Active vs. passive voice — How to tell the difference

March 19, 2014

My students have been struggling with using active voice in their writing. For some reason, they have learned along the way that passive voice sounds more “grown up” or academic.

This may have been true at one time, but in the 21st century, using active voice in academic research writing is not only appropriate, it is preferable, at least if you follow APA Style (6th edition, p. 77). 

Students who never learned grammar struggle to identify the difference between passive and active voice.

One way to figure out if it is passive or active voice is to ask “Who dunnit?” In passive voice, it is a mystery. We never know who did the action.

In active voice, there’s no mystery. The person, people, animal(s) or things that did the action are always identifiable.

For example:

Example #1: “The man was murdered.”

Question: By whom? (“Who dunnit”?)

Answer: We have no idea. (Mystery).

Voice: Passive.

Compare this to:

Example #2: “Professor Moriarty murdered the man.”

Question: Who dunnit?”

Answer: Professor Moriarty. (No mystery here. The sentence makes it clear.)

Voice: Active.

Sometimes, using the passive voice can be construed as sounding snotty or superior. An example would be, “If you would clean up your messy desk, it would be appreciated.”

Who would appreciate it, exactly?

When I hear the passive voice used in this way, it drives me up the wall. If I don’t know who’s going to appreciate the effort I would go to, what motivation do I have to invest my time and energy into cleaning up the desk?

A kinder, gentler way to say the same thing is, “I would really appreciate it if you would clean up your desk. We have company coming over and I know they’re going to want a tour of the house. Would take a few minutes to tidy up your work area, please?”

Suddenly, I feel motivated to clean the desk. I know who appreciates it and I know why I am being asked. Let the tidying begin!

An example I see frequently from students is, “It is appreciated”, or some variation thereof. An example is, “Dear Dr. Eaton, if you would read over my draft and give me some feedback, it would be greatly appreciated.”

Sounds a bit snotty, don’t you think?

I am often tempted to reply, “Who would appreciate it, exactly?”

In case you’re wondering, I have never actually replied in this way. I simply agree to review their draft. I understand that what they really mean when they use the passive voice in this way is “I appreciate it” or “I would appreciate it.” I can see they are trying to be polite and professional and that matters. But really, if you appreciate something, you can just say it!

Using the active voice makes your meaning clear. You are communicating in a more straight forward way and you sound more confident.

When you use the active voice, your reader appreciates it very much.

Reference:

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. (2010).  (Sixth ed.). Washington, D.C: American Psychological Association.

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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.


How many sources do you need in a literature review?

February 19, 2014

Students often ask me how many sources they need in their literature review. The short answer is, “It depends.” It depends on your topic, the nature of your research project, your level of scholarship, and a number of other factors.

An article from Canberra University (http://www.canberra.edu.au/studyskills/writing/literature) suggests:

  • Undergraduate review: 5-20 titles depending on level
  • Honours dissertation: 20+ titles
  • Master’s thesis: 40+ titles
  • Doctoral thesis: 50+ titles

Another strategy I learned somewhere along the way that I now share with my students is this:

If your literature review is one section of a larger research paper, thesis or dissertation

 Minimum number of sources = number of pages in the body of your entire paper (exclusive of title page, abstract, appendices and references)

Example: A paper that has 10 pages of content (the body of the paper) needs at least 10 sources in its literature review. 

A thesis of 100 pages (in the body) includes at least 100 sources.

If your literature review is a stand-alone document

Minimum number of sources =  3 times the number of pages in the body of your paper (exclusive of title page, abstract, appendices and references)

Example: A stand-alone literature review that has 10 pages of content (the body of the paper) should examine at least 30 sources.

These are not hard and fast rules by any means. Also, it is worth mentioning that as students and scholars who care about the quality of our work, we want to aim to raise the bar, not simply meet a minimum suggested standard. What these guidelines are suggesting is that you don’t aim for any less. If you do, your search for relevant literature in your field may be incomplete and you need to keep digging. Of course, your sources have to be relevant to your topic, too.

Not every scholar or academic supervisor would agree with the guidelines I offer here, criticizing them as being too reductionist or simplistic. My point isn’t to offer a black and white rule or open theoretical debate for which there can be no clear solution, but rather to offer a straight forward and practical answer to a question that academics often respond to in an ambiguous way, leaving students frustrated, exasperated and anxious about how to go conduct their literature review. 

When in doubt, talk with your own instructor or supervisor, asking them what their expectations are. (Don’t be surprised though, if you get an answer that is vague, like, “It depends…”)

Remember: Aim for quality over quality… and to do a quality literature review, you need to have a substantive quantity of sources.

Here are some of my favourite resources to help you write your literature review:

University of Toronto – http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/specific-types-of-writing/literature-review

U Conn – http://classguides.lib.uconn.edu/content.php?pid=239974&sid=1980274

University of Leicester –  http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/resources/writing/writing-resources/literature-review

Queensland Univeristy of Technology – http://www.citewrite.qut.edu.au/write/litreview.jsp

Birmingham City University – http://library.bcu.ac.uk/learner/writingguides/1.04.htm

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Related posts: Why APA formatting matters http://wp.me/pNAh3-1Hc

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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.


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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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.


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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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.


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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If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Share or Tweet this: 10 Great writing resources for grad students – http://wp.me/pNAh3-1Bc

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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