writing tips

McMaster UniveGeoff Normanrsity’s Professor Geoff Norman is a prominent figure in the Medical Education/Health Professions Education community. Along with co-authoring one of the most popular handbooks in Biostatistics, Norman is also a long-time editor for the Advance in Health Sciences Education journal.

In his journal’s most recent issue Norman offers up some tips on how to not get your paper published. I’ve highlighted my favourites–sound advice for academics and graduate students alike:

  1. Support your problem statement with the best available evidence (“Nice ideas finish last”)
    • Your paper must provide sufficient theoretical and empirical justification for why its problem statement is an important one.
  2. Conduct a thorough literature review early (“The world doesn’t need another mousetrap”)
    • Before beginning your study, ensure the same work has not been conducted before. If it has, ensure your problem statement and study design sufficiently expand past findings.
  3. Ensure data are consistent with the journal’s/disciplines expectations (“We don’t really care if your students loved the course”)
    • Norman reminds us that studies involving self-assessment as data are consistently uncorrelated with performance measures. (Eva and Regehr 2005)  While another journal may publish self-assessment data, Norman begs authors to consider whether their data is appropriate for journal/disciplinary conventions before submitting their manuscripts.
  4. Ask whether your findings are applicable in another context (“We are scientists, not inventors”)
    • In studies where a costly simulation device or complex intervention is designed, Norman warns authors not to presume that their findings should be of interest to a wider audience–taking special care when the research is aligned with an commercial interests (e.g., a device manufacturer)
  5. Ask whether your findings are interesting in another context (“The only people who care about education of pediatric gerontologists in Lower Volga are pediatric gerontologists in Lower Volga”)
    • Norman reminds us to think about an international audience for our work. It is incumbent on authors to figure out why researchers in different countries will care about their work.
  6. Disclose other venues in which your study has been published (“Salami slicing belongs in butcher shops”)
    • Salami slicing is the colloquial term for publishing the same study in multiple journals. While Norman admits that this is sometimes an appropriate practice, he reminds researchers to avoid self-plagiarism by writing the second study de novo rather than cutting and pasting swathes of text.
  7. Represent quantitative value with appropriate detail (“P values tell you whether it’s zero but little else”)
    • While a research team’s findings may be statistically significant, simply displaying an appropriate P value is insufficient. Norman reminds authors to include standard deviations, confidence intervals and effect sizes, best represented by good figures and graphs.
  8. Leave room for future research (“More research is always required”)
    • Avoid overstating the universal applicability of your results. Be specific about other research questions that remain to be answered in your work.

Leave your thoughts

What do you think? Am I missing anything obvious? Do you find the advice pedantic? I’d love to read your commends below.

 

What is Editing?

Does this seem like an obvious question? Of course the answer is simple, right? Editing is the process of taking a piece of writing and making it better . . . isn’t it? Although the word editing immediately conjures up words like grammar, spelling, and punctuation; here are a few other things that editing entails that might not immediately spring to mind:

  • Perfecting a document’s tone and mood (for example, to make a document sound more professional, or less formal.)
  • Formatting a document to fit a specified word length or typographic space.
  • Ensuring a document is appropriate for a perceived audience.
  • Verifying a document’s claims are true.

Audience and Purpose

As promised, this post is mainly about self-editing, but I’ve begun with the question “Why Edit?” because I think this is the first question with which every self-editor should start: “Why am I editing this document?” Along with that question come tangential questions like, “Who is my audience?” and “What is my purpose?”Once a reader has a clear sense of who they’re writing to and the reason they’re writing, they can establish a methodological approach for self-editing.

So, for example, I won’t edit this blog post as closely as I would edit a printer’s proof that will be sent out for a $70,000 job. If I make a spelling or grammar mistake in this blog post, likely a friend will remind to fix it, or a reader will make some type of quick judgment about my writing abilities. But if I miss an error on an expensive print job . . . well that could make me look really bad at work and, if repeated, could cost me my job. So when I edit a blog post, I know that I have a small audience and a fun purpose; whereas, when I proofread for my employer, I know that I have a large, complex audience (my employers and their clients) and a very serious purpose.

Self-editing

So once you’ve established your audience and your purpose, you’re ready to move on to self-editing. Here are a few tricks that I’ve come across in my experience as an editor that help. They likely won’t all work for you, but hopefully some do:

Create a Style Sheet or Use a Style Guide

There are plenty of excellent resources stylistic writing out there and having one close at hand is the quickest, most efficient, and most reliable way to answer those niggling questions like: “is it 7 or seven?,” “should I use a semi-colon?,” and “what’s the best way to write the date?” (In order: seven, to link two related independent clauses, and October 16, 2008.) But there’s no point in looking these points up if you’re not going to remember them, so that’s why you create your own Style Sheet. A Style Sheet can be a document on your computer, or a crinkled piece of paper on your desk—its main purpose is to be available as a ready reference when you can’t remember one of those little details that always slips your mind.

