Friday, November 13, 2009

Writing Concise Sentences

The grammar site I wrote about last time was:

One of my cohorts in teaching social work students writing and I are in love with this grammar site and we adore this particular page, on “Writing Concise Sentences.” It is a goal of mine to get students to write more concisely, to “omit needless words” as Strunk & White state and to “prune the redundant,” as per this web site. I often tell my students "If you can cut out a word(s) from a sentence and the meaning and grammar of that sentence still hold up, cut out that word(s)."

I am going to give just a few examples of the gems of this page.

Beware of:

Personally, I think: use instead: I think

My personal opinion: use instead: My opinion

Refer back to : use instead: Refer to

Small/large in size: use instead: Small/large

Summarize briefly: use instead: Summarize

The future to come: use instead: The future

Phrases to Omit:

NO: All things considered, cognitive treatment is most effective.

YES: Cognitive treatment is most effective.

NO: As a matter of fact, it showed that all subjects had improvement.

YES: All subjects improved.

NO: Because of the fact that they are minors, teens are subject to fewer penalties.

YES: Teens are subject to fewer penalties.

NO: What I meant to say is that social justice is our primary concern.

YES: Social justice is our primary concern.

NO: Needless to say, this was a big breakthrough.

YES: This was a big breakthrough.

Keep writing! Concisely!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Grammar and Writing Resource

A colleague sent me the link to a Grammar and Writing Guide:

So far, it looks good with helpful information: from the site:
"This index includes 427 references to both the Guide to grammar and Writing and Principles of composition."

For example of part of an entry on the passive voice:

Verbs are also said to be either active (The executive committee approved the new policy) or passive (The new policy was approved by the executive committee) in voice. In the active voice, the subject and verb relationship is straightforward: the subject is a be-er or a do-er and the verb moves the sentence along. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is neither a do-er or a be-er, but is acted upon by some other agent or by something unnamed (The new policy was approved). Computerized grammar checkers can pick out a passive voice construction from miles away and ask you to revise it to a more active construction. There is nothing inherently wrong with the passive voice, but if you can say the same thing in the active mode, do so (see exceptions below). Your text will have more pizzazz as a result, since passive verb constructions tend to lie about in their pajamas and avoid actual work.

Keep writing!

Monday, November 2, 2009

APA 6th Edition: Corrections

APA 6th Edition has errors and here’s what to do (from APA)

If you are one of the many students (or others) who purchased the 6th edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2009) you need to know that there were apparently enough errors to require reprinting. You have several options to get the correct information you need:

Option 1: Corrections Supplement via the web: Go to the APA or APA style homepages on the web to find a link to the corrections supplement:
( or Purchasers can download or print the supplement: the supplement notes all known errors. The PDF version of the corrections supplement is available now.

Option 2: Corrections Supplement by mail. We will send out printed versions of the corrections summary upon request. Please note that the supplement is currently in production, the printed version is expected to be available on November 2.

Option 3: Replacement Copy: After reviewing the corrections supplement and the nature of the text errors, if a purchaser still feels they want a replacement copy of the manual we will provide one at no charge. We expect to begin shipping these replacement copies
on November 2.

IMPORTANT: In order to receive a replacement copy the purchaser will have to return their current copy of the manual (6th edition) to APA directly. The return must be in transit to or received by APA no later than December 15th, 2009. The returned copy requirement is to
protect APA against those first printing copies reemerging on the secondary market and therefore hurting future sales.

We would like to make this return as cost neutral to the customer as possible. We are researching being able to provide pre-paid postage hat purchases can use to return their current copy of the manual. We expect to have this system up and running by November 2.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Cliches and annoying words

This somewhat relates to my entry on cliches from July '08.

A fun note from: The Marist Institute poll (2009):

Most Annoying Words:

“If you’re like, “whatever,” and someone gives you a mean look, just remember it is what it is – certain sayings rub people the wrong way, you know? Anyway, at the end of the day, who cares?

If the above paragraph thoroughly irritated you, you’re probably not alone. The question is, which word or phrase bothered you the most?

Chances are it was “whatever.” In a recent Marist poll, nearly half of Americans – 47% – said they find “whatever” most annoying. The other sayings weren’t quite so loathed. 25% say they find “you know” most grating; 11% can’t stand “it is what it is”; 7% would like to ban “anyway” from all verbal exchanges; and 2% reported that they could do without hearing “at the end of the day.”

