To craft strong sentences, we must give our verbs power and our nouns clarity, placing both of them at the beginning of the sentence. If we really let this rule sink in, we can see that the verb dominates the central meaning of our sentences. The noun, after all, only shows a detail about how the action of the verb was performed. It identifies the source of the verb's action, so--in a very real sense--it modifies the verb. Nouns play a subordinate role to that action of the verb.
Why does most writing advice warn against passive verbs? Because the verb is the sun at the center of the solar system that is the sentence. Nouns might be Jupiter, providing a major rotational mass, but they are, nevertheless, not the center of gravity for our sentences! With a passive verb, the solar system doesn't hold together, and our sentence flies apart in as many directions as there were words in that sentence.
To observe some verbs in action, let us look at one of Jesus' parables. The Parable of the Obedient and Disobedient Son gives words to our instinct that action is more important than identification. In this parable (found in Matthew 21:28-32), Jesus tells us of two sons, both of whom were told by their father to work in the family's vineyard. One said he would, but then he didn't actually perform the work. The other said he would not, but he then repented and actually did the work. This entire story revolves around verbs: asking, promising, failing, repenting, and working. In fact, this parable is far from the only story that hinges on actions. Just as stories are driven by verbs, so is powerful text!
Because the verb is so important, we can fall into the mistake of trying to prop up weak verbs with their closest modifiers in the predicate: the adverbs. If you read some writing advice, you might think that even using an adverb once in your paper would make the enlightened reader scream and run away. To some critics, adverbs are vile, distasteful, and disgusting. They are not, in reality, quite as bad as all that. Exaggeration might make for entertaining reading, but it is not going to give us the best tools for improving our editing.
Occasional use of adverbs, in and of itself, is just fine. If they are not overused and if they add relevant detail, they can be used judiciously. For our editing process, though, adverbs give us one huge advantage: They allow us to detect potentially weak verbs very quickly. How exactly? Well, most adverbs end in -ly. Most of them also do not occur at the end of a sentence. Thus, we can include a specific step in our editing process. Performing a text search (using ctrl-f on a PC or ⌘-f on a Mac) for ly (and a space after it) can help us quickly move through the adverbs that we used and that might signal weak verbs. Check each one to see if another verb would capture the meaning of your existing verb and help you eliminate the adverb. If not, see if you can change the adverb into some other phrase to provide the information in a more powerful manner.
Example: Smith (2010) carefully studied...
This example phrase could be changed in several ways.
(1) The simplest is to cut the adverb, because studied is a strong, clear verb that already implies the exercise of careful attention.
(2) Another is to draw a key term from the kind of data analysis performed: Smith (2010) compared...
(3) Finally, we can add details about the method of study to show the care involved: Smith (2010) eliminated possible false correlations by controlling for...
Each adverb you encounter will need to be evaluated individually, but I guarantee that this strategy will help you make some quick improvements to any text. Now, why not go try it out?!
One of the most harmful and most problematic writing choices and actions is to double a term and use two words to show a concept or idea, especially and particularly when the two words or terms are similar and hard to tell apart. I can hear you all asking now...“Wait...what did you just say?” Let me repeat it, but this time let me write it more clearly: One of the most harmful writing choices is to use two words to show an idea, especially when the two words are similar.
At best, the reader will feel we are being wordy. At the worst, the reader will be lost in trying to puzzle out the nuances of our meaning.
Now, don't get me wrong! Using more than one word in a description can be worthwhile. If the differences between the words used allows you to describe a broader range of relevance, that list might be absolutely necessary. The editing concept we are examining today only occurs when the two words are similar. When the words are different, this problem does not occur. For example, when we say “the fire department is ready to respond at any time, day or night,” the combination of those two opposing terms shows that the readiness extends to all extremes.
The opening example of this blog entry was intended not only to give examples of these unclear dual statements but also to show how they can be even more damaging when several of them occur close together. In our attempt to be more detailed, many of us use these dual structures in our drafts. This is fine, as long as we remove them during our editing. Unfortunately, dual statements can be hard to detect. As the proud parents, we know the minute differences between our babies...but the reader will have a more difficult time understanding the intention behind each word.
