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Proper writing

Page history last edited by pinkhamc@... 1 year, 6 months ago

"Many of the papers I receive in summer graduate courses at major universities are embarrassing to read in terms of both style and content, yet these same "adults" are shocked if they do not get an "A."  This does not bode well for the future of our country."  Richard Rohr, 2011, Falling Upwards, p 31.

 

I am most assuredly not the best writer in the world-not even remotely close.  In truth, when I graduated from Norwich and even from the University of Illinois with my PhD, I could barely write and subsequently hated every letter of it.  This did not go over well with my bosses in the Army research groups I was assigned to.  Two people in succession (Scott Ward at Edgewood Arsenal, MD, and Ken Howell at Dugway Proving Ground, UT), took me under their wings and taught me one-on-one how to write well.  Strangely, not only did I find my writing was clearer and more powerful, but I found I now ENJOYED writing. 

 

You can begin to as well, if you follow these simple guidelines that I developed for students in my classes, using actual examples from their papers.  Errors are highlighted in red and suggested corrections in green.  Each example is numbered so that, when I saw a mistake, I simply circled it and put the appropriate number in the list below next to the circle.  Students then used this list to correct their papers.   Here is the Key to the List I used when reviewing papers.

 

As I find more examples, I'll add them.  Incidentally, if you have suggestions for improvement in what follows or examples of your own, please send them to me at pinkhamc@norwich.edu, or put them in the comment window at the end.

 

 

Proper Writing

 

Contrary to popular belief, writing a commendable paper is not an onerous task to be left for the night before the assignment is due.

 

Why, you ask?  Because when you graduate from here you will often HAVE to prepare a clear, concise and powerful document on short notice.  If you have NOT developed the skill to do so here, you WILL fail in the dog-eat-dog world that awaits you outside.

 

The only way to develop the skill while at Norwich is to give yourself ample time to go over your paper carefully and correct the common errors listed below.  Initially, this task alone will take you several hours.  As your skill improves through repeated practice at Norwich, less time will be needed for this phase and you actually WILL be able to produce a clear and powerful document on short notice, but more importantly, you will find you actually ENJOY writing.

 

                          **********

 

1.  Disagreement in Number, part I (forced by “political correctness”):

 

A person might develop an eating disorder because he or she thinks of himself or herself as being too overweight and does not believe that normal dieting is helping them enough, so they look to other solutions that end up becoming a detriment to their health.”

 

Solutions:

1) OK, but awkward,

A person might develop an eating disorder because he or she thinks of himself or herself as being too overweight and does not believe that normal dieting is helping him or her enough, so he or she looks to other solutions that end up becoming a detriment to his or her health.”

 

2) Better, but is it politically correct?  (I personally feel it can be, depending upon the circumstances.)

A person might develop an eating disorder because he thinks of himself as being too overweight and does not believe that normal dieting is helping him enough, so he looks to other solutions that end up becoming a detriment to his health.”

 

Or . . .

A person might develop an eating disorder because she thinks of herself as being too overweight and does not believe that normal dieting is helping her enough, so she looks to other solutions that end up becoming a detriment to her health.”

 

3) Best,

People might develop eating disorders because they think of themselves as being too overweight and do not believe that normal dieting is helping them enough, so they look to other solutions that end up becoming a detriment to their health.”

 

                          **********

 

2.  Abrupt Transition

 

Practitioners of conventional medicine often concentrate their efforts on fighting disease rather than preventing illness.  The fear of the side effects and the rising medical costs associated with conventional medicine have persuaded many westerners to try eastern medicine.

 

Practitioners of conventional medicine often concentrate their efforts on fighting disease rather than preventing illness.  This and the fear of the side effects and the rising medical costs associated with conventional medicine have persuaded many westerners to try eastern medicine.

 

                          **********

 

3.  Disagreement in Numbers, part II (long lists or subject coming after the verb so you lose track)

 

“Along with these two deadly drugs, there comes many other deadly forms. . .”

 

When you reverse the order, the easiest way to check for the number of the verb is to say that part of the sentence in your mind in the correct order: “many other deadly forms come” sounds more correct than “many other deadly forms comes”.

 

“Along with these two deadly drugs, there come many other deadly forms. . .”

 

                          **********

 

4.  Disagreement in Numbers, part III (material between the subject and its pronoun)

 

“drugs don’t just ruin a person, it can destroy an entire society.”