Interestingly, if you’re traveling to the Midwest, it might be especially wise to leave your store of “whatevers” at home. 55% of residents in that region dislike the term, while only 19% of them disapprove of “you know.” In contrast, 35% of Northeast residents say “whatever” is most annoying, while 32% are most bothered by “you know” (2009, para. 1-4).

Keep writing!

Monday, October 5, 2009

How to read a journal article

The response to the title of this entry is “it depends” (the favorite answer in social work!) How you read and the goal of reading an article vary from paper to paper, class to class, professor to professor. It also varies according to your level of education (undergrad versus graduates, first year MSW versus 2nd year versus advanced standing). If you have had coursework in research methods and statistics, you will read the article differently than if you have not. In addition, different students have different skills and abilities when it comes to understanding results.

Reed and Ellis (2003) give some guidelines for beginning social work students and most undergraduates, as follows:

How to read a research article:

1. Read the Abstract, Introduction and Discussion sections first.

2. Abstract: is a short summary of the paper.

3. Introduction: answers the questions “Why was the study done?” “What were the researchers hoping to accomplish?” “Does this study seek to repeat (replicate) another study or fill a gap in knowledge?” “Does this study disprove, update or confirm another study?”

4. Discussion: answers “What did the study find?” “What are the implications of the findings?” “How do the researchers explain discrepancies or unexpected findings?” “Were result marred by mistakes or poor methods?” “Where do we go from here? What’s next?”

5. Next, check the literature review to gain background on the study. “What has been done before?” “How does this study fit in?”

6. Skim the results section.

Generally, look for answers to the following questions as you read the article:

1. Why was this study done?

2. What were the assumptions that guided this study?

3. What have other people said about this issue?

4. What other studies have been done on this issue?

5. How was the study done?

6. How were possible errors accounted for?

7. What are the implications of the results?

8. What are the ethical considerations?

9. What theories were used?

10. How well was this study done?

11. What variables were studied?

(Derived from Reed, C. & Ellis, CA. (2003). New Directions for Writers: College Writing and the World of Work. NY: Longman, p. 247-252).

Students in MSW programs have generally had more coursework in statistics and research methods, as well as more experience reading journal articles, than undergraduates. MSW students may be expected to do more than “skim” the results section and should read the entire article. You might want to talk to your professor to determine what you will be expected to understand and critique regarding statistical analysis. It would be great if you develop enough proficiency to critique statistical methods. In addition, it is probably expected that MSW students pay more attention to the methods section of research papers than undergrads and be able to critique this section (Why did the researchers make certain choices? What was good/bad? What might have worked better? Were there errors in the method that might affect the result of the study?). It is always a good idea to try to use peer-reviewed or refereed journal articles in writing your papers. These met a higher standard of excellence than non-reviewed articles. Such articles are reviewed by experts in the field and by editors who do often examine the statistics to insure they were done properly. When you are searching through databases for articles, you can often click on “peer reviewed only” through advanced search features.

Keep writing!

Friday, October 2, 2009

The doi and APA

The doi

A student requested I write about the doi, tell what it is, how to find it and how to use it.

Because documents on the internet may be moved around, international publishers developed a system called the doi or “document object identifier.” This number, which always begins with 10, is a number that will permanently mark and follow that document, making retrieval at a later date easier. Not all documents currently have a doi, though they are being assigned over time.

In the past, when you have referenced a journal article using APA (5th edition) you listed the retrieved on date and either the database from where you got the article OR the URL. Now, if there is a doi, you just use that, no retrieval date, no URL, no database name.

The doi’s I have seen are usually fairly easy to find, though some are hidden. I have found them at or near the top or the bottom of the first page of text (which APA recommends), under a copyright statement, or under the publication information. However, sometimes the doi is hidden behind a button (e.g. Article, CrossRef or PubMed button) and you must click on the button to get the doi. Make sure you cut and paste the doi onto your paper, as it is easy to mess up otherwise.

If you find a doi on a journal article, the reference entry will look like:

Washington, G. & Jefferson, T. (2000). Political alliances, past and future.

