Why APA formatting matters

January 15, 2014

Imagine you are buying a new home. You tour around a number of properties. You see one that is messy, distasteful and uninviting. The sales agent says, “Oh, don’t worry, the foundation is strong!” The trained eye may be able to see past the bad presentation, but it takes a lot of mental energy to get past it.

Now imagine you are taken into a home that is clean, neat and perfectly staged. You immediately feel welcome. You are instantly engaged psychologically and emotionally. You want to see more.

APA formatting is to research papers what presenting a clean, neat and well presented home is to selling a property.

Your prof may be able to look past a messy presentation, but it takes more mental energy. You want to be able to say, “Oh, but the foundation of the work is just fine!”  and you want that be enough.

Well, it’s not enough. It sends a message that you don’t care about presentation. You send a message that you don’t give a flying leap that your work is less appealing to read. You may be brilliant, but if the essence of what you show to others messy and disorganized,  it’s less inviting to enter your world and spend time there. Sometimes, students insist that APA formatting inhibits their creativity or individuality. My reply to that is, fine, go be as bizarre and unique as you like in your own writing space — your blog, your journal or whatever.

There’s an element of persuasion involved in writing a research paper. I won’t say sales, because that will undoubtedly offend some of you. But let’s face it. You are trying to “pitch” your ideas. Follow standard practices for presentation and your work is likely to be accepted a whole lot faster than if you insist on doing it your own way. When you are writing a research paper you are trying to persuade someone to read it, like it and possibly judge its value (e.g. accept it for publication or award a grade for it). 

Sometimes I find that drawing comparisons between reality TV and academia helps students make sense the expectations of life in higher education. Over the past few months, I’ve been watching Income Property. I don’t own any income properties and I probably never will, but I find the show fascinating. I see patterns in how projects are completed so they consistently meet the objectives.

Host Scott McGillivray helps home owners turn unfinished or unacceptable suites into beautiful rental properties. He and his crew completely renovate the space. They focus on doing excellent quality construction, electrical and plumbing work that is up to code. The work is inspected and they get feedback from city officials and inspectors before they start working on the finishes.

To me, that’s the the content of research. It needs to be solid, high quality and done well. Getting feedback along the way is important, too.

Once they get the necessary approvals that the job has been done right, they move on to the finishes. They pay attention to the details and ensure the look of the place is consistent with sound design principles that are timeless and impressive. After watching a few episodes of Income Property I noticed that they use very similar approaches for each project.

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/670220That’s the presentation of the work. The design principles are outlined by APA, MLA or whatever style guide you use. The format is timeless and paying attention to the details makes it impressive. They follow presentation design principles systematically. Each project is unique, yet they follow standards in a consistent way. It’s almost like there’s a template and yet, every project is individual.

McGillivray consistently points out that doing the construction work properly is non-negotiable. Just like doing good quality research is non-negotiable.

But what gets people to say, “Wow, this is impressive!” are the finishes. Following accepted practices for presentation (which might be interior design for a house, or formatting for a paper) and paying attention to the details are what makes you stand out and be impressive.

For an exemplary end product you need both: quality construction and beautiful finishes. If you have only done only one or the other, you are being sloppy. To do the job right, you need solid construction and a beautiful presentation.

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50 Adverbs to avoid in academic writing

July 2, 2013

Most academic writing is strengthened by eliminating adverbs. To emphasize a point, provide more evidence to support it. Avoid unnecessary words and in particular, adverbs. Instead, choose more precise verbs.

An adverb modifies or describes:

  • A verb (e.g. He runs quickly.)
  • An adjective (e.g. His writing is extraordinarily descriptive.)
  • Another adverb (e.g. He runs extraordinarily quickly.)

