Sensible Sentencing

Writing is dangerous. Readers often misunderstand. #SensibleSentencing can help. Short simple sentences are easier.

I have been marking. Some student essays are a joy to read. Some are full of long complicated sentences and I am left guessing what the writer intended to say. I cannot fairly give marks based on guesswork. Not just beginners, but experienced writers too, can write sentences that are misunderstood. Complex sentences are more likely to be misunderstood than simple ones.

The trick to writing that can easily be understood is easy. The trick to writing that is unlikely to be misunderstood is easy. Write simple sentences. Each sentence should say ONE thing.

[Like most “rules”, experienced writers can break this one effectively. PG Wodehouse wrote many long elegant sentences. Often they had a “twist” that added spice to his humour. However, when beginners try to copy such sentences often something goes wrong. The result is puzzled or angry readers. If you are an experienced writer you should still be wary of long sentences. They are dangerous. Check them twice.]1

If each sentence is short and says one thing, then it is almost guaranteed to be clear and comprehensible. Sometimes we need to coordinate two ideas together – in which case use a conjunction. If the ideas are simply placed side by side use “and”. If they are contrasted use “but”.2

However, beginners should be wary of sentences that use more complicated tricks than this.

  1. This is good advice. I have been writing for public consumption for over forty years, usually more often than weekly, still most of my bad writing is due to long sentences – like this one? []
  2. You can do this as two sentences, using however, but this can lead to other problems. Not least lots of “howevers”. If you start a sentence with however put a comma after it.

    Actually it is more complicated than this, if “however” means “no matter how” it is not followed by a comma. For example: “However Squiggly tried, he couldn’t get his mind off chocolate.” More here. If “however” means “but” then a comma is needed: in Star Trek (2009) Spock says, “I intend to assist in the effort to reestablish communication with Starfleet. However, if crew morale is better served by my roaming the halls weeping, I will gladly defer to your medical expertise.” – More here. []

Write tight (repeating myself)

Photo by Dick Rochester

I have been doing a lot of writing in the last few months (one reason for less posts here) much of it to tight word counts, I was delighted to find my own advice still (despite Mike’s comments) rings true – at least to me ;)

In our intro class, students write a summary of the message a biblical text had for its intended audience. This should be one or two sentences and less than 50 words.

Writing a summary is like packing for a journey, some people want to take everything! Then it is an exercise in writing tight. Most students write much as they speak. In speaking we include padding – unneeded words and phrases that allow us time to think. Writing tight involves removing the padding.

Googling “tight writing” produced lots of advice, but many writers could not practise what they preached. (Several high ranked hits were written on contract, to raise the word count for the writer ;)

So, here’s Tim’s guide to writing tighter

Don’t repeat yourself

If a word occurs several times in a paragraph some of them may be unneeded. Using two words where one will do (tautology) is wasteful: “tightly stretched” only says the same as “stretched”.

Focus

Writers should have something to say. They should say it. Often, though, we also want to say other things. Tight writing omits such diversions. It keeps focused. The asides that often pepper this blog in brackets or as footnotes are examples that should be cut. (Except I like the effect, and am not trying to save words and do help the reader by using parentheses to mark the digressions off from the body text ;)

Don’t be passive

Good Grammar checkers (like MS Word used to have) hate passives. They are correct. Passive sentences are longer, and usually less clear: “The ball was kicked by John” vs. “John kicked the ball”

Cut conjunctions

Long sentences usually waste words, needing extra coordination. Several short sentences work better.

Very that

“That” is often unnecessary. It can often be pruned, it sometimes signals other words that1 can be pruned. Extra adjectives are also an easy target “very” for example usually adds little. Karen Luna Ray offers this sentence: “See how many unnecessary words that you can remove from this very lengthy sentence that I am writing..” Which becomes: “See how many unnecessary words you can remove from this sentence.”

