Verbs (from the archives)

Over the summer, I’m drawing from the early months of this blog and reposting the key principles and strategies. These foundational posts ground much of what was to follow; revisiting them will give new readers insight into the basic orientation of the blog and will give regular readers a reminder of where we started. In this post, I talk about the importance of expressing the action in your sentences with strong verbs

VERBS

One of the challenges of writing this blog is going to be the somewhat arbitrary division of topics. My hope is that this initial weakness will ultimately become a strength. At this point, the blog consists of a collection of distinct topics, an arrangement that does not reflect the way writing topics interconnect. But in the long run, I hope that the non-linear form of the blog will actually offer something valuable. By establishing multiple links between posts, I hope to create a cohesive whole, one that allows readers to combine related topics according to their own needs. Stay tuned to see if that actually happens! For now, I am going to try to talk about verbs without stealing any thunder from next week’s discussion of subjects.

Joseph Williams suggests that we are troubled by writing in which the action is not expressed by verbs. I am going to explore this idea using two examples, one taken from Williams and one adapted from student writing:

1. Our lack of knowledge about local conditions precluded determination of committee action effectiveness in fund allocation to those areas in greatest need of assistance. (Williams, Style, p. 17)

 According to Williams, most of us will dislike this sentence. While it is a hard sentence to like, Williams’s point is that this adverse reaction alone is not a particularly helpful editorial judgment. We need to know what it is about this sentence that does not work. His answer is that the action in the sentence is not expressed through strong verbs. What is the action in this sentence? Someone did not know something; something did not get determined; someone allocated something; some place needed something. In each case, however, those actions were expressed through nouns: knowledgedeterminationallocationneed. Here is Williams’s rewrite (emphasis added):

2. Because we knew nothing about local conditions, we could not determine how effectively the committee had allocated funds to areas that most needed assistance. (Williams, Style, p. 17)

Here is the second example:

1. Although there has long been contestation as to the meaning of literacy, there is some agreement among scholars that this new definition is complementary rather than contradictory to the essence of the term.

Again, we look for the action in the sentence to see whether that action is being expressed through verbs. When we find nouns instead, we can try changing them to verbs: contestation becomes has been contested and agreement becomes agree.

2. Although the meaning of literacy has long been contested, scholars largely agree that this new definition complements rather than contradicts the essence of the term.

 (Note that I have also changed is complementary and is contradictory to complements and contradicts. This is a related topic that we will look at in a future post.)

We will return to these sentences next week when we discuss the need for clear subjects.

Originally published March 2, 2011

Transitions (from the archives)

Over the summer, I’m drawing from the early months of this blog and reposting the key principles and strategies. These foundational posts ground much of what was to follow; revisiting them will give new readers insight into the basic orientation of the blog and will give regular readers a reminder of where we started. In this post, I talk about making effective transitions. This topic gets further elaborated in these later posts: Semicolons; Colons; Lists; Signposting and Metadiscourse; and Full Stop.

TRANSITIONS

This week’s topic is another key strategy: making effective transitions. A lack of comfort with making transitions is one of the causes of the short paragraphs I mentioned last week; when we do not know how to make smooth transitions, we are more likely to add in unnecessary paragraph breaks, imagining that starting a new paragraph will solve the problem. But creating short, choppy paragraphs only exacerbates the problem. Instead, we must focus on creating effective transitions between sentences, which we generally do in one of two ways: we use transition words or we use textual linkages. Both strategies have a role to play, but novice writers, unfortunately, often see transition words as their only way of moving from sentence to sentence. This over-reliance on transition words  is actually detrimental to our writing and blinds us to the possibility of using textual linkages to create more meaningful connections between sentences. Transition words are easy and thus allow us to avoid the hard work of grasping the actual connections in our texts. Indeed, texts full of transition words may actually feel choppy because unnecessary transition words can obscure the true nature of the relationship among sentences.

I promise to return to this rich topic in detail in future posts, but for now I will just give a few key principles:

1. Avoid unclear reference. The single most important way of linking your sentences is through clear reference. Contrast these two simple examples:

‘A is connected to B. This is …’

‘A is connected to B. This connection is …’.

Without the summary word (‘connection’), we cannot tell whether the ‘this’ in the first example refers to A, to B, or to the connection between them. We call the pattern shown in the second example ‘this + summary word’. There will be times, of course, when the reference is obvious, but generally the reader needs to have reference made explicit. So a simple principle: never leave a ‘this’ orphaned and alone.