Journal of American Politics, 17, 33-41. doi 10.1021/2209-6133.22.4.033

(remember to indent every line after the first line within a reference entry 5 spaces- blogspot won't let me do it in the above example).

According to APA 6th edition, the doi can also be found on the database landing page for the article (full record display). It often DOES NOT say "doi" and is a long string of numbers and characters starting with 10.

Keep writing!

Splitting Infinitives

To Split an Infinitive

An infinitive is a verb with the word “to” attached to it. To run, to walk, to argue, to discuss are all infinitives. Splitting an infinitive is interposing an adverb (a word that describes how a verb is done) in between the “to” and the verb. Examples of split infinitives are:

To swiftly run

To slowly walk

To vehemently argue

To loudly discuss

It is technically incorrect and infinitives should not be split, so, instead write:

To run swiftly

To walk slowly

To argue vehemently

To discuss loudly

These are considered to be more correct.

However, some more recent sources (this rule has been around since the 14th century!) suggest that splitting an infinitive is not a big problem. Some sources say it is OK to do when you are trying to emphasize the adjective. I would try to avoid splitting infinitives (I think it makes the verb seem “weaker” somehow) and wanted you to know what this is in the event you are told to NOT do it!

Keep writing!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Misused words

Strunk and White* have a long list of misused or commonly confused words and here are my top five picks, the ones I encounter frequently:

As to whether: whether is sufficient

Not appropriate to use after regard or as:
Don’t do: "He is regarded as being the best cook in the group".
Instead do use: "He is the best cook in the group".
(this use of “as being” weakens your writing as it is unnecessary).

Different than: you are comparing, so use different from.

Irregardless: is not a word. Use regardless.

Less versus fewer: less refers to quantity, fewer to number. “After she moved, we had fewer neighbors.” “As the sand fell, there was less in the top of the hourglass.”

Bonus: that versus which:
That is a defining, or restrictive pronoun.
Which is nondefining, nonrestrictive. What does this mean?
That specifies “The bicycle that is broken is in the shed.” This specifies the broken bicycle.
Which does not specify: the bicycle, which is broken, is in the shed.” In this case, you are incidentally made aware that the bike is broken...or give a fact about the only bicycle.

Double bonus: Dr. T's pet peeve "I honestly feel..." Aren't you always being honest?

*Strunk, W. and White, E.B. (1979). The Elements of Style (3rd ed.). NY: Macmillan.

Keep writing!

Monday, August 31, 2009


Occasionally I learn that a student was writing a paper for class while watching television, talking on the phone, conducting a conversation through text messaging or otherwise engaging in more than one task at a time. I then stare at the student in disbelief. Now, maybe it is just a generational thing, that younger students feels they must be able to do more than one thing at a time, versus people like me "of a certain age." You probably can do more than one thing at a time, but the important question is: can you do it well?

The New York Times recently had a column on multi-tasking. Based on it and my understanding of the writing process, you cannot multi-task and write a thoughtful, analytical, scholarly paper. As Ruth Pennebaker wrote on August 30, 2009:

Last week, researchers at Standford University published a study showing that the most persistent multitaskers perform badly in a variety of tasks. They don’t focus as well as non-multitaskers. They’re more distractible. They’re weaker at shifting from one task to another and at organizing information. They are, as a matter of fact, worse at multitasking than people who don’t ordinarily multitask.

“Multitaskers were just lousy at everything,” said Clifford I. Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford and one of the study’s investigators. “It was a complete and total shock to me....”

Initially suspecting that multitaskers possessed some rare and enviable qualities that helped them process simultaneous channels of information, Professor Nass had been “in awe of them,” he said, acknowledging that he himself is “dreadful” at multitasking. “I was sure they had some secret ability. But it turns out that high multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy.”

The full article can be found at:

Writing is a thoughtful process. It involves thinking through your paper, organizing it, writing, editing and editing again. It can be done in "chunks" of time, but these work periods need to be long, uninterrupted and focused.

Keep writing!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Abused Apostrophe

The Abused Apostrophe

By M. Roberts, Guest Blogger

Such a small thing can make a BIG difference in one’s writing. It can affect the entire meaning of a word or sentence. The apostrophe, ( ’ or ' ) is a punctuation mark, and a diacritical mark (accent mark). It may seem like a tiny matter to a student when writing a formal paper, but when it changes the gist of a thought, it is a BIG deal. Incorrect use of an apostrophe can lower one’s grade substantially.