Often, but not always, adverbs in English end in –ly. Here are 50 adverbs that I have seen in academic papers that you can eliminate and your writing will be better for it:

  1. Adroitly
  2. Amazingly
  3. Awesomely
  4. Badly
  5. Basically
  6. Carefully
  7. Clearly
  8. Completely
  9. Convincingly
  10. Deftly
  11. Desperately
  12. Dexterously
  13. Effortlessly
  14. Extremely
  15. Faithfully
  16. Fundamentally
  17. Generally
  18. Goodly
  19. Honestly
  20. Inherently
  21. Instantly
  22. Interestingly
  23. Narrowly
  24. Naturally
  25. Nearly
  26. Necessarily
  27. Obviously
  28. Precisely
  29. Previously
  30. Preposterously
  31. Quite
  32. Really
  33. Relentlessly
  34. Simply
  35. Spectacularly
  36. Successfully
  37. Suddenly
  38. Surely
  39. Truthfully
  40. Ubiquitously
  41. Unequivocally
  42. Ungodly
  43. Unnecessarily
  44. Unquestionably
  45. Utterly
  46. Unwittingly
  47. Usually
  48. Very
  49. Widely
  50. Zealously

Often, when writers make a conscious choice to eliminate adverbs and instead find stronger and more precise verbs, the result is writing that is clearer and more powerful.

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Why “as cited in” should be avoided in academic writing

May 21, 2013

For my graduate students… and other readers:

When you are referencing others’ work in our course, whehter it is on the discussion board, in your presentation or in your final paper, I urge you to find the primary sources for your citations.

I will be upfront about this and say that I am not at all a fan of citing a work that somone else has cited. Please find the original reference yourself and cite that instead.

The reason for this is three-fold:

  1. You want to be sure that the “original” author actually exists. As heinous as it may seem, people have been known to fabricate references.
  2. More common is that a researcher will mis-quote an author or take someone’s work out of context. By going back to the original source, you have the opportunity to verify for yourself what the original author was trying to say.
  3. “As cited in…” can be an indicator of either a lazy or disinterested scholar who does not care enough to find and cite original authors. I do not think this is the case with anyone in our course, but it is not uncommon for other scholars to dismiss the credibility of a researcher who does not take the time to find primary sources.

Earlier this year, I conducted an informal in-class experiment with a Master’s level class at the U of C. I challenged them to find the original version of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”. To their surprise, they found that the pyramid that has become an iconic representation of Maslow’s hierarchy is nowhere to be found in his original work. (You can read about it here: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Is the pyramid a hoax?  http://wp.me/pNAh3-1rU)

I tell my students, “My point to you is this: Please cite only primary sources in our course. Avoid using ‘as cited in…’ If you can’t find an original source, don’t cite it.”

The only exception to this would be original works of extreme rarity which are almost impossible to source without physically visiting historical archives.

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10 Great writing resources for grad students

April 23, 2013

Sarah Eaton blog technology researchAfter teaching “Writing Educational Research” for Master’s of Education students at the University of Calgary a number of times now, I’ve come up with a list of my top 10 favorite, free online resources for grad students, emerging scholars and educational professionals:

Basics of APA Style (Tutorial) – The tutorial is “chunked out” into 23 sections, each less than 1 minute long. In total, the tutorial is about 21 minutes long. It is highly practical and full of “how to” information.

Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) – One of the best online resources for APA style for students and faculty. The APA Formatting and Style Guide is particularly helpful.

APA Quick Reference Guide – Produced by the University of North Carolina School of Social Work, this quick reference guide highlights the most important points of the APA manual for students.

Academic Writing and Publishing by James Hartley – This comprehensive 209-page resource book is available free of charge to students in .pdf format. It is a must-have for grad students.

Worksheets for academic writers by Wendy Belcher – Designed to accompany Belcher’s text, Writing Your Journal Article in 12-weeks, these worksheets help writers plan and organize their writing projects.

Advice on Academic Writing from the University of Toronto -This site offers academic writers advice on topics such as planning, organizing, using sources, style, editing and more.

Outlining and Organizing Your Writing from the University of Maryland – This site has links to a number of different resources designed to help students learn how to outline and organize their writing projects.

English Grammar Handbook from the University of Athabasca – This free online e-book addresses many grammar concepts that academic writers need to know such as sentence and paragraph structure and how to avoid misusing common words in academic writing.

Graduate Writing Checklist from John Hopkins University – This handy checklist is designed specifically for graduate students to review before they hand in their papers.

Academic Writing Checklist from the University of Warwick – This checklist is more reflective in nature, challenging emerging scholars to engage in a metacognitive process about their own writing.

Academic writing takes practice and time to learn and with these free online resources to help you, it will be even easier.

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How to provide peer review feedback

June 6, 2012

There is no single correct way to conduct a peer review of a writer’s manuscript or submission to a journal. Every publication will have its own guidelines and standards. However, if you are brand new to reviewing a peer’s work here are some factors to consider:

Organization and structure

  • Does the work have a clearly articulated title?
  • Is the work organized and structured in a logical manner?
  • Does the manuscript contain explicit headings, making it easier for you to read?

