Tag Archives: Proofreading

Style Sheets

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you will know that I’ve spent the last few years working on a book about graduate writing. That process is now drawing to a close: Thriving as a Graduate Writer will be published in June! Between now and then, I’m going to use this space to share brief excerpts. In addition to my discussion of principles, strategies, and habits for effective academic writing, the book has short ‘asides’ that allowed me to engage with topics outside that main narrative. Over the next four months, I’ll share my favourites of those asides. As always, I’d love to hear what you think!

Book Cover showing title: Thriving as a Graduate Writer

Style Sheets

As early in the drafting process as you can manage, I always recommend creating a document-specific style sheet. A style sheet is nothing more than a record of your decisions, created for the purpose of maximal consistency. The easiest way to create a style sheet is to pay attention to the decisions you make as you go along and then record them. You may have thought that a choice was obvious or that an issue was inconsequential; no matter, if you had to pause to make a writing-related decision, record it in your style sheet. This process will be different for each writer and each project. If you are writing a thesis, you may be working from a provided template that will mercifully cut down on formatting decisions. If you are using a citation manager, you may be spared too much worry about citation formatting. But you will still make a great many decisions as you write, so why not increase efficiency by making those decisions only once? One reason that we fail to take this simple step is that we imagine—at that moment of decision—that we will remember our decision. In fact, we often remember having decided without being able to remember what that decision actually was. Did you choose pre-modern, Premodern, or premodern? Do you use future or present tense for prospective signposting? Do you put the punctuation inside or outside the quotation marks? Do you indent the first line of a paragraph or add an additional space? At what point do you stop spelling out numbers and present them as numerals? Did your abbreviation include the plural, or will you make the abbreviation plural as needed? Are you using the serial comma? Do you know what terms in your field are capitalized or italicized? To answer some of these questions may require consulting resources—such as your disciplinary style guide—but you want to avoid checking those cumbersome resources repeatedly. Instead, once you have resolved an issue, put it in your style sheet. Your future self will thank you.

Thriving as a Graduate Writer will be available in early June from the University of Michigan Press. To pre-order your copy, visit the book page. Order online and save 30% with discount code UMS23!

Links: Feedback for Thesis Writers, Post-Academic Careers, Limitations of Spellcheck

Here is an interesting discussion from Rachel Toor in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the writing feedback that is given to thesis writers. Surprisingly, she is discussing what to think when someone says that you ‘write too well’! Toor addresses two possible meanings of this odd utterance. First, she discusses the idea that good writing is somehow inappropriate and suspect in a dissertation. Second, she considers whether ‘you write too well’ is a sort of code for ‘your ideas aren’t that good’. Needless to say, using the term ‘good writing’ as that sort of backhanded compliment would be an outrageous misuse of the term. Toor sums up what one should do if confronted by this unexpected comment: “… if someone ever tells you that you write too well, ask him for an explanation and be prepared to hear something that will cause you to do more work. If, however, he proceeds to make the case that the language shouldn’t matter in scholarly writing, that clarity isn’t important, that good sentences are a waste of academic time, sue that idiot for scholarly malpractice.”

This recent column, also from The Chronicle of Higher Education, covers familiar ground: the graduate student experience. Between the article itself and the vigorous comment stream, the pertinent issues—micro and macro—are well covered. I kept the link but thought it unlikely that I would include it here—what else is there to add? But then I saw this related but very different post from the ProfHacker blog on post-academic careers; the post highlights the value of a good understanding of our professional options and our own vocational inclinations. My question, after reading these two articles, is how the narrative of graduate student misery affects the development of such awareness. It seems possible that the general and accepted level of unhappiness about graduate school may serve to obscure specific unhappiness. If all graduate students are miserable and expected to be so, how does any individual graduate student learn that he or she might just not like this type of work? Similarly, it can be hard to interpret the pleasure derived from non-academic work when such work is often framed as nothing more than an illegitimate way of avoiding the legitimate tasks of academic work.

Lastly, here is something fun on the limitations of spellcheck programs. You’ve probably read or seen something like this before, but Taylor Mali’s enthusiastic wordplay (and occasional profanity) is sure to focus your attention on what your spellchecker might be missing.