To be or not to be

The verb “to be” often encourages wasted words. Compare: “She is a powerful writer” with “She writes powerfully.”

Avoid adverbs

Often we employ adverbs when a stronger verb does the job better. Suzanne Lieurance compares:

Flabby: She smiled slightly at the photographer.
Fit: She grinned at the photographer.

Above all, rewrite right

Paragraphs, and even sentences, are seldom  written right first time. Edit cutting flab. Read your text aloud. Read it silently. Each reading will show fat to prune.

Have a sit down and a nice cup of tea

After a break (better a good night’s sleep, but a cup of tea will do), edit again. Cut again!

  1. Though notice sometimes it IS needed ;) []

Referencing (citing) for beginners

One of the biggest hurdles new students face is learning to reference their work “properly”. Schools seldom teach this skill but increasingly Universities and colleges are demanding it. Life is not made easier by the fact that, to all except for OCD suffers getting proper citations is no fun :(

That’s the bad news. However the good news is that “proper” citation has never been easier.

Software

You can use a program that keeps track of all your references and even formats them differently for different teachers at the click of a button. The two commonest ways to do this (at least in NZ) are:

  • EndNote: an expensive program for which many institutions have bought site licences that allow students to install a copy. Its greatest advantage is that it may come with institutional support (e.g. free classes on how to use it). Its greatest disadvantage is that it is a big heavyweight that has a history of slowing your wordprocessor to a crawl and crashing machines. (I’m told it is better behaved now, but have no recent experience to confirm this.) It will do everything you need and 16,000 other things as well.
  • Zotero: a free program that works as a standalone or integrates with your browser1 and both MS and the main free Wordprocessors. It does everything you need and a score or more of things you should need but probably won’t. It has been known to crash, but in my experience less than Endnote.

The choice is probably really simple :)

  1. If your institution offers Endnote and supports it, choose it.
  2. If not choose Zotero.
  3. Unless you like using free software and hate your computer running slowly in which case use Zotero anyway.
  4. Not using either is plain stupid, and if you were stupid you would not be looking at this ;)

Learn to use it. (If there is demand I might do updated Zotero tutorials but I think the ones on the site are good.)

Getting the data

Unless you are a fossil from the dark ages, do not try to enter the data (author’s name, title, etc.) by hand. There are easier ways :)

For books and e-journals your institution’s system should integrate with your bibliography software, on the catalogue page just click the link to “add citation to Endnote” (or however it is phrased).

NB: this data is prepared by librarians so is usually good, but occasionally even librarians have brainstorms or bad hair days. If the author’s name appears in capitals, or the Title includes a description or something, then you may need to “clean up” the data. This is rare, and if you do it in the bibliography software itself you only have to do it once for any item. One piece of “tidying” I often have to do is add the place of publication.

Citing right

Add your citations in your wordprocessor.

Make sure you have chosen the “correct” format. Hint: the “correct” format is the one your teacher told you to use, even if you think a different one is better :(

There are more possible formats than there are days in a leap year, but there are a few in common use:

MLA 7th EdBulkeley, Tim. Not Only a Father: Talk of God As Mother in the Bible & Christian Tradition. Auckland, N.Z: Archer Press, 2011. Print.
APA 6th EdBulkeley, T. (2011). Not only a father: Talk of God as mother in the Bible & Christian tradition. Auckland, N.Z: Archer Press.
TurabianBulkeley, Tim. Not Only a Father: Talk of God As Mother in the Bible & Christian Tradition. Auckland, N.Z.: Archer Press, 2011.
ChicagoBulkeley, Tim. 2011. Not only a father: talk of God as mother in the Bible & Christian tradition. Auckland, N.Z.: Archer Press.

Learn what the ones used at your place look like, so you’ll notice if somehow your document is set to the “wrong” one ;)

What about interesting things like videos, blogs etc.?