As a strategy for examining our document for dual wordings, it is useful to use the find command (ctrl-f on PCs and ⌘-f on Macs) to search for the word “and.” This will not identify all dual structures in your text, but it gives you a different way to strengthen your text. Why not try it out with your next project? Even better...why not pull out an old paper that you know didn't get edited to its strongest possible form and see if this trick would have helped you!
Welcome to the new semester, and for those of you new to APU, welcome to our community and to your new program! We at the Writing Center share your eagerness for a career that integrates your faith and personal calling. Thus, I am excited to help prepare you for your new topics, new projects, and new assignments.
Students often ask us about how to become better academic writers. While, of course, we have many suggestions that can help in this process, the most central one is: take your writing seriously. Taking your writing seriously means also taking your abilities seriously. Yes, of course you have weaknesses. What writer doesn't? You have abilities, too, though. Instead of doubting your ability, consider whether your method is causing you undue difficulties.
One of the best tips I can give is to follow the timeline shown on our “Planning Your Paper” flier as you receive writing assignments.
As we all know, college students are busy people. This leads to many of us procrastinating on our assignments. Even those who are not procrastinators often start thinking about the content later than is ideal.
Ideally, we should begin considering our possible topics and reading research materials that might support them as soon as we receive an assignment. That consideration means that this week, when you receive all of your syllabi, is the right time to get started on some of your midterm and final projects! This seems counterintuitive, because our respect for the professors' knowledge and preparation leads us to think of the assigned readings and the lectures on the concepts as the first steps of our learning. However, the more you engage in the subject, the more you learn. Professors make excellent guides, to be sure. But you can till the field before they plant the seeds. Let us all be the good soil instead of the rocky soil this semester! In order to help you be good soil, I would like to highlight a few of the insights found on the flier mentioned above.
If you properly plan your writing, you can break even very large projects into more manageable sections. I hope our flier will help you do so, and that we can all look forward to a productive semester of strong academic growth!
The quest to add clarity through the details in a text can often result in our writing a large number of lists that end up cluttering our drafts. Our immediate instinct is to directly equate a greater number of examples with greater clarity. This is not always the final result, however, and we should carefully limit our list usage to those items which, by showing multiple examples, truly add to the reader's comprehension. The purpose of this particular blog entry is not to explore the factors that make the inclusion of a list more appropriate, but rather to explore one method of reducing a sense of over-listing: Most lists should be broken into pieces and formed into multiple sentences instead.
Let us consider an example in order to discuss some common guidelines.
Draft: “To correct any grammar errors, verify the clarity of our organization, confirm that we haven't left out any key details, ensure the clarity, readability, and power of anything we write, and reduce wordiness are all thing that we authors should spend sufficient time doing.”
That's quite a lot of detail, and the sentence containing it requires complex grammatical structures as a result. The first thing we will consider is that, generally, lists are stronger at the end of a sentence.
Edit #1: “As authors, we should spend sufficient time editing to correct any grammar errors, verify the clarity of our organization, confirm that we haven't left out any key details, ensure the clarity, readability, and power of anything we write, and reduce wordiness.”
The second thing we should notice is that there is a complex list structure that makes the grammar unclear to some readers unless they read it multiple times. The items we are ''ensuring'' present a list within our larger list of things done during editing. Given the previous guideline, we might expect that moving this subordinate list to the end of our larger list would be useful.
Edit #2: “As authors, we should spend sufficient time editing to correct any grammar errors, verify the clarity of our organization, confirm that we haven't left out any key details, reduce wordiness, and ensure the clarity, readability, and power of anything we write.”
Admittedly, this is less awkward than the first version. However, splitting the subordinate list into its own sentence would be an even better option:
Edit #3: “As authors, we should spend sufficient time editing to correct any grammar errors, verify the clarity of our organization, confirm that we haven't left out any key details, and reduce wordiness. Fully engaging in these steps will ensure the clarity, readability, and power of anything we write.”
