Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Craft of Research: Chapter 14

All about revising! On first glance, it looks exhaustingly complicated. But upon breakdown into a few bulleted lists...

Styles: types and cautions
  • Scholar-to-scholar. Here is an example, blindly grabbed from the morass of Google Scholar. (Automatically downloads a PDF. That particular article isn't too bad as far as biology articles go, but you get the picture.)
  • Parent-to-child. You shall know it by its condescending quality.
  • Peer-to-peer. Clearer than scholarese yet not condescending. Aim for this.
  • An admonition to non-expert researchers (I succumbed to this and still do): do not blindly grab the dog that bit you, i.e. do not imitate the academic-journal style for the sake of imitating it. Even if you understand the writer's content, there's no guarantee that your readers will.
  • If you can manage the first and last few words of each sentence, say the authors, the rest should fall into place.
A Socratic definition of style, as far as we can define it
  • Look at the subjects of your sentences. Are they nouns (e.g. "Locke" or "rain forests"), or are they noun derivatives (e.g. "The continuous stripping of the rain forest" or "the reason for...")? Are the subjects the "main characters" in your paper?
  • Look at the actions that your main characters (yes, these may be inanimate objects) do. Are they verbs, or are they nouns ("nominalizations")? Having too many of the latter forces you to add excess prepositions, making for an unclear, wordy, awful paper. Examples: repetition (vs. "repeated"), service (vs. "serve"), and quantification (vs. "quantify").
How to diagnose and revise style
  • Who/what are your characters? It's all right to use nominalizations if your readers are familiar with them. Be judicious. Practice makes perfect.
  • Where are your abstractions? Can you reduce the complexity of your prose by replacing them with more concrete concepts?
  • Nominalizations, like passive voice, let you shift the focus from one subject (e.g. loggers who strip rain forests) to another that you may want to focus on more (e.g. the rain forests themselves). Science topics usually demand passive, except when you are describing how you discovered your research problem and what your solution is (generally at the beginning and end of journal articles).
  • Look at the first words of each of your sentences. Do these sentence beginnings flow into each other, or are they disjointed? Are they familiar to your readers? Show the old, familiar subjects before introducing new, foreign ones.
  • Are you introducing complex material and technical terms? Connect with simpler information that comes before.
  • "When you are introducing a paragraph, or even a whole section, construct the first sentence of that paragraph so that the key terms of the paragraph are the last words of that sentence" (emph. added). Example from the text: to introduce the paragraph that looks like this:
    The problems began in 1722, when Peter the Great passed a law of succession that terminated the principle of heredity and required the sovereign to appoint a successor. ... There was turmoil even when successors were appointed.
    use this sentence:
    The political situation changed, because after Peter the Great seven out of eight reigns of the Romanov line were plagued by turmoil over disputed succession to the throne.
    and not this sentence:
    The political situation changed, because disputes over succession to the throne caused some sort of palace revolt or popular revolution in seven out of eight reigns of the Romanov line after Peter the Great.

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