Samuel_Johnson_by_Joshua_Reynolds_2 Leave some time between writing and editing

The great eighteenth century scholar, critic, lexicographer, and rhetorician Samuel Johnson once wrote that he put all of his writing in a desk drawer for seven years before he would even consider editing it. If he read it after seven years and felt that it was still worthy of publication, he would edit; if he didn’t like the piece, he tossed it away. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the same deadlines as the great Dr. Johnson—after all, back in the eighteenth century, writers had patrons. However, it is a good idea to save time in between those two crucial early writing stages: the first draft and the first edit. A general rule is that the longer and more complex the document, the more time you should put it away in a desk drawer. This isn’t always possible, but, as I mentioned in my last post, when we write, we fill in logical “gaps” that others might not be able to fill in for themselves. Similarly, when you leave a piece of writing for a length of time, you lose the ability to fill in those gaps—which is a good thing because it allows you to read your own writing in the same way that your audience will.

Reading against the grain

Quite frankly, there’s not always time to leave a piece of writing before you publish it. But there are other strategies that can give you a different perspective on those logical gaps and allow you to fill them for your reader. Reading out loud is the best example of this. Reading out loud takes longer than reading silently, and therefore gives your brain more time to process the way you’re using language—again decreasing your brain’s ability to fill in gaps. Sorry for the pun here, but hearing the sound of your own writing allows you to realize when something doesn’t sound right.

Another strategy is reading your writing out of order. Try reading sentences or paragraphs in reverse order. This again displaces your brain from the logical flow of the document and allows greater time to consider portions of your document and focus on how language is used at the sentence level. If you don’t have a day to put away your writing, just read it out loud and out of order, you’ll notice mistakes immediately.

Know thyself

Ultimately, you’re the best judge of your own writing. And so, for example, you may already be aware that you have a penchant for flowery language, run-on sentences, ineffective jargon, or lapses in consistency. Keep these habits in mind when you’re editing—and write them down as reminders on your Style Sheet. This will allow you to focus on specific errors that you know will be present in your document.

BookRulerAs you may or may not know, I am completing a Masters of Arts in Literary Studies at the University of Waterloo. But I’m also completing an 8-month co-op term as a copywriter, now copyeditor, at a marketing company. Anyone who has spent any time composing assignments for school knows that little typos and errors inevitably sneak through your self-editing abilities. Even if you’ve edited your assignment several times, misspelled words or subject-verb disagreements appear out of nowhere, causing you ask yourself, “how did I miss that?” But, what do you do if you’re getting paid to ensure that those mistakes don’t sneak through? Do you just read “harder”?

The reason that editing your own writing presents a unique challenge spawns from the same reason that we make grammar mistakes in the first place. When you’re writing, you make assumptions about the meaning of your content internally, but your reader can’t make those same assumptions–they don’t have the background knowledge of the subject that you do. So, for example, you might write, “Steven Harper agreed to spend two extra hours debating the economy, but it wasn’t necessary.” But what wasn’t necessary—the extra time debating the economy, or the debate itself? As a writer, you know that you meant that the extra time wasn’t necessary, but your reader might not. It’s difficult to realize, but you should have written, “it wasn’t necessary for Steven Harper to spend two extra hours debating the economy.”

Anyway, without getting too technical, the main reason that editing your own writing is difficult is that humans use language in context–this means that a conversation or a document each has meaning within a specific setting. Conversations occur based on our surrounding; documents are composed based on textual needs. So imagine that you and your friend are in a restaurant debating about Stephen Harper’s perceived need for a debate on the economy. If your friend Cheryl sits with you unexpectedly, she’ll have no idea of the context of your argument—though it’s likely won’t take her long to catch on. But you and your friend will give her a brief update on the conversation because she doesn’t know its context.

In order to effectively write, one has to empathize with an audience—the same way that you’ve updated your friend Cheryl. The difference between conversation and writing is that with writing we’re not always 100% sure of the ongoing conversation–it’s taking place inside of our heads. The human mind is so complex that it can think of thousands of aspects of a thing at a given moment, and all of those ideas want to come bursting out when we discuss or write about a topic. but a writer has to choose the best ideas and communicate them in the clearest way. Yet, when writing, we make assumptions about our topic that are very clear in our own minds, but that our readers may not understand—such as the fact that Stephen Harper’s extra time debating was unnecessary, and not that the debate itself was unnecessary. Either way, we inevitably make these assumptions when we write, and the trick with self-editing is spotting these assumptions and fixing them for your audience.

One of my responsibilities as the copyeditor is proofreading Printingevery document before it goes to print. Proofreading sounds  easy, but you have to keep in mind that I’ve often written these documents’ first drafts, edited these drafts according to internal revisions, read them again upon the completion of internal revisions, read them again in layout, edited them again according to client revisions, read them upon the completion of client revisions, read them again in layout, and then read them again in preflight (a term used in printing to describe confirming that the digital files required for printing are all present, valid, correctly formatted, and edited.) What I’m trying to say is that I’ve often read documents that I’ve written 5-6 times before the final stage of editing, but then I have to proofread them one last time before they go to print— “proofing.”

But, if a typo has somehow appeared in a document at the proofing stage, you’re in danger of missing typos because you’ve read the document so many time you’ve almost memorized. And this is just like a student with an assignment–you read it over and over until you’re sure it’s perfect, but those typos still appear. Well one or two typos isn’t a big deal for a student, but for me it could cost my company thousands of dollars. And, realistically, in the “real world” typos in documents like business proposals, posters, brochures, even emails can cause the audience to rethink the reliability of the document’s source–i.e., you! The next post in this series will outline some tips and tricks for editing your own work.