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!)
- Elements of Style, 3rd
ed., William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, 1979
- Elements of Grammar,
Margaret Shertzer, 1986
- Modern English Usage,
2nd ed., H. W. Fowler, 1965
These books are the "standard" references for the basic rules of
grammar and style. Knowledge of (but not necessarily absolute adherence
to) the so-called rules of grammar and style is essential to good writing.
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
- The standard rule for
the use of "that" and "which" as relative pronouns is
as follows: use "that" for a restrictive clause, and use
"which" for a nonrestrictive clause. When does one deviate from
- Why is a split
- For a nonrestrictive
clause, when do you use a pair of commas, a pair of dashes, or a set of
parentheses to set off the clause?
- Webster's Dictionary of
English Usage, 1989
What I like about this book on usage is that it explains the history of
the concept in question. That is, it treats the rules of grammar as an
ongoing evolution of rules, so that one can intelligently decide whether
and how to break the rules. (For example, take a look under split
- The Well-Tempered
Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the
Doomed, Karen Elizabeth Gordon, 1983
- The Transitive Vampire: A
Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed, Karen
Elizabeth Gordon, 1984
I mention these two books only because they provide humorous (and often
perverse) examples of the rules of grammar and punctuation. Also, if the
other books can't answer a question, then these books might.
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
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.
- Elements of Editing: A
Modern Guide for Editors and Journalists, Arthur Plotnik, 1982
I have not read this book too carefully yet, but it covers all of the
essential elements of editing (and pitfalls). One piece of advice this
book that seems sound is not to be too compulsive about marking up
manscripts on points of style. ("Signs of Dysfunctional
(Editor-Related) Compulsiveness: Holding to favorite rules of usage,
whatever the effect on communication")
- On Writing Well, 6th
ed., William Zinsser, 1998
- Writing to Learn,
William Zinsser, 1988
These books are inspirational, and they contain more information about how
to write than any book on usage or style. Good writing is defined not by
the adherence to the rules of grammar, but by the conveyance of ideas in a
clear and concise way, which may involve breaking rules occassionally. I
have just begun to read Writing to Learn, but On Writing Well
is a fantastic book that describes the purpose and pitfalls of writing.
Although the book is targeted for writing that is geared toward magazines,
many of the principles given in the book (e.g., simplicity and clarity)
apply to all writing.
- Handbook of Writing for
the Mathematical Sciences, Nicholas Higham, 1993
This book is a kind of catalog of the elements in mathematical writing. It
covers topics such as theorems, symbols, equations, etc. It discusses the
process of revision. It also covers issues of interest to academics in
general: how to deal with citations, publishing a paper, and writing a
- The Art of Fiction,
This book is specific to fiction writing. The single most important idea
of this book is the concept of the "fictional dream". The idea
is that one effect of good writing in fiction is that the reader is always
in a dream state, actions taking place before the reader's imaginary eyes.
Part 1 of the book is essentially an essay on the purpose of fiction,
which is to understand the Truth. Not scientific truth, of course, but of
fictional truth, which can be as powerful or more powerful than the truth
Part 2 of the book gets into
particular techniques of fiction writing. There are also useful exercises at
the end of the book.
- The New York Times Manual
of Style and Usage, 1976.
This handbook is useful for things like when to capitalize
"North" (e.g., when referring to a geographical region of the
United States) or how to punctuate something like "the 1970's".
Admittedly, the rules are a bit arbitrary, since these rules, for the most
part, have not changed over the past 100 years. However, if the other
style books can't answer the question, then this book might.
Towards Better Data Graphics
Here is a list of books about graphics and data graphics
that I found useful.
- How to Lie With
Statistics, Darrel Huff, 1954
This book is the classic book on graphing data. It explains how graphs can
be misleading using certain constructions. Besides being a manual for how
to spot misleading graphs, it also (indirectly) provides a set of
principles to construct graphs.
- The Elements of Graphing
Data, William Cleveland, 1985
This book is a fairly comprehensive catalog of methods to graph data. It
provides principles by which graphs should be constructed (e.g.,
"Make the data stand out. Avoid superfluity."). It covers many
topics, including tick marks, scales, scatterplots, three or more
quantitative variables, etc. The principles are sound, and some directly
contradict Huff's advice (e.g., Huff says to always put "0" in
There are many examples that
explain the principles involved. For every "bad" example, there is a
"correct" example that illustrates the point.
- The Visual Display of
Quantitative Information, 2nd ed., Edward Tufte
- Envisioning Information,
- Visual Explanations,
These books are simply fantastic. While not nearly as complete in terms of
elements, these books explain, perhaps more clearly than any other book,
the spirit and purpose of conveying information visually. They are what to
data graphics as Zinsser's books are to writing.
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
Simply amazing books.