2. Avoid unnecessary transition words. The transition words most likely to fall into this category are the additive ones: ‘in addition’, ‘also’, ‘moreover’, ‘furthermore’. (Both ‘moreover’ and ‘furthermore’ can be correctly used as intensifiers–where one sentence deepens the claim of the previous one–but they are so often used to indicate simple addition that I am including them here.) My first approach to a word like ‘also’ is to remove it; if you are using it to say ‘here comes another related point’, it is probably unnecessary. If you are instead trying to make a more complicated connection, removing ‘also’ and adding a more substantive indication of that link will be far more helpful to the reader.

3. Avoid the mere appearance of causality. When we overuse causal words, we often undermine the actual connection we could be making. When we say ‘A exists. Therefore, I am going to study A.’, we are missing a chance to give an actual rationale for our research. Look closely at your use of causal words (‘therefore’, ‘thus’, ‘hence’) and make sure that they accurately reflect the relationship you are trying to convey.

4. Use transition words to indicate a change of direction in your text. Whenever we are disagreeing with ourselves, it is essential that we indicate this to the reader. Consider these simple examples:

‘There is plentiful evidence for A. I think not-A.’

‘There is plentiful evidence for A. However, I think not-A.’

The first example sounds like you might be unintentionally contradicting yourself; emphasizing your intentions with a ‘but’ or ‘however’ lets the reader know what you are up to.

I will also make two quick points about other types of transitions.

Paragraph transitions generally need to be more robust than those between sentences. This can mean that ‘this + summary word’ becomes  ‘this + summary phrase’, where the phrase is a fuller indication of what was discussed in the previous paragraph. It also means that transition words are often out of place in paragraph transitions precisely because they create such a tight relationship. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but as a general rule words or phrases like ‘however’, ‘in other words’, or ‘furthermore’ may puzzle the reader when they appear at the start of the paragraph; at the very least, they may send the reader back to the previous paragraph and that is not the direction in which you want to be pointing your reader.

Transitions between sections are a different issue again. Transitions between sections can be made in several ways: at the end of one section, at the beginning of another, or at an earlier point at which an overall structure is created. (For instance, in a literature review, a writer may say that she is going to consider the literature on a certain topic from three different perspectives. The reader will then be fine with three independent sections without any explicit transitions between them.) One simple piece of advice for section transitions: do not rely on the section headings to accomplish the transition for you. As a rule of thumb, I suggest reading through section (and sub-section) headings as though they were not there. Not that they should actually be removed, but rather that the author should make sure that transitions are accomplished in the text, not through headings.

Originally published February 23, 2011

Paragraphs (from the archives)

Over the summer, I’m drawing from the early months of this blog and reposting the key principles and strategies. These foundational posts ground much of what was to follow; revisiting them will give new readers insight into the basic orientation of the blog and will give regular readers a reminder of where we started. In this post, I talk about the importance of paragraphs. This topic gets further elaborated in these later posts: What Are Your Paragraphs Doing For You? and Breaking Points.

PARAGRAPHS

This week’s topic is the importance of the paragraph as a ‘unit of discourse’. Novice writers tend to think of both full texts and sentences as areas for improvement, but they give less thought to the role of the paragraph. They recognize, of course, that a full text must possess a certain communicative goal, and they understand that sentences are the building blocks of the whole. But paragraphs? In my experience, these intermediate units are consistently neglected. This neglect greatly underestimates the important role that paragraphs play for the reader. A paragraph break means something to a reader; when we move from one paragraph to another, we imagine that we are leaving one thought (or issue or topic or argument or point or perspective or piece of evidence) and moving on to another. We attempt, in other words, to find some unity within a paragraph and to discern some diversity between paragraphs. When the writer has not managed paragraphs well, those attempts will lead us—consciously or not—to be disappointed. Most of us benefit from adding paragraphs to our list of things that must be effective if our writing is to succeed. To that end, here is my list of four things I wish every academic writer knew about paragraphs:

1. That they are very important. Simply stated, effort should be devoted to working on paragraphs, as well as on sentences and full papers.

2. That they usually need a topic sentence. The ‘usually’ is there to avoid the appearance of dogmatism, but I do in fact advise writers to start with the assumption that every paragraph will require a topic sentence. The main exceptions are introductory paragraphs (which often, in effect, act as a kind of topic sentence for the whole text), transitional paragraphs (which exist to signal a significant shift in topic), and serial paragraphs (all of which refer back to a single topic).

3. That they should be thematically linked. The rest of the sentences should be recognizably about the theme announced in the topic sentence. These thematic linkages should also involve noticeable linguistic linkages, accomplished through strategic repetition and the use of key terms.

