Tag Archives: Style


Tortoise Tuesday: Puzzling Over Concision

When it comes to concision, I have a lot to say. The term has been on my mind lately for a number of reasons, including recent discussions at The Daily Princetonian, papers I have encountered in the Writing Center, and this joke (with which I eventually lost my patience). Speaking of patience, even the most dedicated readers have a finite amount — an unfortunate reality that the writer must confront. Thus, the good paper is not inundated with information but rather carefully curated so as to present only what is essential and welcome. No reader will sit by happily as their minutes are wasted, sifting through loads of detail and trying to make sense of it all. Similarly, they will not hesitate to toss the piece aside if, say, the author is dallying about and never getting to the point.

To practice what I preach, I will restrict myself to a discussion of concision as it appears in my role as a member of The Daily Princetonian. But I’m no news writer; instead, I am Co-Head Editor of the Puzzles section, which publishes new crosswords three times a week. There’s a lot that goes into crossword construction, such as the creation of a theme, the filling of the grid, and finally the writing of the clues. It is at this final step of the process — the writing of the clues — that concision comes into play. For one thing, there is only so much space on the page of the print edition. All sections of the paper are ultimately restricted to the space they have been allotted, and, for Puzzles, that means one half-page of clues. In a similar way, students are frequently subject to word counts and page counts imposed by their professors. This means that they must select the punchiest quotes, deliver precise analysis, and stay within the scope of their thesis. All of this will help create a paper that is concise and impactful.

More important than the physical limitations of the print newspaper, however, is the principle behind having short and powerful crossword clues. A good clue is a perfect example of writing that offers neither too little nor too much information. Clues that are too short might leave the solver stumped, while overly-detailed clues are likely too easy. The analogy breaks down a bit when you consider wordplay and other trickery, but your average trivia-based clue strikes a perfect balance between scarcity and surplus. [Actor] is too little a clue for MATT, while [First name of Damon who played Mark Watney in “The Martian”] is too much. The most common clue is [Actor Damon], which avoids both of these extremes by being concise and effective without including unnecessary information.

Of course, the goal of a crossword is inherently different from that of academic writing. Crosswords are meant to leave the solver with a bit of confusion; this is certainly not the case for most essays! Nevertheless, it got me thinking about the importance of being concise and deliberate with information. The reader is a finicky beast who does not do well in the face of discursive onslaughts.

–Owen Travis, ’24


Conventions (and Disrupting Conventions) on Nutritional Labels

The nutrition facts label. A familiar sight, and a cause of angst for so many people. 

Under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), most foods that you buy in grocery stores are required to have nutritional labels; notable exemptions include produce items. 

These labels, found on anything from oatmeal to canned beans and oreos, are highly standardized. In academic writing, conventions describe “the accepted standards of various elements…such as paper format, voice, tone, diction, and citation style.” Nutritional labels are a fantastic example of the role conventions play outside of an academic context. 

Nutritional labels are required to list the various nutrient values for one serving of the product, including calories, a fat breakdown, a carbohydrate breakdown, cholesterol, sodium, protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron. The labels also calculate “daily value percentages” of these nutrients based on FDA nutritional guidelines. There doesn’t seem to be much that can be changed on the labels, save for the actual numbers displayed in each category based on the product. 

In academic writing, conventions can feel like a monolith: to be taken seriously, you have to follow certain stylistic rules. But, there can be ways to stray from the rules that are beneficial. This is also true in the realm of nutritional labels (and I’m just talking about the nutrition facts box, not any external claims or labels like organic, gluten-free, etc.)

Take the nutrition label for a package of Dulse, one of my favorite kinds of seaweed. 

One of the first things you may notice about the label is the blue: the “Nutrition Facts” title and the lines around and within the box are not the traditional black. It probably depends on the person, but I’d say the light color makes the label a bit less frightening and monotonous. Another remarkable difference between this label and one that follows conventions more strictly is the list of nutrients at the bottom. Although they are unrequired, this list includes iodine, riboflavin, vitamin B6, Chromium, Magnesium, and Vitamin B12 – showing off the nutritional powerhouse that dulse is. 

You may have noticed certain elements are missing from where they usually are on the label: saturated fat, cholesterol, Vitamin D, among others. Instead, underneath the rather lengthy list of nutrients that are present, in small print, is the line “Not a significant source of: calories from fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sugars, vitamin A, vitamin C, or calcium.” These changes are allowed by the FDA and produce a simplified label that focuses attention on what may be seen as the “healthy” aspects of the product. These ways that the dulse flakes disrupt conventions of nutrition facts are somewhat common among a certain niche of products marketed as “health foods.” In this way, while breaking general conventions of food labels, this product does adhere to another, but much more exclusive, set of conventions.

Thus, even on nutrition facts labels, there is room for creativity – to make the argument pop out. That said, when you go grocery shopping, please be wary that sellers aren’t breaking too many of these conventions. 

– Joe Himmelfarb, ‘24


Tortoise Tuesday: On Strong Coffee and Good Style

In my family, coffee is consumed hot, black, and eye-wateringly strong, or not at all, which in my view, is exactly as it should be. Well before I was old enough to appreciate the pleasures of a bitterly flavorful, palette-burning mouthful of coffee, I knew what strong coffee smelled like, and more important, looked like: in a cream-colored porcelain cup placed in the full slantwise sunbeams of a winter morning, the sides should scarcely be visible even through the top few millimeters of coffee, and the bottom, needless to say, not at all. If it was so pale when I poured it as to be even slightly honey-colored in the sunlight, the coffee was too weak, and I could be sure it would be remarked upon when I brought the cups to the table. Of course, to a fifteen year-old with a bottomless sweet tooth, the bitterness of over-strong black coffee held little appeal; but knowing how to make it was important, and the first step was being able to tell the strong coffee from the weak.

The same thing can be said about recognizing good writing. It is impossible to know how to write well if you don’t know what good writing looks like, and even when a piece of writing is not to your taste, you can usually tell, with practice, whether or not it is well put together. In some cases, this means being able to identify the purpose of the piece, but there are other cases in which a piece of writing has no clear purpose, or driving argument — and, in particular, is not meant to have one — and these can be even more important for the development of good style than pieces in which the author’s argument is the central focus. In such pieces, which lack the frantic rush to get to the main point before the audience’s wandering gaze veers elsewhere, we are at far greater liberty to see the thread of a narrative unspooled at length, complete with digressions, tangents, and a periodic returns to the central theme. Well-written pieces which diverge from the terse style with which we are all so familiar reminds us of the possibilities within our own writing, and while tastes change, good style is universal. An essay which is not to my taste on a first reading might move me to tears in three years time; and the converse might just as easily hold true. The only way to learn what suits you is to read obsessively, and widely, from things which seem like complete rubbish to essays and novels and everything in between. Then all these bits and pieces will flap around in your head like bats in a cave, and turn up at the oddest moments — even the ones you didn’t think you liked at the time. Strong, scalding, black coffee might not be to your taste this year, but good coffee is good coffee, and who knows what you might think three years hence.

— Isabella Khan, ’21