Posts Tagged ‘precision’

Proofreading 1: non-sequiturs and flow

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

A recurring theme on this blog and in any conversation I have ever had with students about their essays is proofreading. Proofreading is a very important step in the writing process, and one that is too often neglected by students. This will be the first in an ongoing series of posts about proofreading and editing your written work.

What is proofreading? Proofreading is simply a process in which one searches for, identifies, and corrects errors in written work. Taking the time to carefully go over your work before submitting it to your prof can make the difference between a pass and a fail, a C and a B, or an A and an A+.

That sounds simple enough, but how does one actually go about proofreading an essay?

Methodically and very, very carefully.

If you ask ten writers how they proofread their work, you will likely get ten answers. Remember as always that the secret is to develop a system that works well for you. What follows here is an example of a proofreading process that I have made use of in the past.

The first step is to read through your essay from beginning to end. The goal here is not to find and correct mistakes so much as it is to see how the essay reads. Is it well organized? Does one sentence flow naturally into the next? Does one paragraph follow on naturally from the previous one? If anything is amiss, if a sentence seems out of place, if a paragraph seems to come out of nowhere, or if any part of your essay seems awkward and poorly written, mark it, and move on.

Some things to watch out for:

  • non-sequitur: [Latin: "it does not follow"] a non-sequitur can be many things, but in historical writing non-sequiturs normally takes the form of a logical mis-step. If A=B and B=C, you cannot then assume that A=D. For example saying that all Benedictine monks are human, and all Swedes are human, therefore all Swedes are Benedictine monks is a non-sequitur.
  • statements that simply do not follow on from what has been written before: For example: ‘Arsenal Football Club, formed in 1886 as “Royal Arsenal” enjoyed its first period of great success under manager Herbert Chapman in the 1930s. His tactical innovations, changes to the club kit, and alterations to the stadium took the club from mid-table obscurity to the top of English football. Alan Smith scored the winning goal for Arsenal in the 1994 Cup Winners Cup final in Copenhagen.’ The last sentence is true, it is vaguely related to the preceding two sentences as it is part of Arsenal’s history, but it simply does not flow smoothly. This is not a logical error, but a stylistic one.
  • lack of flow: this is related to the previous example, but may not be quite as jarring. When you read through your essay, ask yourself whether the text flows naturally from sentence to sentence and from paragraph to paragraph.

Once you have read through your essay, it is time to start making repairs to the essay’s organization and structure. There are no shortcuts here. The only way to fix an essay with poor structure and organization is to methodically work through it and FIX the problems.

First, non-sequiturs must be eliminated! If your argument is based on a logical fallacy then no cosmetic repair will be able to gloss it over. If you discover a non-sequitur, you really have no alternative but to revisit your research, reconsider your conclusions, and give serious thought to how you can repair your argument. This is not a happy discovery to make, but it is much better that you find it in a draft essay rather than your prof finding it in your submitted work. If you are facing a short deadline, try talking to your prof to see if an extension is possible. Extensions are often given at the discretion of the prof (depending on the policy of your school/department), and if you take the time to carefully explain that you discovered a problem when proofreading your final draft, and that you would like some extra time to work it out, your prof may be receptive to an extension. It is one thing not to submit on time because you left everything to the last minute, quite another to discover an error in an otherwise completed work before the due date. Remember though that you are NOT owed an extension on your essay. Your prof is completely within his/her rights to deny your request.

Second, if you found any sentences that stick out like the Alan Smith example above, you can alter the structure of your paragraph to make them fit, you can change the sentences themselves, or you can delete them. This will depend on why the sentence is there in the first place. If in this example, I wanted to write about 1930s Arsenal, I would delete the sentence entirely. If I wanted to write about famous Arsenal goals, then I would have to introduce the subject, and no doubt introduce many earlier examples, before moving on to the 1994 CWC final. In this case it would be very difficult to make the sentence fit by changing it and not making extensive changes to the essay itself. However there are many instances in which a simple change to one sentence can greatly improve an essay.

Having eliminated non-sequiturs and removed or repaired sentences that do not fit, it is now time to make sure that your paragraphs flow naturally and that your essay reads as a coherent whole rather than a series of unconnected statements. The previous sentence is an example of one technique to improve flow. It is a connecting sentence that links this paragraph to ones that preceded it. Using sentences such as this is a simple but effective way to improve the flow of an essay. Paragraphs are used to group together similar ideas, concepts, or arguments within an essay, but that does not mean that you should ever forget that the individual paragraphs must come together to form a single coherent essay. If you find that a paragraph seems out of place, think about how you can make it fit. You can add an introductory sentence, rewrite the paragraph itself, or possibly move the paragraph to a different part of your essay where it fits more naturally.

