correct" example that illustrates the point.

Visual Display provides a theory of data graphics. There is a pretty wild redesign of the scatterplot, a design that follows from the principles of the book. Envisioning Information provides a catalog of methods to convey information (e.g., micro/macro readings, small multiples). Some of the advice contradicts Cleveland's (e.g., always put a box around the data area).  Visual Explanations continues on Tufte's theme of uncluttered data presentation (a theme also mentioned in Elements of Style, but with respect to writing) by talking about how data presentation can be used to support an argument or provide an explanation.

Simply amazing books.