Here are a few rules to remember and follow about the little apostrophe:

1. s Use this at the end of a noun to make it possessive.

For example: Mary’s purse, Bob’s dog, Lillian’s home, Charles’s friend (note that Charles ends with an s? Whatever the noun ends with, one STILL puts the apostrophe at the end of the noun).

2. ‘s In this case, the apostrophe is a contraction, meaning the two words: it is.

For example: It’s 8:00, it’s time to go, it’s all right, it’s my name, it’s your book, it’s fine, it’s the name of the class, it’s the best one yet, it’s going to be OK. (Do not forget, however, in formal papers contractions are not necessarily proper nor allowed.)

3. Its. The word. Often students wrongly place an apostrophe in this word when it is not needed. This is a gender neutral word, which is quite appropriate in formal writing. Use this word when one refers to groups of people:

For example: The researchers kept all subjects to its same rigorous standards. There is a place for everything, and everything has its place. Children and dogs scrambled to get out of its way.

Monday, July 13, 2009


What’s wrong with this sentence?

“At the end of the day, the numbers speak for themselves.” (I actually heard this on the radio recently).

This sentence is an attempt to illustrate what happens when you write using clichés.

A cliché is an overused expression or idea, one that, over time, has lost its meaning or strength. When you write using a cliché, your meaning is often unclear, your writing can seem trivial and the cliché, though overused, may not be fully understood by your reader. Clichés are neither formal nor specific enough for scholarly writing.

Other common clichés include:
Perfect storm
Day in and day out
Hour of need
The real deal
Short and sweet
Off the beaten track
A matter of life and death
A dog’s life
No such thing as a free lunch
With all due respect
Beyond the pale
The light at the end of the tunnel
Stand on your own two feet
Bone of contention

So, how to fix the sentence above, that is:
“At the end of the day, the numbers speak for themselves.”

I would try to substitute clear, formal and accurate statements that contain evidence for the two clichés. Here are a few examples:

The result of the program was a 22% decrease in feelings of depression and isolation in nursing home residents (site your source here!!!)
Evidence suggests that the policy change resulted in improved nutritional status for school lunch program participants versus non-participants (again cite your source!!!)

Final program evaluation showed no decline in teen sexual activity in program participants versus controls (again cite your source!!!)

Keep writing!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Since Versus Because

Since Versus Because

I am writing about a “rule” in written English that is controversial, involving when to use the word “since” and when to use the word “because.” The rule used to be (and to some of us still is) that “since” is used when you want to denote the passage of time, that is:

“The store has been in operation since 1985.”


“I wanted to be a social worker since I was eight years old.”

“Because” is used to ascribe cause, to explain a reason why, as in:

“Dogs should net be exposed to prolonged heat, because they cannot cool down except through panting.”


“The researchers studied adolescents only, because they are the population at greatest risk for this disorder.”

Some people feel mixing up since and because is fine, some feel it is fine in spoken language only, never in written language, some say never mix them up at all. I am in the middle. I think students should use since and because properly in written communication (that is, follow the rule above), but can mix them up in informal speech.

Next time: what is a split infinitive and does it matter anymore?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Accuracy and Precision

Accuracy and Precision in Language
Note to readers: I am recovering from a strenuous hike up Old Rag Mountain (Great views! Sore legs!) so forgive me if there is a typo or two in here I did not find in my fatigued state!
We all know what the words accuracy and precision mean, but how do we translate them into action? Here are a few guidelines to follow that may help;
Numbers: numbers often convey a sense of precision. It is more accurate to say “35 percent” than “a third” (though sometimes the latter is Ok too). (It is possible to lie or misdirect with numbers, but that is a topic for another entry. A good book on this is “How to Lie with Statistics”).
Definitions and details help with precision. “Smith and Jones (200) studied depression” versus “Smith and Jones (200) studied the Beck Depression Inventory scores of 173 women aged 19 to 29, both before and after cognitive-behavior therapy.”
A problem I find in regard to accuracy in language is word meaning or using a word that does not quite get at the meaning the writer intends. Small versus miniscule, aggressive versus violent.
Word confusion: comprise and compromise are very similar in spelling, but mean different things.