Introduction

  • Does the introduction articulate the point of the paper?
  • Does the introduction contain key words and phrases to help readers find the paper once it is in circulation?
  • Does the introduction clearly establish the value of the paper?

The problem / context / research question

  • Does the writer provide a clearly articulated research question or problem?
  • Is this problem situated in a historical, geographical and professional context?
  • Is this question original? If this sounds like something that has been studied to death, then it is unlikely to be original. Journal articles are meant to contribute new knowledge, fresh perspectives to the ongoing dialogue in the field.

Significance of the work

  • What rationale does the writer provide for his or her work?
  • Does the writer link their manuscript to the particular journal he or she has chosen? Many writers submit manuscripts without targeting them to a particular journal or relating their manuscript to the theme or purpose of the journal. Reviewers regularly reject such articles.
  • Why should we, as readers and professionals, care about this manuscript?

Discussion and argument

  • Does the author define and develop a cogent argument?
  • Is the argument logical?
  • Does the argument influence and persuade you as a reader?
  • How sophisticated is this argument?

Conclusions

  • Has the author provided clear and succinct conclusions?
  • Are the conclusions logically linked to the introduction and the argument?
  • Has the author restated the relevance of this research, in terms of already-published literature in the field?
  • Does the conclusion highlight the significance of the author’s manuscript in the larger research and professional context?
  • Has the writer provided directions for future research or recommendations for professional practice?

References

  • Are all the references mentioned in the body of the paper cited properly in the References section at the end of the paper? (Manuscripts with missing references are almost always automatically rejected by journals.)
  • Do the references at the end of the paper meet style guide standards, such as APA or Chicago style? (Sloppy references are also cause for rejection.)

General assessment

Is this a manuscript you think is worthy of publication? Why or why not? What changes would strengthen it in order to make it suitable for publication? Provide recommendations for revision.

Your mission is to objectively examine the work as a professional and scholarly critic. This is not an exhaustive list of criteria to consider, by any means. It is a list to give the novice manuscript reviewer a place to start.

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How writers can learn to accept criticism

May 14, 2012

Sarah Elaine Eaton, speaker, presenter, keynote, technology, social media, Calgary, Canada, educator, education, professional developmentThis spring I am teaching a graduate level writing course for students enrolled in the Master’s of Education program at the University of Calgary. My students are mostly English as a an Additional Language teachers, plus one math teacher. They are from all over the world and are actively involved in the teaching profession. The objective of this course is to prepare them for professional writing as educators and scholarly academic writing. Their major assignment involves preparing a manuscript for submission to a reputable journal in the profession.

Some students have said that they cringe at the thought of their writing being rejected by an editor or criticized by a teacher. Most have never submitted a manuscript to a journal, with fear of criticism or rejection being a contributing factor. These tips are intended help novice writers learn to take criticism from instructors, peer reviewers and editors.

Start with the assumption that your work can be improved

The biggest mistake writers make is assuming that once they have submitted a piece of writing, that is finished… and perfect. This assumption sets the writer up for a frustration and anger when their work is returned with a request for revisions. Falling in love with your own writing is a dangerous thing.

It can be helpful to approach your writing from the point of view that a perfect piece of writing never (or at least only very rarely) exists. Assume that there is always room for improvement.

Expect rejection

There are many stories of famous writers whose work was rejected. Even great writers get multiple rejections. J.K. Rowling had Harry Potter rejected a dozen times, according to some reports.  Rather than assuming that your work will be accepted or accepted with minor revisions, instead expect that you will be rejected, not once, but numerous times. This will position you to be tenacious and resilient. Here’s a list of 50 iconic writers whose work was repeatedly rejected. Personally, I’d count myself lucky to ever be included on such a list.

Develop a thick skin

Some writers develop such a deep emotional attachment to their work that it can be unhealthy, or even destructive. It is healthy and productive to develop your writing until you are satisfied and proud of it. You have passed the point of healthy emotions when you are so fragile when anything but glowing praise leaves you feeling all crumpled up and hateful towards anyone who has offered you feedback.

I tell my students to think of TV shows such as Iron Chef. The chefs who make it to the top of their profession are deeply proud of their accomplishments, but they can also take criticism. They have a thick skin. Be your own version of an “Iron Writer”.

Learn the difference between criticism and cruelty

It is true that some editors are just plain mean. However, the majority are not cruel. They may be straightforward and clinical, but do not mistake this for cruelty. Your editor is not paid to be your friend. Sometimes they are not paid at all, particularly if they are editing an academic journal.

An editor’s job is to help ensure that the final written work adheres to an established set of guidelines and standards. If your work doesn’t meet a minimum set of standards, they have to tell you. That’s their job.

If you submit enough manuscripts to enough editors, chances are that you will eventually run into a jerk or two. When that happens, take whatever feedback you find helpful and disregard the rest.

In general though, editors are generally a clear headed and insightful bunch. Many really do want to help. Most love writing and words as much as you do, maybe even more. The truth is though, they see so much crap and poorly written material that sometimes, they  just get exasperated. They are human, too. So, they may learn to be unemotional or clinical in their responses. Do not mistake an editor’s lack of bubbly enthusiasm as a personal vengeance against you.

Accept the challenge of improving your work

Let’s use the analogy of TV chefs again. But this time, think of a cooking show such as Top Chef, where chefs have to compete for the title of “Top Chef”. One by one, chefs are eliminated. Those who reach the finale all have two things in common. First, their end creation is superb. Second, when they are given advice and criticisms by their judges, their attitude is “Bring it on!” They not only accept the judges’ criticism, they embrace the challenge of improving their work.

Focus first on creating stellar writing. Second, when you are faced with an editor or peer reviewer who challenges you to improve on your masterpiece, smile sincerely and say, “I’m here to bring my A-game… So bring on the feedback!” Take your editors or reviewers’ comments the same way a Top Chef takes criticism from a judge.

Be humble and gracious

Say thank you to your editor or reviewer. Chances are very high that your editor has just as much, if not more, experience in publishing as you do. He or she has likely experienced everything that you are experiencing yourself, including rejection. Editors vary in their tone, style and personality. You may be offended by an editor’s straight forward approach to your work.

An editor does not have the same emotional attachment to the work that you do; and nor should they. Their priorities include getting the publication out on time, and possibly working with an entire editorial or production team. By recognizing that your editor has more on his or her plate than your manuscript and and by being gracious, you are likely to build a better professional relationship. Trust me, it always pays to be on the good side of your editor.

Keep a lid on your anger

It is normal to feel angry when we are rejected. What is not OK is to take your anger out on your editor, your peer reviewer or your professor. Even if you believe your editor’s comments come across as cruel or unjustified, they may not have been intended that way. Besides, what you can not control is what others say or how they say it. What you can control is your own professional conduct. Never, ever send an e-mail when you are angry.

Here’s a trick I learned: If you need to write an angry letter to “get it all out”, the trick is not to put the recipient’s address in the “To” section of the e-mail. Instead, put your own address. Send yourself the e-mail first. Let it sit in your inbox for a minimum of 24 hours. Then, read it again. If you still feel angry. Leave it in your inbox for another  24 hours. Do not send it to the intended recipient until you can read it over yourself and not be flooded with the same feelings of rage. It is likely that you will revise and soften the language of your message when you do.

Don’t be a diva

Do not fight with your editor or go all “diva” on them. That means, do not tell them how wrong they are or how sorry they’ll be that they didn’t publish your precious manuscript. Seriously, nothing comes across as more arrogant or disdainful. The bottom line is, if your work really is that good, it will speak for itself… eventually.

Be patient and resilient

Writing is a process. It takes time. Revising and rewriting are part of that process. Mozart may have popped out masterpieces without revising them, but few musicians or writers can lay claim to such genius. Be patient with your editors and with yourself. Learn the subtle balancing act of having simultaneous confidence in your work and humility in yourself. Most editors, peer reviewers and instructors have benevolent intentions. They are not monsters set to duel to the death with your ego. When you see these people as your allies instead of your enemies, the writing process becomes easier. As they say… every rejection gets you one step closer to a “yes”. Patience is part of the process.

Resources related to this post:

How to Take Writing Criticism Gracefully – by Hannah Rice Myers, eHow

How (and Why) to Take Criticism – by Monique van den Berg

Developing a Thick Skin: How to Accept Criticism – by Betty L. Meeshack

How to Happily Accept Criticism – by Angus Shaw

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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.


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