Ths is the most frequently asked question. The first answer is this: “Don’t panic”2 The second answer is go to Son of Citation Machine, click the appropriate link, and enter the data (or at least those that you can easily discover, how much effort you make probably depends on how IT savvy your lecturer seems ;)  Though nowadays Zotero or Endnote are probably up to the job without Son of Citation Machine once you have done a few and got the feel of things :)

It should look something like this:

Bulkeley, Tim. Not Only a Father: Talk of God As Mother in the Bible & Christian Tradition. Archer Press, n.d. Web. 7 Apr 2013. <http://bigbible.org/mothergod/>.

  1. on PCs, Macs, iPhone/iPad, Chrome for Android, Android Browser, Firefox Mobile Browser or Opera Mobile/Mini []
  2.  Douglas Adams (1992). The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Trilogy in Four Parts. Pan, 537. []

A massive library is available to distant students

I’m marking again. Every time I mark an assignment there are distant students who could have got better marks if they had used a decent scholarly commentary or two, to supplement whatever they, their aunt Jemima (who did a course at Capenwray in the 1960s) or their pastor happen to have. Time and again I tell them, so now I’m telling you, the secret of a massive theological library that offers (at least) several good solid recent commentaries (in stock when you go to look for them)1 on every Bible book. And, to make a good story better, this huge resource is available in your own home :)


Or a download link

  1. And with your local theological library isn’t it always the case that the best commentaries on the book you are interested in have always been borrowed by either a PhD student or a class of hungry students with an assignment due? []

Half-work days and “happy places”

I was interrupted by this Welcome Swallow, I think (since they seldom sit around on fence posts) he was on a Half-work Day too ;)

Today was a “half-work” day at Cloudy Paddocks. I got all the work I needed to done in half a day, and so could spend the other half on fencing the pig paddock. This is brilliant when it works as (on the change is as good as a rest principle) I get more than half the work done in each half that I would in a full day. It uses up a day of holiday, but keeps me on top of both my day job and my hobby job.

Pigcatraz or the pigs "happy place"?

Today I finished1 the new fence for the pig paddock. When Richard was here, but there’s been little progress since.

The fence to this bush needs upgrading still.

I had been calling the paddock Pig Heaven as it has trees, damp patches and all sorts of piggy delights. But then I began to think of the theology of that :( So now, I’m calling it the Pigs’ Happy Place. I know there’s an allusion to the Sky TV adverts in this, but think about it… Sky want to keep their customers more or less content so they become food for advertisers. I want to keep my pigs really content till they become bacon. Not much difference is there? Except I won’t charge my customers!

  1. Except for a few bottom staples on battens, really difficult with only one person despite Strainright’s brilliant batten holder, and the “Taranaki gate” which needs some thought. []

70% of students could learn from this

Yes, here :)

Click for full graphic

Sadly the students who need this advice most probably don’t read my blog ;)

However, for students and others who do here  is some good sensible advice and a quick revision of some of the more useful operators one can use in searching Google.

HT: Lifehacker from HackCollege.com

PS more than 70% of students in NZ do not use Macs, they still cost too much for most students.

Starting tertiary study at Auckland?

Photo by Wesley Fryer

The stats suggest readers of Sansblogue mainly don’t live in Auckland and are more likely to have children (or even grandchildren) of an age to start tertiary study than to be in this position themselves. However, in case you (or someone you know) IS starting tertiary study in Auckland this year do attend (or suggest they attend) the afternoon Scripture Union and TSCF are organising at the University of Auckland this Saturday. It’s geared to new students heading off to universities and other tertiary institutions “who want to think about their faith in this new context.” It also offers tips on study skills and surviving in the new environment. So a great chance to increase your chances of successful study.

When: 05 February 12:00 – 16:30

Location: OGGB5, Owen G. Glenn Building, University of Auckland (12 Grafton Road)

Details here: Transitions Brochure

HT: Greenflame

Turning libraries outside in :)

Today was Carey Principal’s Day (sort of a staff retreat under another name) two experiences have me thinking about how our changing communications technologies are changing libraries.