Which is more precise?
“Most dog lovers like cats too” or
“About 57% of self-described dog lovers like cats too (Jones, 2000).”

“Welfare reform changed welfare as we knew it.”
“The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 reduced the welfare rolls by between 33 and 90 percent, varying by state” (citation).

“Positive rewards are more effective than punishment at changing behavior.”
“Positive reinforcement increases desired behaviors by 37 percent: punishment increases desired behaviors by 22 percent” (Brenner, 1995).

So, numbers help with precision (and also evidence-based writing).
Citations helps with precision.
Details can help with precision.
Definitions and descriptions can help with precision.
And using the correct, more specific word can help with precision.

Here are some real world examples of problems with precision in language:
A member of Congress “Tobacco kills with lethality.” Is there any other way to kill?
A student “I believe that child emotional abuse is more harmful than sexual abuse to me.” “I believe” implies “to me”, so drop the “to me”. Or was the student disclosing that she was abused? (I think not, but it could be read that way).
A student writes in a term paper “I just read that…” instead of “I recently read…” (did you read the referenced material immediately before you wrote it? Does that hold true a week later when the prof reads the paper?)
My friend wrote “My mother was a hard woman.” How hard? Like stone? How about “My mother was unsympathetic to my childhood needs” or “My mother rarely smiled or laughed” or “My mother appeared to suffer from chronic depression” whichever is more accurate.

I am sure I will have more to say on this topic in subsequent posts.

Keep Writing!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Blog Entry 5: Procrastination


I have been procrastinating and it is not something I usually do (in grad school, I started papers weeks before they were due, maybe even doing the library research a month in advance. I had my dissertation finalized a month before my defense date and was the only student up to that time who successfully defended with no revisions, to either the content or the writing!). I hate that feeling I get when I have put something off to the last minute, the anxiety, the poor sleep, so I do whatever I can to avoid it. However, I have been procrastinating with this blog, with writing the entry on “accuracy in language.” This is partly because it is hard to come up with good examples of accuracy (though I recently heard a good one: a member of Congress, when asked about the pending tobacco legislation, said tobacco “was a substance that kills with lethality.” Huh? Is there any other way to kill? Can you kill without being lethal?)

I realized that I have been procrastinating because I set myself up to work on this particular blog entry in a way that I do not usually work, that is, I know my best work style and I violated it. My best work style is to start work on a project early, even if it is only in small increments of time. When I write or develop a project, I need to take time to develop my ideas and to let inspiration hit. For example, I write a garden blog. I have a folder with a list of many different topic ideas, some with just the main theme written out, others with an outline, others in near complete or complete form. This allows me time to think out my ideas and the organization of my writing. I did this in grad school too, because I had multiple projects, as you probably do too.

So, for the accuracy in language blog entry, I kept stumbling over the difficulty of coming up with good examples. I did not chip away at it slowly, and let it build up to be a problem, if only in my own mind. I have made a plan: today, I am going to outline what I want to say about this topic. Tomorrow I will do some research using the APA manual, Strunk and White and online sources. Early next week I will jot out my ideas, then GID (get it done!)

This style of working is best for me. You need to determine how you do your best writing, but I would think that working it out, bit by bit, in advance and giving yourself sufficient time to mull over your ideas is a good way to go. Some students say they thrive on the rush of getting work done at the last minute, but I would suspect, in almost every case, they could have performed at a higher level if they gave themselves more time. I know that sometimes time is scarce and have sympathy for that, but a short work session within the context of a plan should work with most schedules.

Keep Writing!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Strunk and White

Who are Strunk and White and Why Should You Care?

Strunk, W. and White, E.B. (1979). The Elements of Style (3rd Ed.). NY: Macmillan just celebrated it’s 50th year anniversary. Why should you care? In my humble opinion, it is the best book on writing ever written. In honor of the anniversary, I present two of my favorite rules for your enjoyment:

From the chapter “An Approach to Style:”

16. Be clear.

Clarity is not the prize in writing, nor is it always the principal mark of a good style. There are occasions when obscurity serves a literary yearning, if not a literary purpose, and there are writers whose mien is more overcast than clear. But since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue. And although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one. Even to a writer who is being intentionally obscure or wild of tongue we can say, "Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!" Even to writers of market letters, telling us (but not telling us) which securities are promising, we can say, "Be cagey plainly! Be elliptical in a straightforward fashion!"

