Who??? by John Carrel, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License
Words like “this” “these”, “it”, “their” “they” refer to other words. The words they refer to are nouns that have occurred previously. You will use these words a lot – there are plenty of them even in this short post! But often for readers, it is hard to be sure which noun the word is referring to. It may seem obvious to you, but it may not be obvious to your readers. If readers get the wrong idea they may be confused, and may completely misinterpret your point. Even if they can work it out by the context, doing so slows down their reading, can make readers lose the thread of what you are saying, and makes it unpleasant to read your work – the last thing you want!
This short posting by Barb at the Biomedical Editor website gives some examples and how to fix them in your writing.
Mendi and Chick 3 by Alisha Vargas, Attribution License
This posting from Marvin H. Swift in the Harvard Business Review, walks you through revising a short piece of text. He talks of the thinking process behind the revisions and I think it is useful to see how he questions each aspect and what it really means. In the end the text completely changes, partly as a process of making the words more clearly say what he wants to say, but partly because the structured thinking makes him see the problem differently and he changes his mind about what to say.
You too can use your writing as a way to structure your thinking. The idea is to get something down and then actually think about what you have written and what it really says. Look to see if you have explained your meaning. Look to see if you have made your argument. It is often a good idea to put it aside and come back to it later as often you will see things you did not see the first time.
Marvin H. Swift (1973) Clear Writing Means Clear Thinking Means… Harvard Business review
Goat by William A. Clark, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License
Here is a short handout from the Teaching Associates at Sacramento State University that gives some really good examples of the difference between being explicit and not. You really need to be explicit, but it’s really common for writers not to be and assume that the reader is following the same train of thought. In fact sometimes you feel silly being explicit as the point you are making may seem obvious.
But its not silly. You need to do it. Part of the reason good reading is fun to read is that it is easy. Readers do not have to work. They can read and learn or enjoy (or hopefully both!). Also even if your reader does know more about it than you, they want to know what conclusions you have reached.
So make your writing explicit. Say what you really mean and what you conclude.
Explicit versus Implicit
Teaching Associates at Sacremento State University
reader by Barbara Krawcowicz, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License
I used to think that when I was having trouble following a paper I was reading, it was because I didn’t know enough about the topic, or wasn’t concentrating properly. Now I realise that it was actually because of the writing.
Good writing is easy to read, even if the topic is difficult. The writer has written for their audience and so they provide the information you need in order to follow what they are saying. They use simple words. Their writing is concise and also precise. The subject of their sentences is easy to find so you know who or what is acting and they use strong verbs that accurately convey what is happening. They use correct punctuation as a signpost so you know where sections start and finish and which words belong with which others. Because their writing is so clear, you can read fast and its easier to concentrate. The writer makes sure you know where you are in the document, why they are talking about the things they are saying and what the point of all of it is. And on top of all of this the writer tells you what to conclude and justifies it. When you read well written work you enjoy it and it is fun.
Bad writing is hard work and hard to concentrate on. If you have ever tried to read a piece of work that has no full stops (I have!) you will realise just what a difference these small dots make to your understanding and the speed you can read. Same goes for incorrectly capitalised words, lack of subject-verb agreement, incorrect pluralisation and a host of other punctuation and grammatical errors that are the subject of some of my posts. Less skilled writers don’t always make the subject and object of sentences clear. It can be hard to know what they are referring to when they use words like “these”. They make nouns into adjectives and verbs which makes sentences overly long and complicated. They use wishy washy verbs that just “are’ but don’t make things happen in their sentences – usually they need to do this because all the action is being held by their nouns. And they tend to present you with information. This is what so and so said and this is what so and so did. But they neglect to tell you why that matters or what that means.
Sometimes I have trouble committing to what something means on paper. I think it stems from worrying that my audience knows more than I do and that they might not agree with me. If you have this feeling too, you have to get over it – at least in your writing. They may know more than you but they will agree with you if you show them the reasons why. Present your argument and back it up with evidence and logic. Cover your bases. And say what you conclude.
Reading is something you will be doing a lot of as you write a dissertation. Start to take notice when you read things that are easy and things that are hard to read. See what writers are doing and not doing that makes their work be like this. Then you can start to try to emulate a good style. And your readers will thank you for it!
The reader by Nelson, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License
This short handout from the Teaching Associates at Sacremento State University gives a brief overview about what makes reader-based prose different to writer-based prose.
Writer-based prose is often what you will first produce and it is a really great way to start. Your writing is for yourself as you are actually learning new stuff and figuring out what you conclude. You get this all down and it is your first draft. Great! But it will likely be very hard for anyone else to read. That’s not a criticism, it just stems from the difference between writer-based prose and reader-based prose. Most people cannot write reader-based prose on their first draft, so don’t be surprised if you can’t either. Take a look at this handout to see what you will be aiming for as you redraft that first go.
Writer versus Reader-Based Prose
Teaching Associates at Sacremento State University
Past Perfect & Past Tense by Luca Traversa, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License
Sometimes when I am revising my writing I find I have jumbled up the tenses and need to pay attention to that as I edit. It can be hard to figure out what tense to use in reporting your results, especially when you are talking about your own results that are in front of you now, what you did (in the past) to get them and what others have done as reported in the literature, what people used to think and what is generally thought about now. All these types of things may be elements of your discussion and require a lot of attention to get right. If you don’t get it right it can completely change your meaning.
Just compare these two statements:
“microwave technology is an important tool…”
“microwave technology has been an important tool…”
They both say different things about how important microwave technology is now.
There are conventions to using tense in reporting which also helps the reader to follow what you are talking about. Both of these sites provide really good examples of what tense to use where. The one from Monash University is about general writing and literature reviews and the one from The University of Melbourne is about scientific reporting in particular.
Using Tenses in Scientific Writing, The University of Melbourne Student Services http://services.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/471294/Using_tenses_in_scientific_writing_Update_051112.pdf
Use of tenses, Monash University Learning Support http://www.monash.edu.au/lls/llonline/writing/general/lit-reviews/3.2.xml
flowing rock by paul bica Attribution-NonCommercial License
It’s often good to see your first drafts as being written for yourself, as you make sense of the material and develop your own understanding. Then what you need to do is revise it for an audience of others. Even the very best writers should expect to do extensive paragraph and sentence level editing to ensure that paragraphs are clearly structured. You need to establish good links so readers know what is coming next and are reminded about what they need to know that has come before.
It can be really hard to see these faults in your own writing, as when you read it to yourself, the linkages in your own head in a way that makes it all seem to make sense. Techniques that help are to put it aside and reread it after a few days, or to read it aloud, or to have someone else read it and comment.
Good places for further information about this type of thing are here
Online Writing and Learning Link (OWLL), (2012), Essay flow, Massey University
Rachael Cayley (2011) Paragraphs, Exploration of Style,
Rachael Cayley (2011) Transitions, Exploration of Style, http://explorationsofstyle.wordpress.com/2011/02/23/transitions/
Comma (Polygonia C-Album) by Peter Broster Attribution-NonCommercial License
This week I came across a particular grammatical error several times in material I was editing for others – the comma splice. This is what its called when two sentences are joined with a comma instead of a full stop. Here is an example:
Jane skipped down the road, she was very happy.
Lots of people make this mistake, so it must be hard for them to notice. If the sentence above doesn’t feel strange to you, then it might be hard for you to notice too and you might have to check your writing carefully.
Comma splices can be fixed in a number of ways. A simple way is just to replace the comma with a full stop, but there are other ways too. Robin L. Simmons at Grammar Bytes has a nice simple guide here: http://www.chompchomp.com/terms/commasplice.htm