At this stage, examining the first sentence might show us that the list combines different steps of a document review. Whether you consider editing as a single step that moves from broad concerns like organization toward finer concerns like checking your citation accuracy or, alternatively, see these as separate steps, the items should be organized in time order to ensure better readability. Thus, correcting grammar errors should come after revision tasks like organization and completeness of the contained ideas.
Edit #4: “As authors, we should spend sufficient time editing to verify the clarity of our organization, confirm that we haven't left out any key details, correct any grammar errors, and reduce wordiness. Fully engaging in these steps will ensure the clarity, readability, and power of anything we write.”
If the length of the paper and the level of detail are appropriate, I would also recommend splitting the items that group together more closely into their own sentences or clauses as well.
Edit #5: “As authors, we should spend sufficient time transforming our drafts into publishable text. We should revise to verify the clarity of our organization and confirm that we haven't left out any key details. We should edit to reduce wordiness, and we should proofread to correct any grammar errors. Fully engaging in these steps will ensure the clarity, readability, and power of anything we write.”
This fifth edit is 43% (19 words) longer than the draft. The clarity and readability, however, are immeasurably improved.
Concise writing comes predominantly from organized drafting and revision (guided by the use of outlines) and from effective editing. For the first of the editing tips to be shared in this blog, one tool for cutting weak text will be discussed: removing expletive constructs.
The term expletive derives from the Latin for ''to fill up.'' This is precisely why expletives are a problem in concise writing; “filler material” is antithetical to brevity. Hopefully, we all know already not to use the curse words that sometimes “fill up” a sentence and that are also referred to as expletives. However, few know of us about another commonly used expletive construct. This construct is a combination of a pronoun and a conjugation of the verb “to be.” Examples of such expletive constructs are “it is,” “there are,” and “that was,” though others exist.
Two problems arise from such wording: (a) a weak verb and (b) an improperly located pronominal antecedent. Weak and commonly used verbs like “to be” cause double damage. They rob power from our sentence while also making the sentence wordier. To make matters worse, expletive constructs combine this double damage with a confusing word order relationship between a pronoun and its antecedent (noun reference). As the Latin origin of the word antecedent shows us, the noun should almost always be placed (-cedent) before (ante-) the pronoun. If we fail to do so, the meaning of the pronoun becomes unclear at the time it is read. Even if the pronoun might be clarified later, we do not want this lack of detail to interrupt the reader's understanding. (A rare exception to this antecedent placement rule is when the pronoun occurs in a subordinate clause at the start of the sentence, as the subordinating conjunction at the beginning of the subordinate clause already creates a context of adding information to a clause yet to come).
In order to strengthen your sentences, it is recommended that you cut expletives from your text. These examples explore some possible ways to do so.
Replace the expletive construct (underlined) by moving the subject (bold font) of the strongest verb (italicized) to the beginning of the sentence.
“There are many mistakes a writer can make.”
“A writer can make many mistakes.”
Replace the expletive construct (underlined) with the antecedent (bold font) and its containing phrase and change the verb (italicized) to a stronger one.
“It is a more powerful authorial voice to be concise.”
“Conciseness improves any authorial voice.”
Cut the expletive. (underlined)
“There are many strategies that improve authorial voice.”
“Many strategies improve authorial voice.”
Put this tool to use in your next editing project and see how your text improves!
Some of the older people reading this blog may remember the cards we used to lay on our keyboards that showed the commands we could use in a particular computer program. By holding shift, alt, or control, we could use the function keys to perform a wide range of tasks with a few keystrokes.
Since the introduction of menus to contain these commands and the growth of the mouse as an input device, most of us have shifted away from using the keyboard shortcuts. However, every major function is still assigned a keyboard shortcut, so knowing a few of them can be very useful. Some of these shortcuts are the same in almost all programs, so learning the shortcuts for one program can often pay off in our general computer usage.
In this blog, I will share some of the most useful keyboard shortcuts for academic writers. The abbreviations that will be used are: Shft (Shift), Ctrl (Control). With the exception of Ctrl-g, most commands are standardized across most available programs.