4. That their length is meaningful. The length of a paragraph should be determined by the demands of content, not by the number of sentences or space taken up on the page. When I ask students for the rationale behind a paragraph break, they frequently say something to the effect of ‘I thought it had gone long enough’. (The phrase ‘my high school English teacher always said …’ also comes up a lot in this regard, but the ongoing trauma of a high school English education will have to be a topic for a future post!)

Paying more attention to paragraphs will improve their internal cohesion. But this attention to paragraphs is also a key way to improve the overall coherence of a text. As I have said repeatedly, our willingness to revise can be undermined by the difficulty of finding our way into a text. But once that text is reduced to a series of paragraphs—each of which has an explicit role to play—we are better able to think about the overall demands of structure.

Originally published February 16, 2011

 

 

Reverse Outlines (from the archives)

Over the summer, I’m drawing from the early months of this blog and reposting the key principles and strategies. These foundational posts ground much of what was to follow; revisiting them will give new readers insight into the basic orientation of the blog and will give regular readers a reminder of where we started. In this post, I talk about reverse outlines. This topic gets further elaborated in these later posts: Literature Reviews and Reverse Outlines; The Perils of Local Cohesion; and Truth in Outlining.

Reverse Outlines

Over the coming weeks, I will discuss five key strategies for improving academic writing. I have chosen these five simply because they are the ones that I most frequently turn to in my work with students. I have ordered them roughly from global to local, starting with a strategy for overall coherence and ending with common sentence problems. It is generally more efficient to treat broader structural issues before spending time on individual sentences; the structural edit, done right, can dramatically change a text. You do not want to expend energy on sentence-level improvements before making some broader decisions about what will stay and what will go.

The first strategy—and definitely my favourite—is the reverse outline. Reverse outlines are outlines that we create from an existing text. Regardless of whether you create an outline before you write, creating one after you have written a first draft can be invaluable. A reverse outline will reveal the structure—and thus the structural problems—of a text. The steps to creating a reverse outlines are simple:

1. Number your paragraphs. (Paragraphs are the essential unit of analysis here; next week we will look at why paragraphs are so important.)

2. Identify the topic of each paragraph. At this point, you can also make note of the following:

a. Is there a recognizable topic sentence?

b. How long is the paragraph?

i. Does the topic seem sufficiently developed?

ii. Is there more than one topic in the paragraph?

3. Arrange these topics in an outline.

4. Analyze this outline, assessing the logic (where elements have been placed in relation to one another) and the proportion (how much space is being devoted to each element).

5. Use this analysis to create a revised outline.

6. Use this revised outline to reorganize your text.

7. Go back to your answers in 2a and 2b to help you create topic sentences and cohesion in your paragraphs.

This strategy is effective because it creates an objective distance between you and your text. A reverse outline acts as a way into a text that might otherwise resist our editorial efforts. As we discussed when we looked at revision, we often find our drafts disconcerting: we know they are flawed but making changes can seem risky. A reverse outline can give us purpose and direction as we undertake the valuable process of restructuring our work.

Understanding the Needs of Your Reader (from the archives)

Over the summer, I’m drawing from the early months of this blog and reposting the key principles and strategies. These foundational posts ground much of what was to follow; revisiting them will give new readers insight into the basic orientation of the blog and will give regular readers a reminder of where we started. In this post, I talk about understanding the needs of your reader. This topic gets further elaborated in these later posts: Scaffolding Phrases; Problem Sentences; Audience and Anxiety; and One-Way Trip.

Understanding the Needs of Your Reader

The third principle that informs my approach to academic writing is understanding the needs of your reader. This principle relies on the simple but surprisingly elusive idea that the reader’s needs are different from our own. What we need to say—especially as we struggle with the early stages of writing—and what our readers will need to hear can be strikingly different. Extensive revision is the solution for this dilemma, but, as we discussed last week, early drafts often confound us. Revisiting those texts with the needs of the reader in mind can be extremely helpful. The reader always has expectations, some that are conscious and others that are unconscious. Conscious expectations come from genre or disciplinary conventions (these are the expectations readers have before they ever read your text) and also from promises made by the writer (these are expectation readers have after reading the early passages of your text). Unconscious expectations are more complex and involve anticipation about the placement of information, particularly within paragraphs and sentences. Strategies for meeting these expectations will be a large part of our focus in this blog.