Clarity, clarity, clarity. When you become hopelessly mired in a sentence, it is best to start fresh; do not try to fight your way through against the terrible odds of syntax. Usually what is wrong is that the construction has become too involved at some point; the sentence needs to be broken apart and replaced by two or more shorter sentences.

Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram. Think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity, and be clear! When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.

From the chapter Elementary Principles of Composition:

17. Omit needless words.

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Many expressions in common use violate this principle.

the question as to whether / whether (the question whether)

there is no doubt but that / no doubt (doubtless)

used for fuel purposes / used for fuel

he is a man who / he

in a hasty manner / hastily

this is a subject that / this subject

Her story is a strange one. / Her story is strange.

the reason why is that / because

The fact that is an especially debilitating expression. It should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.

owing to the fact that / since (because)

in spite of the fact that / though (although)

call your attention to the fact that / remind you (notify you)

I was unaware of the fact that / I was unaware that (did not know)

the fact that he had not succeeded / his failure

the fact that I had arrived / my arrival

See also the words case, character, nature in Chapter IV. Who is, which was and the like are often superfluous.

His cousin, who is a member of the same firm / His cousin, a member of the same firm

Trafalgar, which was Nelson's last battle / Trafalgar, Nelson's last battle

As the active voice is more concise than the passive, and a positive statement more concise than a negative one, many of the examples given under Rules 14 and 15 illustrate this rule as well.

A common way to fall into wordiness is to present a single complex idea, step by step, in a series of sentences that might to advantage be combined into one.

Macbeth was very ambitious. This led him to wish to become king of Scotland. The witches told him that this wish of his would come true. The king of Scotland at this time was Duncan. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth murdered Duncan. He was thus enabled to succeed Duncan as king. (51 words)

Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth achieved his ambition and realized the prediction of the witches by murdering Duncan and becoming king of Scotland in his place. (26 words)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Professional communications: Entry 3

[This blog entry is out of order for what I originally intended, but I have been thinking about the topic lately]

Professional Communications

There are other written communications to focus on, other than scholarly, academic writing. Our school, and other schools of social work, are very concerned with instilling professional behavior in our students in internships, and also in the classroom and other academic settings. Here are some recent problems I have encountered:

1. E-mail communications: I have been getting a lot of e-mails lately with poor grammar, improper capitalization and short hand or "texting" language. Maybe I am an old fogey, but I think you should strive for a minimum of correct grammar, capitalization and clear sentences, especially for professional communications. You will need to learn this style of writing to get and keep a professional job.

2. E-mail addresses: If you send a professional e-mail from your personal e-mail address, what might the recipient think of an e-mail address that reads or or I have seen variations on all of these. They do not look good on a job application or resume, or to your professor.

3. Exams: though teachers generally have lesser grammatical standards for test answers than papers, try to write in full sentences, using proper punctuation and grammar.

4. Answering machine messages: if you are using an answering machine on a phone that may get professional calls, make sure the message is short, businesslike and clear. No music, cute messages, children giving part of the message, dogs barking, funny voices, etc...

I'll post more on this as it comes up!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Logical and Orderly Presentation, Entry 2.

The logical and orderly presentation of ideas
(see page 32 of the APA manual for some details)
(Sorry, blogger elimiated the indentation formatting on the outline...hum...)
Scholarly writing needs to be logical and ordered. You must set down your ideas in an understandable, comprehensible order so that your reader can follow your logic and reasoning and understand the points made. In a sense, your writing should act to “hold your reader’s hand” in regards to explanation.

For those of you who have heard me speak on this topic, you know what’s coming next: that the key to a logical and orderly presentation of ideas is an outline. Whenever I ask groups of students how many of them write an outline before writing a paper and how many just jump right into the writing, fewer than 10% report that they first write an outline. Now, it is possible to get away without writing an outline if you are an organized, skilled and sophisticated writer who can hold the entire organization of the paper in your head. This probably accounts for between 10% and 20% of all writers (partly an educated guess, partly based on some research). This is sort of opposite of the proportion of real students in the real world.