 

Again, simply delete the intermediate material in your mind: “drugs (they) can destroy” sounds more correct than “drugs (it) can destroy”.

 

“drugs don’t just ruin a person, they can destroy an entire society.”  

 

                          **********

 

5.  Switched Person

 

“When a person drinks, he tends to lose control of sound judgment which can lead to bad decisions, such as having unprotected sex.  This can put you at risk of catching a disease.”

 

Notice how the writer changed persons in the first example.  This can be corrected by being sure the person is the same throughout.  In this case, changing the person to “you” involves the reader more in the argument, which is what you usually want to accomplish as a writer.

 

“When you drink, you tend to lose control of sound judgment which can lead to bad decisions, such as having unprotected sex.  This can put you at risk of catching a disease.”

 

                          **********

 

6.  Switched Tense

 

Stein says, “Hatha yoga allows people to get back in touch with themselves, and get into a frame of mind where they can experience what it is to be well, and not drug dependent or anxious”.  He also said, “that those who . . .”

 

Stein said, “Hatha yoga allows people to get back in touch with themselves, and get into a frame of mind where they can experience what it is to be well, and not drug dependent or anxious”.  He also said, “that those who . . .”

 

                          **********

 

7.  Poor Proofing, part I (wrong word)

 

“But my spellchecker didn’t catch it!”  There is no way a spellchecker will catch an improperly used but properly spelled word.  There is no substitute for a final proof read!!!  Before the spellchecker came along, we had to read each paper BACKWARDS to spot misspelled words.  Just be thankful you don’t have to do THAT anymore! 

 

Some of the following mistakes are caught by our current grammar-checkers.  If you have one on your computer, pay attention to those squiggly red lines under a word.  Click on that word to see how to correct the error.

 

“What people do not release is that the key to coping. . .”

“What people do not realize is that the key to coping. . .”

 

“Along with these two deadly drugs, their come many other deadly forms. . .”

“Along with these two deadly drugs, there come many other deadly forms. . .”

 

“The social effects of cocaine can be very unpleasant and can destroy a person, but in some instances in can be used properly.”

“The social effects of cocaine can be very unpleasant and can destroy a person, but in some instances it can be used properly.”

 

                          **********

 

8.  Poor Proofing, part II (incomplete thought)

 

“Responsibility in drinking is of utmost importance, but sadly the death toll is high because whatever cause brought an individual to drink.” 

 

Need I say more?

 

                          **********

 

9.  Poor Transition (from one sentence to another)

 

“There are two forms of stress-eustress and distress (positive and negative, respectively).  Most people associate stress only with negative causes and destructive consequences.”

 

Remember, you are trying to tell a story (make an argument) and you want your reader to be carried along by the flow of your story (argument) without having to take time to either figure out what you meant or to choose between two or more possibilities.

 

Although most people associate stress only with negative causes and destructive consequences, there are actually two forms of stress- distress and eustress (negative and positive, respectively).” (Then you should go on to discuss eustress.)

 

                          **********

 

10.  Complex Lists

 

“There are many types of hallucinogens, but they all share five features: changes in mood and perception, minimal memory or intellectual impairment, use is not associated with either stupor or excessive agitation, there are minimal side effects from autonomic nervous system stimulation, and a craving and addiction do not occur.”

 

“There are many types of hallucinogens, but they all share five features.  They do not produce 1) excessive agitation or stupor or 2) craving or addiction.  But they do produce 3) changes in mood and perception while at the same time causing only 4) minimal memory or intellectual impairment, and 5) minimal side effects from autonomic nervous system stimulation.

 

Notice that the new arrangement attempts to organize them into more logical (and thus more memorable) groups, ensures that the structure of each is parallel, and numbers each so that there is no question where one ends and the next begins.

 

                          **********

 

11.  Illogical Order

 

With good self-care, such as regular brushing and flossing, you can prevent gum disease, plaque and periodontitis.

 

This list is neither organized by severity or etiology (chronological development of the pathologies).

To organize it by severity (most to least serious):

 

With good self-care, such as regular brushing and flossing, you can prevent periodontitis, gum disease and plaque.

 

To organize it according to etiology:

 

With good self-care, such as regular brushing and flossing, you can prevent plaque, gum disease and periodontitis.

 

Note in the last example, this would be the same as climactic order (building from the least to most serious).  Since people have a tendency to remember the last in a list, the climactic order is preferred.  It works doubly well here since it also lists the diseases in developmental order.