Once, this was an absolutely critical tool for writers. Since the introduction of autosave functions in word processors, it has lost some of its unique value. However, many good writers are still in the habit of hitting Ctrl-s whenever there is a pause in their writing process.
Ctrl-Shft-S (Save as)
This allows you to save the current file under a new name. This can be very useful at the end of a writing session. On the one hand, it can allow you to save your file to a backup (truly serious users should consider automatic backup utilities). It can also be used to make changes, save the file as a different name, and then compare the original file to your modified form. Users should be aware that, if you open a saved file, make changes, and then use save as without saving to the original file first, the original file will ''revert'' to the version that you originally opened. The changes you made will only be contained in the new file.
Use this shortcut to find specific spellings and phrases in a word processor, pdf viewer, web browser, or operating system. This is particularly useful when looking for a specific citation (if you know some of the words used).
Ctrl-g (Find again)
Some programs do not include this shortcut. However, in programs that do, you can repeat the previous search even after closing the search window by pressing this shortcut at a later time.
This shortcut is useful for a variety of purposes. My personal favorite use is to combine the print action with an installation of a print-to-pdf feature in my browser and store research in folders designated for each project.
Ctrl-c (Copy to clipboard)
Ctrl-x (Cut information from document and place on clipboard)
Ctrl-v (Paste information from the clipboard into the
The clipboard is an amazing aid to revision and editing. The clipboard is a software component of all current Operating Systems. It stores information for later ''pasting'' into new locations. Note that only one item can be stored on the clipboard at a time, so adding a new item will clear the prior contents.
Switch between running programs (such as a browser and a word processor).
Ctrl-z (Undo last action)
Ctrl-y (Redo the next previously-undone action)
Many word processors allow you to undo actions one at time going all the way back to the last time the file was saved. Redo reverses an undone action.
Ctrl-Left Arrow or Ctrl-Right Arrow (move one word at a time)
Admittedly, a mouse or the page up and page down buttons on the keyboard are probably more useful than these shortcuts. However, from time to time, navigating one word at a time (instead of one character at a time with the arrow keys) is useful as well.
Hopefully this blog has given you new knowledge about some useful functions of your computer. Now get out there and learn to apply them!
We must, at times, combine multiple recommendations from the APA Manual. For example, classical documents typically do not receive a References page entry. Normally, we only cite them in-text. However, if we use a less commonly known document and if we need to refer to that document as a major subsection of our research, we should probably consider a Reference entry format. We might also consider this option if the standard requirements for citing a classical text might be bulky or confusing. This is especially true for works that do not fit the “major classical works” format (APA Manual, p. 179).
In such cases, web references could be used if available, but this might mean counting a very large number of paragraphs when the document is listed on a single web page (see location citations in unpaginated documents, para. 6.05, pp. 171-172). We might run into other problems with web sites that chop up larger texts to make them more viewable in a web browser (creating non-universal sections, which might be confusing to the reader). Many of our web searches will find text derived from specific printings that are now in the public domain. For universality of reference, we should shape our reference around the original text, as the text is likely not housed in a single online repository, but many.
If referencing ancient documents, we would need to include a large number of details about the edition we used. The original author and title, of course, are still central, as is the year of publication. Translator information is important if it can be located. If the text is in a book that is a collection of multiple texts, we should note that book title, as it indicates the “version” of the text we used. However, many were also published as volumes in a series. If that is the case with our book, we should also list the series. There may be an editor for the single volume, or there may be an overall editor for the series (or both). We should indicate any editorial listings we can find. Finally, because we accessed the material through an online republication, we need to include a URL for access, preferably one that refers to a form of the entire book either as a scan or transcribed text.
Step by step, let us consider an example based on referencing Polycarp's “Epistle to the Philippians” as found in a series called Ante-Nicene Fathers. The closest entry to something like this in the APA Manual is example 24 “Electronic version of book chapter in a volume in a series.” In this particular book, the title given by the editors is “The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians.” Note that, though title capitalization is used for this work in our paragraph here, it is shorter than a full book so “Sentence capitalization” seems most appropriate for the title in our Reference entry.