When you outline, you force yourself to think about the organization of the paper in advance of writing it. Outlines, as long as you stick to them, help guide your writing into a logical whole. Does this mean that outlines cannot change once you have written them? Of course not! Sometimes additional research or understanding opens up a new area to explore or you find that the order you first thought was logical can be improved.

How to outline? For a scholarly, academic paper, you start with three sections: Introduction, Body and Conclusion. The introduction can be a simple, narrative listing of all the main points you will address in a paper or it can be provision of data or evidence to show the extent of the problem and why the reader should care about the problem or issue (sort of convincing the reader that this is a worthy topic to study and learn). For writers who are unsure of how to structure the intro, I suggest the former, and here is an example:

Several members of my family influenced my decision to study social work. My mother and my grandparents were affected by two social issues: poverty and mental illness. My grandparents’ poverty and my mother’s chronic depression left a lasting impression on me. As a result, I developed a determination to study, and become a member of, the helping professions.

Another example of an intro?

Depression is a social problem that directly affects 1.3 million people in the United States each year (Mental Health Commission, 2000) and indirectly affects millions more (National Institute of Health Statistics, 2001). In this paper I will describe the extent of these direct and indirect effects, as well as give some information regarding definitions of depression, and current theories as to cause. I will conclude with a brief description of one, effective intervention for depression, the Accelerated Cognitive-Behavioral Counseling Program (ACBCP), and practice implications (Smith & Jones, 2003).
[JT’s note- I made these facts up].

OK, some more details: Outline Example:
The main point of an outline is to get your ideas in a logical order, an order in which one idea flows into the next in a way that makes sense. Sometime the logic of the order has to do with the actual assignment. Other times, it has to do with what YOU want to emphasize OR the information you uncover in your research. Outlines are fluid- they will change over time, but act as a guideline to you as you write, re-write and edit your paper.

The very first step should be developing your main theme or main idea of the paper. Everything else flows from your main theme. Examples of a main theme for a paper might be:
“I will discuss the problem of social isolation in the elderly, giving a variety of definitions of the problem, as well as causes of it.”
“In this paper I will define and describe child medical neglect. I will discuss its consequences to children, families and communities, as well as its causes.”
“I will define and describe teen pregnancy from the critical perspective and from a statistical viewpoint. I will explain its causes, consequences and ethical implications.”

The bare bones of an outline involve main points, sub-points and details. Main points represent the main themes of your paper. The sub-themes support the main points, and under them come definitions, details and evidence.

I. Introduction: “Tell the reader what you are going to tell her.”
a. Main theme statement
b. Introduce sub-theme 1 (or “one way I will address the main theme’)
c. Sub-theme 2 …ditto to above…
d. Sub-theme 3… and so on, depends on how many sub-themes you have

II. Body of the paper (most of the points will go here): “Tell the reader” or give the evidence.
a. Sub-theme 1: (the order here depends on WHAT you decide is the right order, based on the assignment, your ideas, and the evidence.)
i. Definition or explanation
ii. Presentation of evidence
iii. Details, examples
b. Sub-theme 2:
i. Definition or explanation
ii. Presentation of evidence
iii. Details, examples
c. Sub-theme 2:
i. Definition or explanation
ii. Presentation of evidence
iii. Details, examples and so on….

III. Conclusion: “Tell the reader what you told her and what it all means.”
a. Analysis or summary of the evidence presented (without restating all of it)
b. What does this all mean?
c. Your concluding thoughts.

Next up: Accuracy and Precision in Language (now with typo’s!)
Keep writing!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Citation Evidence Entry 1b

Citation and Evidence
A few more words about evidence. I alluded to the fact that there are different types of evidence in the first blog entry. I wrote that the gold standard of evidence is an empirical study in a peer-reviewed journal. An empirical study uses the rules of science to demonstrate some finding. These are not the only good sources of information, but are at the top. Less strong bits of evidence are non-empirical studies, but I won’t go into great detail here (refer to your research methods course for pros and cons). Government or university center publications or websites are also usually good sources of information. Anecdotal, first-person or journalistic accounts are usually not as strong, but can play a useful role in many student papers (but I would make sure I had stronger data before using these!). Random web sites that you have not “vetted” (investigated closely) should not be used. Though I love Wikipedia, it is not really a scholarly source.