 

                          **********

 

12.  Too Wordy

 

“However, these aren’t even the cruelest effects that alcohol can have, the cruelest effect alcohol can have is the effect it has on unborn children.”

 

The clue that this sentence could be improved is found in the three uses of “effect”.  That’s simply too many and suggests that part of the sentence could be removed and the meaning improved.

 

“However, these aren’t even the cruelest effects that alcohol can have, the cruelest is the effect it has on unborn children.”

 

                          **********

 

13.  Incomplete Sentence – a sentence fragment

 

“For example when people look at a bottle of vodka and see 100 proof on it.”

 

This is an incomplete sentence.  It literally BEGS to go on.  Yes, it does have a subject (people) and a verb (look), but because it has “when” near the beginning, it requires a follow-on thought.  “When this, then that”.

 

“For example when people look at a bottle of vodka and see 100 proof on it, they might not realize it contains 50% alcohol by volume.”

 

                          **********

 

14.  Poor Word Choice

 

“hence the reason that marijuana stands illegal in the United States. . .”

 

Use the Thesaurus from the Language option of the Tools bar of the Menu bar to find more appropriate words.

 

“hence the reason that marijuana remains illegal in the United States. . .”

 

                          **********

 

15.  Needless Redundancy (another form of Poor Word Choice or Too Wordy)

 

“Stress will take its toll on the body regardless of what form it takes.”

 “Stress will take its toll on the body regardless of what form it assumes.”

 

“It can also aggravate gastritis, ulcers, and irritable bowel syndrome within the digestive tract.”

“It can also aggravate gastritis, ulcers, and irritable bowel syndrome.” [Obviously, all these are going to occur within the digestive tract.]

 

“Even this was not the primordial beginning of drug misuse.”`

 

“Even this was not the beginning of drug misuse.”

 

                          **********

 

16.  Ending a Sentence with a Preposition

 

“The more alcohol you drink, the more danger you are putting yourself into.”

 

Although it is sometimes appropriate to end a sentence with a preposition, it often is better not to.  To determine which is best, put the noun the preposition modifies after it and see if it sounds better.

 

“The more alcohol you drink, the more you are putting yourself into danger.”

 

                          **********

17.  Slang - Idioms

 

“The people are scared of this. . .”

 

Slang or an idiom is OK for everyday speech, but unless it is being used as a part of quoted conversation, it does not belong in a technical paper.

 

“The people are afraid of this. . .”

 

“For both, the mastery of basic skills can be rewarding in and of itself.”

 

Often getting rid of slang makes the sentence much easier to follow:

 

“For both, the mastery of basic skills can be its own reward.”

 

                          **********

 

18.  Misplaced Modifier (only)

 

“Most people only associate stress with negative causes and destructive consequences.”

 

It may be true that most people do little else, but what the writer REALLY meant to say is. . .

 

Most people associate stress only with negative causes and destructive consequences.”

 

                          **********

 

19.  Punctuation

 

  • ·         19a.  Missing Hyphens

 

“. . .the well known fight or flight response.”

“. . .the well-known fight-or-flight response.”

 

“The seriousness of alcohol and alcohol related problems. . .”

“The seriousness of alcohol and alcohol-related problems. . .”

 

To determine if a hyphen is needed, ask yourself if the separated words convey the complete thought when used alone with the noun, as they do together.  For example, “well response” does not carry the same connotation as “well-known” response.  But with “big, brown dog”, both “big dog” and “brown dog” represent complete thoughts.

 

  • ·         19b.  Missing commas

 

When people have no answers they tend to look elsewhere for those answers.

 

When people have no answers, they tend to look elsewhere for those answers.

 

When a sentence begins with an adverb, it introduces a thought that begs to be completed:  “When people have no answers. . .”  This is your signal for a comma.

 

                          **********

 

20.  Confused Words:

 

  • ·         20a.  Effect/Affect

 

“The way that marijuana is used effects the way that the person feels the effects of the “wacky tobaccy”.

 

The words “effect” and “affect” are routinely confused.  Affect is always a verb (unless you are writing a psychology paper). (Perhaps you can remember this by thinking “AB”-the first letter of affect and the last letter of verb.)  Effect is almost always a noun.  The only exception is when effect is used to mean “bring about or accomplish”.  When considering this usage, perhaps it is helpful to think of the first letter in each word: “a” can stand for “alter” (which is close to the verb meaning of affect) and “e” can stand for “execute” (which is close to the verb meaning of effect).1

 

Another way that might help is:

My anger has a negative effect on you.  (Noun)

My anger effects a change in your attitude toward me. (Verb-to bring about)

My anger affects you negatively.  (Verb-to impact)

 

 

“The way that marijuana is used affects the way that the person feels the effects of the “wacky tobaccy”.