The ghost of libraries past (photo from 23 dingen voor musea)

The first was driving up for the day. Our “farm” is three hours away, so on the journey I listened to some great radio, from the BBC and ABC. None of the programmes (not even the always stimulating Digital Planet, or the often intriguing All in the Mind) could get me to remember when they are “on” or rearrange my life so as to listen to them. One silent revolution in my life over the last several years has been the quantity of radio I now hear. Almost none of it live. Digital technology, and Internet delivery, enable me to shift time, and ignore geography, and listen to what I like when I like :)

During the day, when our librarian had presented her dream of the Carey library in five year’s time,1 our staff comedian (and resident American) Brian Krum quipped: “So you want the library to imitate Borders ;)” Siong is equally quick: “No I want Borders to imitate us!”

The ghost of libraries to come? (Jan Steen "Argument over a card game")

Siong is right, libraries (already in part, by five years away so much more) are about breaking down borders. The library of the present/near future is a Library without Borders. Library users no longer need or want the hushed “study space” of yesteryear. Or if they do they are hopeless stick-in-the-muds who enjoy anything “retro”. The information and ideas libraries distribute is increasingly available anywhere anytime. Libraries are becoming places to interact with others about that information and those ideas.

The old, outside-in, library was a place you went to in order to acquire something. They were “study spaces” where ideas were mulled and books composed (as  Karl Marx and hundreds of others did in the British Museum). Coffee shops were places where ideas were discussed and debated.

In our world we need outside-in libraries, places like the coffee shops of old where people meet, linger and talk – or better still argue! Now that’s a revolution that most libraries cannot make, yet. They, almost all, have a massive investment in books, and books take space and human resources to curate and distribute them. It is not only the ancient and massively endowed Bodleian Library that is running out of space, the much humbler Carey library requires staff to assist in “culling” its stock! That inertia means that for some time to come libraries will be both “inside-out” places we come to – increasingly infrequently – to get information and ideas, and also “outside-in” places to go to in order to share those ideas with others, talk and argue.

Many of my readers, I know, are aflicted with codexphilia. I used to be a sufferer. The once scores, then dozens of boxes that accompanied my moves were mute witness to my plight. I still enjoy the look and feel of a well-produced volume – increasingly seldom, for publishers in search of “cost savings” must still compete on price. But I know how I’d spend the budget if I was a librarian, and a coffee machine and some decently comfortable couches would rank higher than more dead trees ;)2

  1. How anyone, especially an information specialist, can think that far ahead amuses me! []
  2. No. You got it wrong! This is not another rant predicting the death of the book, or even the codex. I think, and hope, that codexes will be with us for generations to come, new and beautiful ones as well as those redolent of age. But they are already – and will increasingly be – either works of art, or of antiquarian interest. They will not be tools of my trade. []

TextBOOKs?

Image from BecomingJewish.Org

Jonathan (my always stimulating, still just, but soon moving on, colleague) of ξἐνος pointed me to a piece in the NY TImes by Lisa W. FoderaroIn a Digital Age, Students Still Cling to Paper Textbooks“. This may be, and much of it reads like, the traditional claim that “books won’t disappear anytime soon”, digital technologies and books are different, and the new cannot replace the old… Cant that has been around at least since the first enthusiast on the other “side” proclaimed with equal evangelical fervour the death of the codex. It is different from the run of the mill in a couple of ways.

First it is based on research. Among other things this gives hard figures. For example: “three-quarters of the students surveyed said they still preferred a bound book to a digital version.” Which of course is a resounding vote of confidence in the codex textbook, especially in view of the fact that a couple of years ago the figure would have been over 99%.

It’s the implied competition and contrasts between e-textbooks and paper ones that interested me.The three paragraphs I quote below came, in reverse order (with just one paragraph from the original left out) which I think enable me to make a reverse case.