Polycarp. (????). The epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians.
For our next step, we will need publication details. This might not be included in web versions. At this stage, it is ideal to find a link to a complete scan of the volume (usually in pdf format). With some web pages, the direct download link for the pdf will be in a navigation column on the left of the page. With most other online presentations, the book title is listed at the top of the page as a hyperlink, and clicking on that title takes us to an information page on that volume. Then, located on the information page is often an option to download the entire text as a pdf. Use this link to get to the publication information and your page numbers. If neither of these options is available, perform a web search with the Boolean search limiter “filetype:pdf” to see if you can locate one.
Next, reference to the scanned title page (in this case, book page xliii, pdf page 44) shows us that the book title is The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, and we see that this is Volume 1 in a series called Ante-Nicene Fathers. There is an unclear entry for the editor(s), and the publication date is missing, so we will need to look both of those up in a moment. We also do not yet have page numbers and will leave a placeholder for them. We see in example 24 that an individual volume in a series lists the series title first with a colon and then the volume number. It then lists the volume title separated by a period. Because we have url for the pdf, we will also include that at this time. Let us apply this formatting.
Ante-Nicene Fathers: Vol. 1. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and
Irenaeus (pp. xxx-xxx). Retrieved from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.pdf
Now that we have most of the reference in place, let's fill in some of the missing information. Reading the wikipedia article on “The Ante-Nicene Fathers” series, we see that it is a republication of the “Ante-Nicene Christian Library” and that it was edited by A. Cleveland Coxe.
Note: Coxe is the name found on our Title Page scan, even though some web sites list the series editor as Philip Schaff. Reading a few pages from web searches for “Ante-Nicene Fathers Schaff,” we see that our Title Page information is correct, where Schaff's name is not. The original Ante-Nicene Library series was edited by Alexander Roberts and Sir James Donaldson, and our “Fathers” series was later edited from them by Coxe. This example shows how we need to exercise care with some older publications and do our best to verify listings on web site republications whenever possible.
Polycarp. (????). The epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians. In A. C. Coxe (Series Ed.), Ante-Nicene Fathers: Vol. 1. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (pp. xxx-xxx). Retrieved from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.pdf
The wikipedia article also notes that the series was published between 1885 and 1896. Because the Editor's “Introductory Notice” is signed December, 1884, we can reasonably assume an 1885 date for this volume.
Polycarp. (1885). The epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians. In A. C. Coxe (Series Ed.), Ante-Nicene Fathers: Vol. 1. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (pp. xxx-xxx). Retrieved from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.pdf
Next, we turn to the reading itself (or to the table of contents if available) to determine the page range of our passage.
Polycarp. (1885). The epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians. In A. C. Coxe (Series Ed.), Ante-Nicene Fathers: Vol. 1. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (pp. 91-105). Retrieved from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.pdf
Web searches suggest that Roberts and Donaldson (the editors of the “Library” original series) were the translators, so their names are placed after the title of Polycarp's epistle (see example 26, also on page 204). If you are worried about departing from example 24, please note the instructions on page 193 to (a) follow the format closest to your example and (b) include more information when unsure.
Polycarp. (1885). The epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians (A. Roberts & J. Donaldson, Trans.). In A. C. Coxe (Series Ed.), Ante-Nicene Fathers: Vol. 1. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (pp. 91-105). Retrieved fromhttp://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.pdf
Note two things. 1) Though this is a scan of a physical volume, all electronic citations replace the original publisher with the URL or DOI. 2) Individual volume editors are not listed in a larger series. Instead, the series editor is listed.
So there we have it! A complete reference to an ancient letter, translated and collected, then re-edited in a new collection, and then republished online. Though we are referencing a classic work and though the process required more research than journal article entries, we can nevertheless create a clear reference out of the models presented in the Manual.
Certain complicated collections of reference sources can arise in our projects. Because cutting edge research is usually led by a few specialized researchers, you may often find sources with overlapping or identical authors. We might have multiple articles by the same authors, multiple articles with the same lead author, or articles by the same author published in the same year. How do we decide which goes first in the references page? The sorting priorities are (a) author, (b) publication time, (c) title. Use the following chart to sort out commonly confusing entries.