Remember at this early stage of proofreading that you are focusing on structural and organizational problems. If at this stage a typo or mistake catches your eye, you can mark it quickly, but keep reading. If you recognize that a footnote is missing or incorrect, mark that too and move on. You will come back to these things later. The reason for this is simple: in the process of making changes to your essay’s structure and organization, there is a good chance that new typos and mistakes will be introduced. Don’t worry about that; it happens to all writers. For the time being, when you find a typo or other mistake, just mark it and move along, secure in the knowledge that you will fix it later. Also, a very thorough review of your references (footnotes, endnotes, etc) will be done before you submit your essay, so mark any such errors too, and remained focused on your structure and organization.

One last tip for this section that applies to all others as well: don’t be afraid to have someone else read your work. This can be a friend, classmate, parent, or historyhelp.ca. The reason for this is that once a person has written, re-written, edited, proofread, re-written, etc., an essay multiple times, his or her capacity for critical review is severely diminished. Put simply, we all lose the ability to spot errors in our own work after we have worked on it too many times. I guarantee that even if you think an essay is perfect, a critical reader with a good eye for detail will find errors that you have missed.

Do you trust your spell-checker?

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Something that I have always tried to instill in my students is a healthy skepticism of the abilities of the spell-checker. Having a button that will catch most spelling mistakes in a document is a wonderful thing. It saves time and improves accuracy, both of which are good. But it is far from infallible, and far from perfect.

For example, it will not differentiate ‘their’ from ‘there’ or from ‘they’re’. It will not be able to tell a ‘councillor’ from a ‘counsellor’. It will not be able to tell you that Jack Kerouac was ‘on the road’, not ‘on the rode’. Similarly, it will not tell you that you wrote ‘dog’ when you meant to write ‘god’, which can make for interesting theological discussions. There are many, many examples of such words that sound alike but have completely different meanings, or which are one misplaced keystroke away. If you are lazy with your proof-reading, it is very easy for these errors to slip through into your written work. Even the New York Times is not immune from making such errors.

So how can you avoid these mistakes?

  • Most importantly: proof-read your work carefully. By this I do not mean simply skimming over an essay before it is submitted. I mean taking whatever time is necessary to carefully and methodically read through your essay:
    • Go word by word. When we read, our eyes naturally skim, taking in several words at once. Try to avoid this when proof-reading, focusing instead on each and every word.
    • Many people find it helpful to use some kind of marker (finger, pen, whatever – it doesn’t matter) that moves along under the words as you read. This will help prevent your eyes from jumping ahead
    • Remember that you are focusing on accuracy here, not speed – do not try to proof-read in record time!
  • When proof-reading make sure that you are armed with the necessary tools and information:
    • As suggested here, you should always have at least a couple of good reference works handy when writing such as a good dictionary and a guide to English usage.
    • That way, if you are unsure whether you mean to write ‘eminent’ or ‘imminent’, you can quickly find out
  • If your word processor has a grammar-check feature, use it.
    • Grammar-checks will catch some, but nowhere near all such errors.
    • Grammar-checks can also be deeply annoying, finding errors where there are none, so use it as a tool, but do not let it re-write your essay
    • Incidentally I lost a little faith in grammar checkers when one told me that a chapter from my PhD thesis was written at a grade 7 level. That was not encouraging.
  • Have someone else proof-read your work
    • There is often no substitute for fresh eyes
    • If you have written, edited, re-written, proof-read, re-edited, etc., your essay, you will miss mistakes. Having someone look at your work with fresh eyes will usually catch mistakes that you have seen and ignored multiple times. Don’t feel bad about this – it happens all the time and is one of the reasons why authors work with editors
    • If you do not want a friend or family member to see your writing, historyhelp.ca offers a proofreading service.

To sum up:

  • Be aware that all writers make mistakes – to borrow a line from the Blues Brothers, this includes me, you, them, everybody.
  • Before submitting an essay, take the time needed to carefully proof-read it
  • Arm yourself with the tools necessary to answer questions about spelling, meaning, and usage of words
  • Give your grammar-checker a shot. It may help, it may not
  • Have someone proof-read your work for you. If you want a professional opinion, historyhelp.ca can help.

Cicero and the laws of History

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

Nam quis nescit, primum esse historiae legem, ne quid falsi dicere audeat? Deinde ne quid veri non audeat? Ne qua suspicio gratiae sit in scribendo? Ne qua simultatis?

These words were written by the Roman statesman, orator and writer Marcus Tullius Cicero, better know to us simply as “Cicero”. This passage was taken from his work de Oratore which he wrapped up in the middle of the first century BCE. Although he invoked historians and their craft, Cicero was really writing about orators and how they should adopt some habits of good historians in order to improve their own oratory. However, his advice is as sound today as it was over 2000 years ago, and historians should give it the attention it deserves:

For who does not know history’s first law to be that an author must not dare to tell anything but the truth? An its second that he must make bold to tell the whole truth? That there be no suggestion of partiality anywhere in his writings? Nor of malice?*

Cicero touched on several aspects of historical writing in this short passage, so let’s look at each of them in turn.

1. “…an author must not dare to tell anything but the truth”

This really should go without saying, but it does bear repeating. Be honest in your research, your analysis and your writing. Seek the truth. One of the wonderful things about historical research is that it can dramatically change and inform the way you see the world. But this is only possible if you approach historical research and writing with an open mind.

Don’t set out to ‘prove a point’. Let your research guide you. Let your analysis inform you. Let your writing enlighten both you and others.

If you find evidence that your previously-held opinions are incorrect or ill-informed, don’t reject the evidence simply because it does not fit with your preconceptions. Consider the evidence. Consider your own opinions. Can they co-exist? Do you need to reconsider your opinions? What does the other evidence suggest?

It is only through an open mind that the historian can arrive at anything approaching truth.

For example, before starting my Ph.D., I blindly accepted the notion that the far north of medieval England was a wild, lawless place that was run by a nobility that craved nothing more than chaos, unrest, and war. But through my research I came to understand that this was far from the truth. The North had a long-established system of border law that strove to quell disagreements before they precipitated cross-border reprisals or even war, and the most powerful man in the region during the late 14th century sought consistently and loyally to preserve the peace, not to profit from unrest. (his 1 1/2 rebellions notwithstanding…)

This research fundamentally altered my understanding of the region. It changed my perceptions, allowed me to achieve a greater understanding of that society, and has provided the basis of an historical novel that I am now writing.

The point here is that I obeyed Cicero’s command to seek the truth, and I emerged a better historian for it.

2. “[the historian] must make bold to tell the whole truth”

When writing history, you will encounter contradictory evidence. This is unavoidable, and it is best to realize and accept this fact early on. There are too many reasons for this to get into here, so just know for now that you will come across evidence that disagrees with your analysis and conclusions.

But what should you do when this happens? Should you ignore the problematic evidence, pretend that it doesn’t exist, and work only with evidence that agrees with your conclusions? No. To do that is disingenuous. It is dishonest. It is also lazy: it is much easier to pretend that something does not exist than to explain why you disagree with it. Being disingenuous, dishonest, and lazy is no way to approach any kind of research, and history is no different.

Remember the reason why we study history in the first place. We are trying to understand past human society. Because human society is made up of a lot of individual human beings, it is inherently contradictory. People disagree. They have different perceptions. They have different biases. They have different physical, intellectual, and mental abilities. If five people witness the same crime, do you think they will remember it in exactly the same way? Probably not. This is one of the reasons why eyewitness testimony can be so unreliable in criminal investigations.

So don’t pass over evidence that you disagree with. Try to understand it. Where was the author coming from? Why do you think he or she is out of step with your other evidence? What can it teach you about the person, place, thing, event that you are studying?

Sometimes these oddball sources can lead us to really unexpected and enlightening places. But they can only do this if they are taken seriously.

But this advice goes beyond simple disagreements between your sources. What happens if, for example, you are writing a biography of a truly great person who did wonderful things for her society, when you find evidence that she had secretly been an arsonist on weekends who was also mean to puppies and a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur. Do you suppress this new information? Do you use it to launch an iconoclastic attack on this undeserving “hero”?

Neither of these options is ideal. Suppressing the information would undermine your goal of telling the whole truth and would present a skewed picture of the subject of your research. At the same time, radically altering your approach to ignore all other evidence and launch a withering attack on this otherwise good person based only on this new evidence would be equally unbalanced.

The best thing would be to take this new evidence into account without allowing it to overwhelm your analysis. If you are writing a longer piece, add a section or a chapter to deal with it. If you are writing a short essay, you can always use a footnote to include this new evidence and a brief comment.

The truth can be an elusive thing, but do what you can to seek it with an open mind. And remember to seek the whole truth.

3. “[Ensure] that there be no suggestion of partiality anywhere in his writings? Nor of malice?”

Partiality is the enemy of good scholarship. Malice is the enemy of truth. Do what you can to keep them both as far away from your research and writing as possible.

If you embark upon a research project with your mind made up about your subject, your research and your writing will both suffer. Again, it bears repeating that your job here is to seek truth. You simply cannot seek truth if you believe that you already have the answers.

Take for example those who deny the truth of the holocaust. Such people often approach their scholarship with a terrible combination of both partiality and malice. In fact their partiality is based in malice, as their belief in hate-filled neo-Nazi nonsense has both skewed their perception and fueled their malice. Anyone coming from a mental standpoint such as this will be utterly unable to produce anything even approaching balanced, considered, unbiased, thoughtful, and credible scholarship.

This is an extreme example, but its lesson is an important one. Try to be aware of your own biases: we all have them! We all come from different ethnic, religious, national, regional, linguistic, educational and social backgrounds, and so we all bring with us a particular set of beliefs and biases. But this need not be fatal to your quest for truth! Be aware of your own biases and you will be able to prevent them from rendering your research unreliable. For example, did you spot the manifestation of one of my biases above? I do not really equate being a Spurs supporter with arson and puppy abuse: it is after all an affliction that deserves sympathy, not just condemnation.

Hopefully we are not all filled with malice in the same way that we are all subject to bias, but it is worth keeping your own feelings in check when writing history. As Historians, we often encounter difficult, disturbing, even enraging people, ideas, and events. If you encounter something that elicits a strong emotional response, be aware of it. But don’t let it drive your research ahead of the evidence.

Even if you are researching something as terrible as the killing fields of Cambodia, the massacre of innocents in Jerusalem during the first Crusade, the excesses of the European witch hunting craze, or the Holocaust itself, remember to seek truth, not historical retribution.

Good ideas, but…

…how do I put them into practice?

Stay tuned. My next blog post will give some concrete examples of how you can become a more honest, unbiased and effective research and writer!

*Both the Latin text and translation above are from Cicero, De Oratore. Trans E.W. Sutton. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1942. pp. 242-245. You can find an electronic version of this book here.

Historiaster how-to

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Although I have adopted the word historiaster, I want to help you to avoid becoming an historiaster yourself. In this spirit, here are some things that historiasters do:

  • Plagiarize! There is no better way to be thought of as ‘a contemptible historian’ than to steal others’ words and ideas. Plagiarism is theft and there is simply no excuse for doing it. Take a look at your school’s course calendar. It probably has a section in the policies chapter that outlines your school’s policies and procedures regarding academic dishonesty, cheating, and plagiarism etc. Read this section. Then read it again. It is important, so make sure that you understand it fully. If you do not, talk to your prof about it.
    Schools, colleges and universities take these things very seriously, and they are right to do so. Penalties for plagiarism can range from a reduced mark on your assignment to a failing mark in your class, to suspension or expulsion from your school. I cannot stress this enough: do not plagiarize. If you do, you deserve whatever penalty is imposed by your school.
  • Be lazy! There are many ways to be lazy when writing an essay, and they will all hurt you in the long run. For example, you can simply use the first sources that come to mind without evaluating them or spending the time required to find good sources. The most obvious example of this is Wikipedia. These days, the first place that many people go for information is Wikipedia. Students are particularly prone to this kind of laziness! Wikipedia is in many ways a wonderful idea, and it is slowly getting to be more reliable. But the fact remains that anyone can edit Wikipedia entries. This means that you never really know what the source of the article’s information is, what the biases of the editors are, or whether the entry is entirely bunk. You may even find out the hard way that your prof has edited entries on your topic just to see if you use Wikipedia blindly. Trust me – I know that this has happened!
    But Wikipedia is not the only online culprit. One of my students made use of this page as a source for a medieval history essay. While it may well be an excellent source of information on “metaphysics” and “science” (and messages from other realms!), it is certainly not a reliable source for an essay on medieval Europe! This particular student Googled something to do with his topic, grabbed the first website that he found, made extensive use of the “information” contained on the site, and failed his essay. Incidentally, his essay also made reference to this game. While it is an outstanding game, it is completely unsuitable as a source for an essay! Here is a hint: unless you are writing an essay about video games, you should not make use of video games as historical sources!
    You can also be lazy by not taking the time to carefully edit or proofread your essay. If you want a professional to proofread and error check your essay, historyhelp.ca can help you. But at the very least, proofread your essay, pay attention to the language that you have used, and check your footnotes carefully. This all takes time, and it all takes effort. But like anything that requires hard work, the end result will be worth it.
  • Be sloppy! This is not unrelated to the point above re laziness. If your language is sloppy, your essay will be poor. If your arguments and analysis are sloppy, your essay will be poor. If you do not follow your prof’s instructions regarding formatting, font size, spacing, etc., your essay will be poor.
    Don’t simply trust the spell-checker in your word processor. For example, if you type “its” instead of “it’s” or “their” instead of “there”, it will not recognize the mistake.
    To cut down on spelling mistakes, and improper use of words (ie. “their” instead of “there”, “council” instead of “counsel” etc.) there is really no substitute for a couple of good reference books sitting within easy reach of your desk. Two to consider are:
    The Concise Oxford English Dictionary