 

  • ·         20b.  Its/It’s

 

“If people have a basic understanding of alcohol and it’s effects,. . .”

 

“It’s” is a contraction of “It is” and “its” is possessive.

 

“If people have a basic understanding of alcohol and its effects,. . .”

 

  • ·         20c.  There/Their

 

“It isn’t there fault they feel this way.”

 

“Their is the possessive, plural pronoun.  “There” is an adverb.

 

“It isn’t their fault they feel this way.”

 

  • ·         20d.  Data/datum

 

“The data shows that”

 

“Data” is pleural, “datum” is singular.

 

“The data show that”

 

  • ·         20e.  which/that

 

“There are many types of infections which cause millions of people misery and suffering.  The worst offenders of all are the more than 20 sexually transmitted diseases.”

 

These two words are often used incorrectly in subordinate clauses.  “That” is a qualifier for the proceeding.  The intended meaning of the sentence is lost without what follows “that”.  “Which” introduces additional information that could easily be left out without changing the meaning.  Perhaps the best test of which to use is to drop the words in the subordinate clause.  If the meaning is not the same, “that” is needed.  In this case, doing so clearly makes no sense: There is no indication how infectious diseases are offenders.

 

“There are many types of infections that cause millions of people misery and suffering.  The worst offenders of all are the more than 20 sexually transmitted diseases.”

 

For other confused words, check out 40 Incorrectly Used Words That Can Make You Look Dumb,

 

                          **********

 

21.  Cannot [why use “can not” when “cannot”works?]

 

                          **********

 

22.  Scientific names

 

“Cocaine is an alkaloid found in leaves of the South American shrub, Erythroxylon Coca.”

 

Scientific names should be italicized and the first letter of the generic (first) name capitalized and the first letter of the specific (second) name placed in lower case.  Second uses of the same scientific name in your paper can be done as follows: “E. coca” as long as they do not occur at the beginning of the sentence or you do not use another generic name beginning with "E" in your paper.

 

“Cocaine is an alkaloid found in leaves of the South American shrub, Erythroxylon coca.”

 

                          **********

 

23.  Starting a Sentence with a Number

 

90% of all reported child-abuse cases. . .”

 

Never start a sentence with the numeric form of a number. 

 

Ninety percent of all reported child-abuse cases. . .”

 

                          **********

 

24.  Other Number Facts

 

The 3 dogs had five more miles to get home.”

 

Within a sentence, if the number is less then 10, it should be spelled out unless it modifies a unit of measure.

 

“The three dogs had 5 more miles to get home.”

 

The one exception is the number one.  It should always be spelled out.

 

                          **********

 

25.  Quoted Material

 

  • ·         25a.  Long Quotes

 

“If a quote involves more than four lines, it should be indented from both sides.  This can easily be done by typing in the quote, highlighting it, and selecting Format from your menu bar, then Paragraph from the drop-down window, then in the Indents and Spacing tab, select 0.05 on both right and left indentation.

 

  • ·         25b.  Quoted material that requires minor alteration to fit into your paper.

 

“The major outpatient self-help group in the United States is Alcoholics Anonymous, ‘formed more than 60 years ago and which has grown into an international organization. . .’”

 

“The major outpatient self-help group in the United States is Alcoholics Anonymous.  ‘[F]ormed more than 60 years ago[, it] ... has grown into an international organization. . .’”

 

  • ·         25c.  Quoted material that has an error.

 

“Whatever the setting, chemical-dependence treatment programs initially involves some ...”

 

“Whatever the setting, chemical-dependence treatment programs initially involves [sic] some ...”

 

                          **********

 

26.  Parallel Structure

 

The right half of the wellness continuum invites people to constantly explore those everyday actions which work best for them and to discovering what is appropriate to move them toward maximum well-being.

 

Your thought is a lot easier to follow if you make your connections from one thought to the next with parallel structure.

 

The right half of the wellness continuum invites people to constantly explore those everyday actions which work best for them and to discover what is appropriate to move them toward maximum well-being.

 

                          **********

 

27.  Circular Argument

 

Dental care has improved thanks to fluoridated water and toothpaste, and improved dental care.