If you ever take up the topic of drafting with one of our Writing Center consultants, you might feel overwhelmed by the number of different ideas available to help us draft quickly. Once upon a time, I thought this information didn't apply to me, and that I produced better papers by editing the first draft as I wrote it. I thought that the time of drafting was the best time to be focused on the details. Little did I know the benefit to having draft earlier, to adding thoughts any time they occur, and to having more time to let the language evolve.
In the end, though, it turns out that I was taking a lot more time to draft than I thought. Imagine my surprise when, after learning to draft more quickly, I also found the texts to be stronger than my earlier drafts and to need less editing. I can't guarantee that everyone will experience such a drop in their project times. One thing is for sure, though. Writing consultants at all levels focus on unlocking this method of drafting text more quickly.
Once I realized the benefit of quick drafting, the question became how to quickly apply an outline or organization to my thoughts in a way that didn't reawaken the sleeping critical voice and thus begin again the wrestling match of ideas that creates most writer's block. If my earlier work hadn't prepared me to speak about a subtopic in a clearly organized fashion, I would end up with a lot of repetition, circular statements, and sweeping claims. So I needed a quick way to draft an order without going back into analytical mode. Blueprints, or generic structures that can be applied to a large range of topics, can be very useful in such moments.
Two Basic Blueprints: The Journalism Questions and Increasing Scales
Any of the brainstorming aids can be used as a generic order also. After all, if it meets the goal of speeding up the drafting, you can always change the order of the sections later. The most famous of these brainstorming aids is a group of questions called the “journalism questions.” I have seen very good drafts produced using temporal (time-based) order, spatial organization, and causal order. For me, it was useful to sort information from the personal outward, moving from the individual to families and small groups, to larger groups, and outward to the universal level (as far as truly applies).
For example, if I were describing the office of the President of the United States, I might start by describing the eligibility requirements and the individual powers (such as being commander-in-chief of the military). I would then describe how they act in small group interactions: the cabinet, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the media team. I could then progress to how the office connects to larger groups such as the State of the Union address to Congress, the selection of Supreme Court justices, and their relationship to mass media press.
By this point, my basic outline will be fleshed out sufficiently to give me a map for where I would include any new information and I would have a draft ready to be tweaked, revised, edited, and strengthened with citations. Using one or more of the generic outlines available, it is possible to greatly reduce the time you need to produce well-formatted text. Why not try it out on your next draft?
All of us mark our texts. Some of us even write in the columns. But how many of us start writing while we are still searching for and reading through research sources? Most of us take notes during class, but how many of us rewrite those notes within 24 hours in order to make them easier to study and understand later? The academic schedule is, of course, busy. This is even more true for those students who are also working or performing clinical rounds while attending a program.We need to invest in our ability to access academic information from many angles by listening to lectures, by taking clear notes, by exploring surrounding research, by discussing the ideas aloud, by memorizing key terms, and perhaps most importantly, by being able to put our thoughts into clear, concise writing. Does this all sound like a complex endeavor worthy of its own professional career? In some ways, by feeling this, you are absolutely right. But don't mistake the major leagues for the little league. As students, we are expected to know how to practice all of the skills involved. But we are not expected to be at the level of our professors!
Even though we aren't at a professional level yet, we need to be practicing our fundamentals. Just as little league practice includes batting, pitching, fielding, and running the bases, we should also be regularly working on each of the skills involved in academic study. By doing so, the whole “game” becomes more familiar to us. We should always be reading materials in our field. But for most of us, reading is not in quite as much need of practice.
What coach would keep their job if they didn't help the teammates identify their weaknesses and spend extra time in each practice building those skills? What is the weakest part of academic study for most of us? For most of us, writing is easily the most challenging skill. Even those of us with great instincts make countless mistakes in our writing we only realize much later. Do yourself a favor. As you are coaching yourself to be a better writer, remember to find ways to practice academic writing daily.
Here are some ideas that can help you get at least a few minutes practice in each day: