Polished writing, and recurrent themes.

 

Two things crop up in mentoring sessions a lot. First, questions like ‘How do I make my writing sound more formal/professional?” Second, the length and wordiness of the weaker bits of writing. In academic writing too many words are worse than too few. On starting University, the gulf between written and spoken English grows, and once well-crafted essay now seems amateurish.

When asked for help refining writing- well, it’s a lifelong thing!  But there are few tricks that can be used. Tense, too, can make a great difference (‘tense can be making, too’ doesn’t sound as snappy). Much of this will fall into the final editing stage, which can feel more like a pruning session than anything else. Still, it’s often the little microskills that add an air of confidence and professionalism. It may be easier to categorize them…

Substituting words-Because/as, Lots of/many, this means that/hence, Even though/while, Keep/retain, But/yet, Says/states (affirms, suggests, argues…), you’ll  probably come up with far more as you think about them. Swapping a longer word with a shorter one, or an informal with a formal one, is an easy way to polish your work. Remember the word count, but also how long it will take to read your sentence. A syllable count will make a difference too!

Emotiveness-Another thing is to keep traces of emotion to a minimum. You may be writing a heartrending report on some appalling topics, but it is not so much about your feelings, as the reasons the reader should feel that way. I read an article in the Guardian which was basically about how much the writer hated the Thames Garden Bridge. I gave up caring what they thought long before the end of the article, being presented with so many laden words (despicable, chummy, gobbled ect…) and so few reasons to feel the same way as the journalist.

While essays allow more flexibility for personal opinion than reports, remember to present the information, order it so it supports what you believe, summarise what you feel should be taken from it- and let the reader form their own views.

Structure and order- ‘Many excellent blog posts have been published by the Study Skills Centre’ is not quite as strong as ‘The Study Skills Centre has published many excellent blog posts’. The first is an example of the ‘passive construction’, where a noun has something done to it. The second is the ‘active construction’- the subject does something in its own right. The blog posts were published- but the Study Skills Centre publishing them sounds more engaging.

Also-paragraph beginnings and ends. A common way of beginning a paragraph is to finish the previous one with a statement, then begin with a formulaic link word such as ‘ However’ or ‘Therefore’.  If each paragraph follows the same pattern it gives an under confident impression and a rather flat tone.

Try using a question or a quote. An element of uncertainty in the leading statement, can pique reader interest. Especially if it’s something they didn’t expect. Or beginning a paragraph with a ‘honing in’ of something brought up in the previous one? The ‘Henceforth’ or ‘Although’ can be moved further into the paragraph, if used at all.

 

Writing should be enjoyable to read. For all the stress and worry of writing, it will be worth it in the end. You’re always going to come back to it later on and feel you could do better (hence my previous post on cringy pre-teen poetry). The main thing is that the piece at hand is as good as you can make it. Be proud of your writing!

Quick Tip – Welsh Translation Service

Hi All!

Not sure if everyone has seen the recent email from the Corporate Communications and Marketing department – but within that email they stated that Canolfan Bedwyr (Bangor University’s Center for Welsh Language Services, Research and Technology) offers a translation service (short piece of text: up to 250 characters about 50 words), courses for tweeting in Welsh and writing in Welsh on the web. I just thought this might be something useful for us to know about!

Hope you’ve all had a great Easter break!

Links:

Canolfan Bedwyr: https://www.bangor.ac.uk/canolfanbedwyr/

Canolfan Bedwyr, Translation Unit: https://www.bangor.ac.uk/canolfanbedwyr/cyfieithu.php.en

Pratchett, Austen and the beginnings of craftsmanship.

It’s always impressive for craftspeople to look over their early work. It’s said to always keep your first sewing project, attempt at a bird box, lumpy knitting and so on, to remind you of how far you’ve come. For me, looking back on my pre-teen notebooks and squirming at embarrassment- well, that does a similar job!

The fact is that writing is a craft that can be honed, and experience will take you a long way. Writing with another writer lets you watch another craftsman at work. A little like the medieval apprentice system. That’s one of the wonderful things about peer mentoring. One of the main reasons people come to the Study Skills Centre is simply that they’re new to the particular style of writing asked of them. Highly talented freshers or non-native English speakers are just starting this craft, and by ‘learning by doing’ with a writer who’s been through much the same, the whole style visibly matures and deepens.

This maturing of style and learning-by-doing is a lifelong thing. Fans of the Discworld series will notice the difference between the first and the last ten books. There are 41 Discworld books written over the course of thirty plus years, so naturally there will be development in the quality of writing! The earliest books are ones of very close parody- to Rock and Roll, to Shakespeare, and simply to the plethora of weak fantasy novels so popular in the 80s. In academic terms, there was over-heavy reliance on the source material, with limited originality. Pratchett’s inexperience also shows in the long, over emphasised sentences, weighed down by excess information, and an unclear central theme in the various strands.

Similar is the Juvenilia (juvenile writings) of Jane Austen, which you may be able to get a copy of online or from an old fashioned second hand bookshop. These short stories romp with energy, are clear parodies of the source reading material and don’t quite have the same readability or sound structure of her later work. Many believe that the finest novel she ever wrote was her last, Sandringham. Sadly this was never completed due to her early death, but the same theme of continuous improvement with experience remains the same.

So moving back to The Study Skills Centre, how is this likely to benefit the writers of Bangor University? For a start, I always assure the less confident ‘novices’ that they will only get better. And they do. To the point I can be little more than a sounding board for the more experienced mentees.

Secondly, neither the mentor, the text book or the lecture slides can tell you exactly what to write. While the assignment brief must be followed, a university student is expected to have their own words and viewpoints on the topic. A hand to hold can be comforting, but sooner or later it should not be needed. Two excellent quotes from one of my tutors are-

“Academics are always arguing. That’s what drives science forward”

“You’re becoming the academic now. People are going to look to you for advice”

So Peer Mentoring is interesting in that it helps writers at that early, awkward stage, which even the greatest have. By letting the mentee direct the session and taking a step back to focus on the issues at hand, we help others of our kind develop. And for my own early works? Maybe my parents’ attic is the best place for them…

Mentoring quote

Hi team,

I wanted to share this quote I found about mentoring that I felt could be applied to the work we do here in Study Skills.

I know I often find it difficult to strike the balance between telling somebody ‘you should do it like this’ and encouraging them to find their own way. For me, little quotes like this serve as a reminder that our goal isn’t necessarily to create the perfect writer in 50 minutes, but rather to set them on their way equipped with all the tools.

260826f39be184fb12435ace0e17a209.jpg

And then hopefully this one will make you smile…

funny-pictures-mentoring

I hope you all have a great week!

 

Vignettes

Hi team!

I hope you are well.

I wanted to offer a reflection of a session I had this morning in which a Childhood Studies student came to me with a task I had never encountered before.

I am particularly interested in what you would have done in the same situation, so please do feel welcome to leave your thoughts and comments below.

The task was to create a 1000 word ‘vignette’ and then a 2000 word annotation of the ‘vignette’. 

The material I (or rather we!) had to work with consisted of two case studies outlining two childrens’ childhoods. There was no accompanying task sheet, just the above statement in her notebook.

I asked the student if there was a task sheet or PowerPoint slide available that we could refer to, but she said there wasn’t.

Not knowing what a vignette was (and Google not offering much help either) I was truly stumped, and found myself almost guessing what she had to do. I guessed that she needed to write an assumption of how the children in the case studies’ future would turn out, and then the annotation would consist of research to back this up.

However, terrified of setting her off on the wrong foot, I advised that she went and saw her tutor to clarify what she needed to do.

My heart really went out to the student and I felt like I hadn’t helped at all in –  what turned out to be – a very short session.

Can anybody offer some enlightenment on writing a vignette in an academic context?

 

 

Grammar point: Participles

Hi everyone,

I thought I would share something else I have been working on from the Palgrave Study Skills: Improve your grammar. (This book is quickly becoming my baby I recommend it to you all!)

This time I have been looking at participles to enhance students’ writing. I find this a particularly useful grammar point to focus on when the student already writes well and coherently, but it’s lacking flare. In other words, the classic stuck in a B graders!

So, what is a participle?

In Maisie speak, it’s being playful with the sentence. Twisting the order and varying this from sentence to sentence. Basically it’s a step further than just adding your usual connectives (and, because, or).

However, I feel the book writes this slightly more eloquently, describing a participle as:

  • A present participle is a form of a verb ending in – ing (eg. facing)
  • A past participle is often a form of a verb ending with -ed (eg. worked, although could include done, driven, known etc).
  • A past participle can also be used after ‘having’ (eg. having worked)

“But stop!” I hear you cry. How an earth do we put this grammatical jargon (as it may seem to the student) into practice?

First, I would get the student to try and use participles to enhance the following sentences. Note that the original sentences are grammatically correct, they’re just missing that oomph, if you will.

Example 1

The country’s car industry was obliged to restructure in the 1990s because it faced the effects of a recession.

This could be improved with the help of a participle, changing it to:

Facing the effects of a recession in the early 1990s, the country’s car industry was obliged to restructure.

Example 2 

Exports grew over the next few years. They were driven by an international marketing campaign.

This could be improved with the help of a participle, changing it to: 

Exports, driven by an international marketing campaign, grew over the next few years.

 

The book gives a few more examples, however I feel it would be more beneficial (given we only have 50 minutes) to try and enhance some of the sentences in the students’ own work.

I’m sure for many of you this is something you do quite naturally without thinking about it – I know I do! For this reason I have found this resource so helpful because it’s a concrete way to make writing ‘better’, something which can seem a terribly daunting task when faced with a student who is already using a good variety of simple, complex and compound sentences.

 

Problems with past forms

Hello everyone,

This is a useful activity I use to help students improve their grammatical expression.

It is taken from Palgrave Study Skills, Improve your Grammar by Mark Harrison, Vanessa Jakeman and Ken Paterson (2012)

It takes the form of ‘find the mistakes’ in the following sentences, so very easy to fit into a session and feel like you have done something concrete which they can then go away and apply to their whole essay.

Why not have a go yourselves?

What is wrong with the following sentences?

  1. The organisers should of been able to predict the press reaction to the show.
  2. After extensive negotiations, Select Design could make an exclusive agreement with Topshop.
  3. My Frock Ltd did not need to go bankrupt if they had restricted their business to the UK.
  4. The designer handbags on sale at £25 each must not have been genuine. 

 

This is a great activity to get students thinking about grammar, especially those guilty of ‘writing as they speak’!

See the answers below:

What’s wrong?

  1. In spoken English have may sound like of, but it is never correct to write of as part of a past modal form.

    e.g The organisers should have been able to predict….

  2. You cannot use could for a specific achievement in the past. Instead, you need to use was/were able to

    e.g Select Design was able to make/managed to make/succeeded in making…

  3. Did not need to + verb is used for things that did not happen (because they were not necessary) and Need not have + past participle is used for things that did happen (but they were not necessary).

    e.g My Frock Ltd need not have gone bankrupt if they had restricted their business to the UK.

  4. To express the opposite of must have been, you need to use cannot or could not have been, not must not have been .

    e.g The designer handbags on sale cannot have been genuine.

If you have time, you can extend this activity by going through the student’s essay and seeing if there are any specific examples of these errors in their work.

The value of reflections

Hello everyone,

Further to the discussion we had in today’s team meeting about Jenny’s tricky session I have just finished reading her reflection on the session. After a long summer and only just really getting back into the swing of mentoring I’ve lost touch with the value of writing these reflections, so thought a blog post here (and I really don’t contribute enough as the report highlighted!) would serve to remind us of the power of this tool.

For those of you that are new (welcome to the blog!) there’s a pool of reflections on our drive that you can access – they are not only useful for the mentor who wrote them but are a great way of thinking about our mentoring styles and strengths. Reading Jenny’s latest piece I wonder if I would have been so effective in that difficult situation; would I have instinctively gone back to asking more questions, probing, and really try to get to the root of the situation? Possibly not, but I hope that I would at least achieve some of the positives that clearly came from the session.

Reflecting on the times I have, ahem, reflected – I find that sitting down and writing about experiences really cements good practice, as well as highlighting areas for improvements and things I would do differently next time. So, I will aim to write a reflection about a good/ tricky/ interesting session soon for sure.

Reflecting has also made me feel more positive and optimistic (again a thank you to Jenny here for her wise words after the meeting!) as I can remind myself of the good practice I do follow. I had a brilliant session before today’s meeting, with the writer leaving confident about his essay, but more importantly confident that he can write his assignment, and write it well. The addition of the comfortable seating helped too – thanks Julian! Our sessions aren’t always that straight-forward and effective, so it is good to focus on the positives when they happen.

The session that I have been worrying about is coming up in a few moments. Rather than dreading it, after our discussions I am strangely looking forward to the challenge. I suppose if all our sessions were straight-forward and easy the job wouldn’t be as enjoyable, would it? I’m sure there’s a quote out there about the benefits of facing challenges…. But I haven’t got time to dig, my PhD student is hopefully on his way! I will let you know how it goes….

 

Mentoring reflections

During my time as a writing mentor I have learnt a lot, not just about mentoring but also about myself. My two years as a mentor have been eye-opening.

I remember how nervous I felt right before my very first session. I thought I wouldn’t be able to help at all and the writer would go away thinking that I was useless. It wasn’t like that at all and now here I am in my final week as a mentor. Now I get excited about my sessions and look forward to the next challenge. I know I am not an expert but I understand that I can make a difference despite this. Sometimes I still get a little nervous about sessions especially when someone has said they want you to “read over my work and check grammar and spelling issues.” Most of the time though I eagerly anticipate meeting the writers who come through the door.

One of the best things for me as a mentor was when we did video sessions. I was really dreading it and was hoping that no one who was seeing me would want to be filmed. Unfortunately, I did end up having my video session. It was however, incredibly useful and it was nowhere near as bad as I had imagined it would be. The camera did make me a little nervous at first but then I forgot it was there and ended up having one of my best sessions with a writer. Even better because it had been filmed I had the unique opportunity to look back on a session with a critical eye and observe things I had probably missed in the moment. Although, watching it back was a little humiliating (I hate hearing my voice on camera).

Working with everyone else has also been a great part of the experience. Having the opportunity to discuss with others how sessions have been going and being able to make use of everyone’s different areas of expertise has been invaluable. All of you make mentoring much more enjoyable and have helped me to see things from a different perspective which has been invaluable for my sessions.

I would also just like to thank Julian, especially, for all his help and support during my time as a mentor and whilst I was on my year abroad. Thank you for helping me develop as a mentor and for giving me this wonderful opportunity.

Sadly, my time as a mentor has come to an end but I am sure that those of you continuing on next year will continue to do an amazing job. And to those who start in September I wish you all the best of luck and hope that you enjoy this role as much as I have.

 

 

Writing an Encyclopaedia Entry

By Phil Davies, 10th March 2016

Writing an encyclopaedia entry can be a quicker and easier way of getting published than submitting an article to a peer-reviewed journal. It is also a way to get your own specialist area of research out into the public domain, and, where appropriate, your own work cited, and therefore publicised.

An encyclopaedia is generally understood as an ‘authoritative’ reference work suitable for students and professionals, whether online or in printed form. They are normally ‘scholarly’ and ‘professional’ but of interest to a wider audience. They give a comprehensive view of a subject (more than is available in a dictionary) without going into the complicated detail of a specialist text. Very often, they are the entry-point to a topic for students and researchers alike.

Many authoritative encyclopaedias are now found online, along with a host of more traditional printed versions, along with ‘companions’, ‘quick reference guides’ and ‘[extended] dictionaries’. Most online encyclopaedias accept online submissions for entries.

The objective, structure, contents, format and style of an encyclopaedia entry are different to other forms of academic writing, and we attempt to give an overview of the most important points here.

  1. Getting started

Most professional encyclopaedias, both on-line and in print, have their own guidelines for the objective, structure and style of their entries. Where available, this should be consulted first, as it may determine your choice of which publication to approach. They will, for example, detail the acceptable length of the entries in word-count, the required structure and format, and the word-processing software required (e.g. Microsoft Word) or text format (e.g. HTML). Some encyclopaedias may require a formal contract to be agreed by the contributor (an agreement to transfer the copyright of the material from the author to the publisher) before accepting an entry for publication.

  1. Word count

The word-count of an entry varies greatly from encyclopaedia to encyclopaedia, depending on the scholastic objective of the publication. ‘Quick reference guide’ entries can be as short as 200 words, entries in large, specialist subject-matter encyclopaedias can be as long as journal articles and even short monographs (6000-12,000 words). Here are some examples:

A Dictionary of Critical Theory (OUP): c.200-400 words

Encyclopedia of Postmodernism (Routledge): c. 800 words

Encyclopedia of Literature and Criticism (Routledge): c.4000 words

The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory (Blackwell): c.4000 words

Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy (online): up to 12,000 words

  1. Structure

The exact structure of an entry varies from publication to publication and is usually outlined in the submission guidelines. However, the following are common characteristics:

  • A short one, or two-word title, sometimes including relevant dates for people, organizations, or events
  • A brief definition, or description of the subject at the beginning, followed by more detailed examination in the main body. This initial description might also state the subject’s interest and significance, and mention the main topics to be covered in the main body
  • A main body, sometimes with sub-sections and sub-headers depending on the length of the entry
  • References and further reading
  • Related entries
  1. What to write about and how

Encyclopaedia entries are an introduction and a guide to a topic, not a critical evaluation of it. They include the important facts about the topic, person, place, etc. (the “who”, “what”, “when”, “where”, “why” and “how”), like the dates of birth and death, birthplace, parents’ names, education, career highlights, and place of burial of a person. When discussing a person, they should always be objective, not hagiographical. The following guidelines from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarise these requirements quite well I think, and are pertinent to all disciplines:

“Entries should be objective/neutral analyses/surveys that offer a broad perspective of the topic rather than advocate a point of view. Authors should see their mission as that of introducing advanced undergraduates (or grad students and colleagues), who may have no special knowledge of the topic, to the main issues and the most important pieces of primary and secondary literature on the topic, so as to bring them to a state where they can read that literature with insight and understanding. Clarity of substance and style should also be one of the most important goals / Encyclopedia entries should therefore not be idiosyncratic or polemical, or promote the author’s work, but rather strive for balance by presenting the important arguments that have been put forward on both sides of an issue. Controversial claims should be identified as such […] Authors should not use their SEP entry to raise or respond to objections if those objections and responses aren’t already in the published literature.”

  1. Style

Entries should be written in a formal, authoritative, register. ‘Editorialization’ (the inclusion of evaluative statements such, “… was the greatest sprinter of all time”) and personal opinions should be avoided. Entries should be precise and specific, the use of jargon minimized, and technical concepts expressed in plain or previously defined language. Entries on technical topics themselves should include definitions of the technical terms used.

  1. Formatting

The exact requirements for each encyclopaedia should be provided in the guidelines. If not, keep it simple and unadorned in the first instance when submitting something to the editor. Some additional tips:

  • Spell out acronyms the first time they are used, e.g.: “Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)”, and then “RSPB” for all further references
  • The readers of an encyclopaedia can be generalist, non-specialist and geographically dispersed (especially on-line encyclopaedias). Care should be taken to explain acronyms which might in the first instance seem obvious to the specialist or local reader
  • The entry will be copy-edited in most cases, but avoid typos, spelling errors and grammatical errors wherever possible. It has a greater likelihood of being published if the editor does not have to do too much work to it
  1. Images

Some encyclopaedias permit/encourage photographs and other images to be submitted with the entry. If this is the case, make sure you include the copyright details of the image for the editors to seek the appropriate permissions

  1. Personal biographies

Some encyclopaedias require a brief biography of the contributor (e.g. 300 words) and contact details such as email address, the URL of a relevant website you might have. Writing a personal biography is an art in itself, but as a rule it should be concise and focused on the details relevant to the entry, publication and readership. For those wishing to write regularly in the academic world (and make applications for grants, scholarships, project funding, book/article proposals), it is worth having a well-crafted, stock, biography in your store cupboard which can be used each time, perhaps adjusting it slightly for different audiences. Some encyclopaedias may request a personal photo for use on the contributors section as well.

  1. Originality

The work must be original, and it is worth consulting other encyclopaedias to check what has been written on your subject before; even Wikipedia. Usual considerations of plagiarism and copyright protection apply, but properly quoted and cited extracts would normally fall under the “fair use” principle widely recognised in scholarly and academic writing.

  1. Sources / further reading

Encyclopaedias differ in the quantity of sources which they require/permit to be cited but this is normally a low number (e.g. 3). These sources should be ones where the ‘best’ information in your entry comes from, and the ‘best’ additional information for readers will be found. They are not ‘footnotes’ in the formal sense of the word, although large encyclopaedias with long entries such as Stanford do permit footnotes.

Academic encyclopaedias normally require that only ‘refereed’ publications may be cited, and most discourage citing of unpublished and inaccessible materials.

The editors will normally format the bibliographic details as they see fit during the copy-editing process, but they may provide detailed requirements in the guidelines. In the absence of specific advice, err on the side of caution and provide full details of the works you cite (Author, title, place and date of publication).

Likewise, encyclopaedias differ on the acceptability of citing Internet sources, and while this is increasingly common, they might differ on what type of internet source is acceptable (e.g. “.edu”, “.gov.” and “.org” domains may be considered more acceptable than “.com”). They discourage citing on-line versions of major printed texts (e.g. Encyclopaedia Britannica), preferring the original printed version, but when doing so, most require that the URL is included.

Some encyclopaedias prohibit or discourage the citing of the author’s own published work, except where that work is the only, or most, authoritative source available (e.g. Stanford).

  1. Related entries

Some encyclopaedias end their entries with a ‘Related Entries’ section. This will normally be a list of key concepts or people mentioned in your entry for which there is a separate, dedicated entry in the encyclopaedia. If these are not known in advance, there is no harm suggesting some in your submission, you may be asked to contribute more!

Good luck and have fun…

 

Submission guidelines consulted (online)

Blackpast.org, ‘Online Encyclopedia Entry Guidelines’, (http://www.blackpast.org/about/online-encyclopedia-entry-guidelines)

Duke University Scholar Works, ‘Writing an encyclopedia article’ (https://scholarworks.duke.edu/copyright-advice/copyright-faq/writing-an-encyclopedia-article)

Kentucky African American Encyclopedia, ‘Guidelines for Writing Entries’, (https://www.uky.edu/OtherOrgs/kaae/files/Guidelines.pdf)

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘Guidelines and Policies for Entry Content’, (http://plato.stanford.edu/guidelines.html)

 

Encyclopaedias consulted

Buchanan, Ian (ed.), A Dictionary of Critical Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

Coyle, Martin, et. al. (eds.), Encyclopedia of Literature and Criticism (London: Routledge, 1991)

Ryan, Michael (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 2011)

Taylor, Victor E., et. al. (eds.), Encyclopedia of Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 2001)