“Students grew up learning from print books,” said Nicole Allen, the textbooks campaign director for the research groups, “so as they transition to higher education, it’s not surprising that they carry a preference for a format that they are most accustomed to.”

This familiarity factor is gradually diminishing as students come into the system with less familiarity with print codex works as a major part of their previous study. Already some of our first year students (younger than the average, and straight form school) only use print books if we encourage them to. Most of these students’ assignments are written using resources available on the Web, if I am lucky through Google books. But often from websites of pastors sermons, or reprints of devotional classics.

Many students are reluctant to give up the ability to flip quickly between chapters, write in the margins and highlight passages, although new software applications are beginning to allow students to use e-textbooks that way.

But of course the very things these students are reluctant to “give up” are precisely the things that any decent e-text should make easy! Non-sequential access is what hypertext is all about, commenting and user annotation are easier and more flexible in an electronic environment, and highlighting is basic. It is only publishers rushing shoveleware onto the market repurposing existing titles into containers that are designed to mimic a dead tree that makes current e-textbooks unresponsive and equally dead!

“I believe that the codex is one of mankind’s best inventions,” said Jonathan Piskor, a sophomore from North Carolina, using the Latin term for book.

Duh! Of course it is. It revolutionised the world almost as much as the invention of writing. That’s why we may expect that the next big step forward, e-text, will be equally (or at least nearly) as revolutionary.

So, who is interested in a Free Open Source Old Testament Textbook?

Microsoft nightmares and Linux dreams

Ever since I got this laptop (a lovely light, if a bit too big, Acer 4810T) I have struggled with the operating system. Microsoft Vista is a nightmare made real. However, until last week my gripes and Vista’s delays were never quite enough to drive me to attempt to install a new OS with which I have no experience. (I have two decades of extensive Windows use behind me, and another few years of MS OSes before that.) Last week however, Windows Explorer threw a tantrum, if I tried to send a file to the recycle bin, or to change its name the dialog box would remain open until either I rebooted the system, or Windows Explorer crashed and was restarted by the system – which happened happily often.

For the last few days I have been doing half my work running UberStudent, a Linux (Debian, Ubuntu variant) OS designed for students. I have been suing it from a USB stick, to test, but it has been a dream. Out of the box it supports Firefox with Zotero, Open Office (or if I want to get really sensible in my writing – i.e. uses styles properly and write by function more than appearance – LyX which also integrates with Zotero) and loads of other nice programs and features. It took minutes to add my other Firefox add-ons, and not long to change the look, and put the bars on the sides of my widescreen (thus giving me effectively more vertical space – widescreens are a gift to laptop designers, but a pain for users).

Three things I need were missing:

  1. a good audio editor (I did not need to download drivers for my external soundcard/preamp like I had to in Windows, in Linux such extras seem to work straight out of the box :)
  2. a way to sync my phone diary with a calendar program on the laptop
  3. Dropbox which I can’t now live without, syncing my using files to the cloud is just SO handy and such an easy backup scheme (admission of interest: this Dropbox link will get both and installing the free program will get both of us a bonus of extra storage space)
  4. BibleWorks (yes, I must try one or more of the Linux free Bible programs, but I do appreciate having the Westminster Morph Hebrew text available)

It took a wee while to learn how to get new programs in Linux, but soon I had Audacity installed, and discovered that the OS came with a utility that is on the whole better than Nokia’s phone syncing program (though I still have to discover how to get the diary syncing with Thunderbird). Dropbox also installed easily, the only tricky bit is that the folder needs a different name in Linux and in MS Vista (but that will cease being a problem once I give Vista the heave ;)  That just leaves BibleWorks, and I’m told that’s a simple install under Wine (which again comes preloaded).

I expect that with a couple of hours more playing I’ll happily be dual booting, and probably only seldom returning to the sad difficult and frustrating world of Microsoft.