How to Write Nonfiction

this is on a language level, there are also how-tos on a paper level or on a technical (LaTeX) level. This is mostly phrased for English, but holds for German as well. In fact, the first text I recall reading on this topic is Wolf Schneider’s “Deutsch fürs Leben”.

“Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.” – Josh Bernoff, Writing Without Bullshit, Harper Business

  • Get to the point.
  • Avoid passive constructions.
  • Eliminate jargon, qualifiers, and weasel words (“probably”, “several”).
  • Identify your audience and don’t be shy about addressing them in the second person.

from Donald E. Knuth, Tracy Larrabee, and Paul M. Roberts (1987), Mathematical Writing

We went over the first section (pp. 3–8) together. As a wrap-up, everybody then picked one of the points that Knuth mentions:

  • Manu: “Picking a single rule as favourite rule was hard for me (if i had to pick a single one, its number 7). As I am not leaned heavily towards mathematical writing because of the field of application of my thesis, I was most inspired by the rules that concerned sentence structure and the “flow” of your writing. So a mixture of rules with the numbers 7, 9, 12, 17, and 24 is my choice, as they incite you to write in a technical fashion but also remind you to not forget that people are intended to read what you have written at the end - so keep them motivated as well! In combination, write rhythmic and good-to-read sentences that differ slightly in structure and thereby keep the reader hooked by writing good introductory sentences to your chapters and sections and keep them interested by indicating the awesome things that he or she is about to read.”
  • Armin: “I pick rule number 11 as my favourite because the repetition of the most important statements or definition will make it easier for the reader to understand your meaning. Rule number 11 is therefore my favourite.”
  • Konstantin: “I pick Rule 13 which is based on the observation that ‘[m]any readers will skim over formulas on their first reading of your exposition’. I’ve also made this observation for myself.”
  • Thomas: “Personally I liked Rule 20 best. One reason for this is the style it is written in. The maxims can be hard to understand because they are guidlines and bad examples breaking these guidelines in a single sentence. A counter-example in itself. Discussing eagerly, these maxims were analyzed by the seminar. Each part of this rule, had their own bit of wittiness and made me think about grammar more than I normally like to. It relayed its messages about grammar in a clear and smart way.”

Correct Punctutation

from George Orwell (1946), Politics and the English Language

Short and very readable easy on the (im)proper use of language. Applies to science as well as politics. Concludes with the following list of rules:

i. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.


Nonfiction writing

  • William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White (2009), The Elements of Style, 4th edition
  • William Zinsser (2006), On Writing Well, 7th edition
  • [de] Wolf Schneider

Math/Computer Science writing

Thesis/Paper writing


This post is based on the PGBBS-blog post How to Write Scientific English.