The web is where things can get murky. The web does not distinguish between “good” and “bad” information. Watch out for web sites from advocacy groups (these can be good, but they may have a vested interest in inflating or minimizing the scale of a problem) and think tanks with an ideological ax to grind (they may present only one side of the story, giving a biased view).

Why do you need evidence in the first place? You cannot write most papers in school (unless it is a personal reflections paper, journal entry or something similar) without evidence or support from the literature. You generally need data, numbers, definitions, descriptions, results, etc., to understand any social phenomenon and to support your point. A paper without evidence is not very useful, as the scope of the social problem, issues, or phenomena cannot be fully explained nor understood. Remember, all evidence must be cited!

Keep Writing!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Citation Entry 1

For this first blog entry, I want to write about “the big picture,” but first, a word about how I will write this blog. It is somewhat intimidating to me to write on writing: after all, my own writing is imperfect. I believe, however, that I can best communicate to you about writing if I do it using an informal style (don’t want you to fall asleep as you are reading this!) and if I am brief. So, the irony is, I will be writing about formal writing in an informal style.

So what is the big picture? If you can remember only three things for you to strive to accomplish in your writing, here they are:

1. The proper use and citation of evidence (look for quality of evidence entry coming soon!)
2. The logical and orderly presentation of ideas.
3. Accuracy and precision in language.

Of course, these three things encompass a lot individually, and I will tackle the first one in this first blog entry, the proper use and citation of evidence.

When you are writing an academic or scholarly paper, you will be using a variety of sources for your evidence. The type of source depends on the assignment. In some classes, you may be using life histories or other personal accounts as evidence for your positions, thoughts or ideas. If you are writing a scholarly, literature review, however, you will more likely be using scholarly journal articles. The “gold standard” or journal articles in the peer-reviewed journal, in which experts in the field review each article to accept or reject it for publication.

Why cite? Citation is when you give acknowledgement to the original author(s) of a work. This gives that author credit for his or her work and shows the reader where the info came from. Failure to cite (or “failure to properly attribute ideas”) is considered plagiarism, and you don’t want to go there [an aside: in my years of teaching, I have found many many students writing in such a way that they are technically plagiarizing a work. They copy a sentence here, part of a sentence there, from other works and string them together without citation. And, in many cases, students have not been caught doing this. It takes, however, just one time you do get caught to have significant consequences at most colleges and universities.]

Citation allows the reader to find the original source material, gives the reader an idea of the strength or quality of the evidence presented and is just proper, ethical practice.

Citation in social work is most often done according to the American Psychological Association Manual, and that is what I am showing here.

Citation is usually simple: (author(s), year), as in:
One study suggested that more people like dogs than cats (Thomas, 2000).

An in-text citation of the same source is:
Thomas (2000) found that more people like dogs than cats.

However, there are variations, for example when an:

Organization is an author:
Approximately 10,000 people suffer from gizmophobia (National Association of Technology Research, 1999). [No, this disorder does not exist, but I might have it!]
If you are going to refer to this a second time, you can abbreviate it the first time and just use the abbreviation the second time, as follows:
Approximately 10,000 people suffer from gizmophobia (National Association of Technology Research [NATR], 1999)…and the second citation is just (NATR, 1999).

Multiple author citations (note the &):
Physical development does not necessarily end at 18 years of age (Smith & Jones, 2000).

Secondary source citation: when one author reports someone else’s work:
More people like dogs, though cats have fewer care needs (Peebles, 1995, as cited in Whiskers & Furry, 2000).

Citation of a quotation: When you directly use another person's words, you need the page or paragraph number (para number for an electronic source that is not a pdf with page numbers on it):
Gizmophobia can be defined as "an intense and irrational fear of technology" (Johnson, 1998, p. 17).

Multiple sources citation: alphabetical order, by the first author’s surname, separated by ;
Several studies showed that more people like dogs than cats (Brice, 1990; King, 1992; Price & Wagner, 1994).

To find more, look “Reference Citations” in the APA manual index.
You can post a comment or question here and I will be happy to answer it.