 

Dental care has improved thanks to fluoridated water and toothpaste.

 

                          **********

 

28.  Acronyms

 

Children under 21 years who meet the requirements for income and resources found in AFDC, but who otherwise are not eligible for AFDC, may apply for eligibility.

 

The reader is supposed to know what AFDC means.  Do you?  On the first use of an acronym, ALWAYS spell it out, then use the acronym.

 

Children under 21 years who meet the requirements for income and resources found in Aid to Families and Dependent Children (AFDC), but who otherwise are not eligible for AFDC, may apply for eligibility.

 

                          **********

 

29.  Emphasis

 

The effect will probably be good for you and it can't physically harm you.

 

Words/phrases coming at the beginning or end of a sentence/paragraph/list carry more weight than those in the middle.  When two words/phrases are used, generally the last of the two carries more weight.

 

The effect can't physically harm you and it will probably be good for you.

 

                          **********

 

30.  One penultimate suggestion (perhaps the MOST important of all).  After completing each sentence, ask yourself the following two questions:

 

1)  What do the WORDS really say?

2)  Do they say CLEARLY what you want them to say?

 

If your answer to either is other than what you’re looking for, you may need to ask yourself a third question:

 

3)  Do I really know what I want to say?

 

If your answer to this is “no”, take the time to think it through.

 

30. One penultimate suggestion exemplified.  Below I have applied 30 to the evolution of an important thought.  Note how each rendition becomes clearer and shorter.

 

 

“I don’t know what I think, until I can write it down in words that will enable others to know what I think.”

 

“I don’t know what I think, until I can write it down in a way that will enable others to know what I think.”

 

“I don’t know what I think, until I write it down in such a way that others will know what I think.”

 

“I don’t know what I think, until I write it in a way that makes others know what I think.”

 

“I don’t know what I think, until I write it such that others know what I think.”

 

“I don’t know what I think, until I write it so that others know what I think.”

 

I don’t know what I think until I write it so others know what I think.

 

31.  ALWAYS pay attention to the squiggly red and green lines that MS Word puts under words and phrases in your text.  Place your cursor over the line and right click.  A window will pop up to give you guidance. It's not always correct, but it often is.  I still use it regularly to catch careless errors and to learn new skills.

 

ENDNOTES

 

I am not always sure

As stated earlier, I am not an authority on proper writing.  My son, Kevin, however is.  He is a PhD English Professor.  So in March of 2016 I encountered an auto-correction suggested by my Microsoft editor that i wasn't sure of.  I sent him the following email and received a clarifying response.

 

On Wednesday, March 23, 2016, Carlos Pinkham <pinkhamc@norwich.edu> wrote:

Kevin,  I am confused.  Help me know how to tell when which is correct:

 

"But therein lies the beauty of theodicy.  Since the Son of God, Jesus, shed God's blood, all consequences of God's perceived violation of His Holy law that followed from the creation of the Archangel, including your violations and mine, were covered, atoned for, by Jesus's shed blood.  All we must do to receive the exoneration we so deeply desire, is to receive the gift God so deeply gave."

 

Vs

 

"But therein lays the beauty of theodicy.  Since the Son of God, Jesus, shed God's blood, all consequences of God's perceived violation of His Holy law that followed from the creation of the Archangel, including your violations and mine, were covered, atoned for, by Jesus's shed blood.  All we must do to receive the exoneration we so deeply desire, is to receive the gift God so deeply gave."

 

Kevin's reply:

"Lie means to lie oneself down or to pre-exist inside something. Lay means to place something down. So lays would mean someone places beauty inside theodicy whereas lies means it's already there. -Kevin"

 

Good writing is hard

John Steinbeck, (“East of Eden”, “Grapes of Wrath”, “Of Mice and Men”, “Tortilla Flat”, “Cannery Row”2 and my personal favorite, "The Sea of Cortez"), when told that, “Your books are damned easy to read.” Replied with, “That’s because they’re damned hard to write.”3

 

Writing to communicate clearly is hard work.  But what worthwhile endeavor isn’t?

 

FOOTNOTES

 

1Bernstein, Theodore M., 1977, Dos, Donts & Maybes of English Usage, Gramercy Books, NY.

 

2Extracted from the entries for John Steinbeck in Kreitzburg Library.

 

3Heard on Vermont Public Radio at 755 AM on 25 April 2003.

 

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