    and
    A Guide to English Usage
    You don’t need these specific volumes, but a good dictionary and a dictionary of usage are essential tools for anyone who values accuracy of language. Yes, there are online dictionaries available, but they do not offer the depth of information available ina  good printed edition and, even more importantly, they do not offer the possibility of browsing for the perfect word!
  • Be inconsistent! I have already touched on the importance of being consistent in your use of the past tense when writing history. There are other facets of language where consistency can be a problem. For example, what kind of English are you using? Canadian? British? American? Unless your prof says otherwise (and this is something worth checking with him or her), it usually does not matter which version of English spelling and usage you adopt. But it will look terrible if your spelling flips randomly between “color” and “colour”. The point here is that you should be consistent. Consistent in your use of tense. Consistent in your spelling. Consistent in your formatting, and so on.

So there you are. If you are intent on becoming an historiaster, then by all means plagiarize, be lazy, be sloppy and be inconsistent. If you aspire to being something other than contemptible, then do all that you can to avoid these things!

Precision of language and why it matters

Saturday, January 17th, 2009

As I mentioned in an earlier post, precision of language in academic writing matters. Paying careful attention to the precise meaning of your words is one of the ways that you can quickly improve your writing. First, some examples:

  • The reign of Elizabeth I lasted for a long time.
  • The Black Death killed a lot of people.
  • Thomas Edison invented a lot of things.
  • Many people were caught up in the Atlantic slave trade.

None of these statements are incorrect, but at the same time none of them should be included in an essay. How long is ‘a long time’? How many people constitute ‘a lot of people’? What about ‘many people’ or ‘a lot of things’?

Remember that you are trying to convey your ideas and analysis as clearly as possible to your prof. By using vague terms such as the examples above, you are undermining this goal, and your mark will suffer as a result.

But what happens when exact, precise details are not available? This is a fact of life for historians. Believe it or not, we simply do not know everything about everything. For example while it is easy to be precise about the length of Elizabeth’s reign or the number of Edison’s inventions, no one can say how many people died as a result of the Black Death, nor can anyone say for certain how many Africans were caught up in the Atlantic slave trade. But you can still be a precise as possible.  Whatever you do, don’t make stuff up!! Remember that academic research is evidence-based. If there is good reliable evidence for your topic – excellent! Offer thanks to the deity of your choice, study your evidence, write your essay, and await the excellent mark that your work will no doubt deserve. When evidence is lacking or when there is disagreement on a topic, say that this is the case and examine what details are known. Trust me when I say that this:

  • The exact number of people killed by the Black Death is unknown, but recent estimates suggest that 30%-50% of Europe’s population perished in the epidemic. [Include a footnote here showing where you found these 'recent estimates'. This is essential. You can also take this a step further and use the footnote to comment on the estimates, the methodology used to come up with these estimates, etc.]

is much better than this:

  • The Black Death killed a lot of people.

Similarly, this:

  • While no one knows exactly how many Africans were enslaved by the Atlantic slave trade, recent research puts the number between 9 and 13 million. [Again, use a footnote as above]

Is much better than this:

  • Many people were caught up in the Atlantic slave trade.

And for instances where concrete information is available:

  • Elizabeth I reigned as queen of England from 17 November 1558 to 24 March 1603.
  • Thomas Edison held no fewer than 1,093 U.S. patents.

Are far better than:

  • The reign of Elizabeth I lasted for a long time.
  • Thomas Edison invented a lot of things.

This is one of the many examples of how simple changes can quickly improve your writing. Remember that your words are the tools that you are using to build your essay. If you choose them wisely and carefully, you will be able to convey your ideas much more effectively, and if you communicate your ideas more effectively, your essays and your marks will improve.

Key Points:

  • do not use vague, meaningless language
  • be careful when choosing your words and make sure their precise meaning is appropriate
  • when possible, give explicit details, facts, and figures
  • when this is not possible, say that it is not possible, explain why it is not possible, and give your best evidence-based estimate