Clinic Writing Guidelines
Every year, I find myself correcting the same kinds of mistakes and
clumsiness in written clinic documents. This Web page is an attempt
to highlight the more common errors, so that you can avoid making them
before I see your prose.
NOTE: When I return a marked-up document to you,
every clinic member should review all of the markup, even the
parts written by other people. One of the best ways to learn to write
better is to see changes that tighten the writing and remove
verbosity. Reviewing editorial corrections to other people's sections
will help you improve your own writing.
The Only Absolute No-No
There are lots of writing mistakes that bug me. However, there is
only one that I consider completely, utterly inexcusable in all cases:
failure to run your document through a spell-checker. I can forgive
difficulty with homonyms, but please remember that I am the author of
ispell, so have
the decency to spell-check your document immediately before you
submit it to me.
Things to Study
There are a few areas that are moderately difficult to deal with, but
that need to be done right if you want your prose to communicate
well. Most of them are well covered by the Chicago Manual of
Style, which I look to as an authority on all questions of English
writing. You can essentially always win a writing dispute with me by
CMOS as a source.
Areas worth of special attention (i.e., you really should read the whole
CMOS section) include:
Hyphenation. (CMOS Sections
are all highly instructive, but
is the most important). Professor O'Neill's excellent example
comparing an "acting department chair" with an
"acting-department chair", and my own of "small write cost"
vs. "small-write cost", are well worth keeping mind at all
- Commas, in CMOS
(yes, this is a long section).
(But it's fair to note that good use of commas requires
judgment and extensive experience.)
versus "that"; see also
Many writing errors can be avoided by simple hard-and-fast rules:
- Globally replace "in order to" with simply "to". (There are
some very rare exceptions.) Likewise, replace "as well
as" with "and".
- Avoid using "as" to mean "since" or "because", as in "We went
to the movies today as Fred went golfing." "As" can often
mean "at the same time as"; here, did we go to the movies
because Fred was golfing or merely while he was out?
Using "because" avoids this ambiguity.
- Avoid the use of "may" to mean "might". For example, in "The
user may exit early by pressing 'Cancel'", are you saying that
it is possible that the user will exit early, or that
the user is permitted to exit early? Use "might" to
express possibility (which is nearly always what you're likely
to intend), and reserve "may" to express permission. Even
better, use "is permitted to" for permission, to eliminate any
- In the same vein, watch out for "can" ("is able to") versus
"could" (might choose to).
- Place a comma before the "and" or "or" in compound lists,
such as "Our software provides reliability, usability, and
economy." The British approach of omitting the comma can
introduce ambiguity. For example, "At the dinner party I met
Bob, Carol and Ted, Fred and Alice and John." In the British form, it's
impossible to tell whom Alice came with. If you habitually
include all the commas, there's no question. See
has a more extensive discussion that carefully avoids taking a
position—but I expect you to include the comma.)
- "This" is not a pronoun. Don't write "We observed that the
sky is never blue during rainstorms. This is because the cloud
cover is gray." Instead, clearly specify what you're referring to:
"This color change is caused by the gray cloud cover."