These three principles will act as the grounding for the more practical discussions of writing that are still to come in this blog. For now I would like to comment briefly on the source that knits these three ideas together: Joseph Williams. Nobody, in my view, has done more to explain the normative dimensions of sound writing or to advance a practical approach to improving our own writing than Joseph Williams. His ideas will be present throughout this blog. So I will conclude with a quote from Williams that expresses all three principles as one idea: “We write the first draft for ourselves; the drafts thereafter increasingly for the reader” (Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, p. x). In other words, we must write to figure out what we think; we must commit to writing a succession of drafts; and we must alter those drafts according to the anticipated demands of the reader.

Originally published January 26, 2011

 

Committing to Extensive Revision (from the archives)

Over the summer, I’m drawing from the early months of this blog and reposting the key principles and strategies. These foundational posts ground much of what was to follow; revisiting them will give new readers insight into the basic orientation of the blog and will give regular readers a reminder of where we started. In this post, I talk about committing to extensive revision. This topic gets further elaborated in these later posts: Remembering to Edit; Bad News, Good News; Best Laid Plans; A Cut-and-Paste Job; and Between Drafting and Editing

Committing to Extensive Revision

The second key principle that informs my approach to academic writing is committing to extensive revision. Most people will readily agree that more revision would improve their writing. But despite this widespread recognition of the importance of revision, many writers simply do not make revision an essential part of their writing process. One reason for this resistance is that many writers believe their own first drafts to be uniquely flawed; in other words, they think the weakness of the first draft comes from their lack of writing skill rather than from the intrinsic weakness of any first draft. As a result, they have little faith in their ability to fix what ails their writing. I suggest a shift in perspective: rather than worrying that your writing requires an exceptional amount of revision, try thinking that all writing requires a great deal of revision. A first draft must be evaluated as stringently as we can, but there is no need to apply those harsh standards to ourselves as writers. This caution is important since very few people excel at writing first drafts; the tendency towards self-criticism means that the initial draft becomes a source of frustration rather than a valuable starting point. Accepting that the writing process must be iterative makes it easier to understand that writing will rarely be suitable for a reader without extensive revision.

Another obstacle that stands in the way of revision is the fact that many writers are stymied by their own drafts. When I ask students to bring me a piece of their writing with their own changes marked on the pages, those suggested changes are generally tentative and minor. Our own written texts can seem daunting; they may be flawed, but they do possess a certain unity and coherence. Changing them can be more challenging than letting them stand, even with their manifest weaknesses. However, we must be willing to treat our own texts as essentially mutable, as raw material that will eventually take the requisite shape.

Suggesting that good writing requires extensive revision is obviously not particularly novel writing advice. What we all need are revision strategies, and those will come in future posts. For now, my goal is simply to discuss the principles that underlie those strategies. Next we will look at the third of these principles: understanding the needs of your reader.

Originally published January 19, 2011

Using Writing to Clarify Your Own Thinking (from the archives)

Over the summer, I’m drawing from the early months of this blog and reposting the key principles and strategies. These foundational posts ground much of what was to follow; revisiting them will give new readers insight into the basic orientation of the blog and will give regular readers a reminder of where we started. In this post, I talk about using writing to clarify your own thinking. This topic gets further elaborated in these later posts: Letting GoThe Discomforts of UncertaintyIs It All Writing?; and Writing as Thinking.

Using Writing to Clarify Your Own Thinking

Over the next three weeks, I am going to discuss the three principles that I see as crucial for strong academic writing. Today’s post will stress the connection between writing and thinking. Next week, we will discuss the essentially iterative nature of academic writing. And, in the following week, we will consider the role that audience awareness plays in the choices we make in our academic writing.

The first principle is using writing to clarify your own thinking. This principle holds that it is often difficult to establish what we think before we have put it down in words. In many cases, we simply do not know what we want to say until we have tried to say it. But if we cannot decide what we want to say without writing and if we cannot write without a solid idea about what we want to say, we are in an obvious bind. For most of us, the best way out of this dilemma is to write. To take a generic example, we may have spent a good deal of time thinking about two connected issues without ever having specified the exact nature of their relationship. When we write about this relationship, however, the demands of syntax will naturally encourage us to characterize the relationship more precisely. The text we create may be provisional, but it will still help to refine our thinking. Even if we are puzzled or surprised or disappointed by what we have written, we are still ahead of where we were before writing.

As a practical matter, this principle translates into a simple call to write more. Rather than postponing writing until you know what you want to say, use writing to figure out what you want to say. While this is generally sound advice, this call for more exploratory writing must come with a warning. Writing more freely means that we will need strategies for working with those provisional texts we create. Writing earlier and in a more exploratory mode often leaves us with texts that are less coherent than we might like. More freedom in the writing process demands more responsiveness in the revision process; the importance of committing to extensive revision will be our next topic.

Originally published January 12, 2011