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To Write Better Papers, Kill Unnecessary Clutter

Pack rats fascinate me. I know people who have two or three storage units to house all their stuff. And that’s not counting garages, spare bedrooms, attics, and all their other nooks and crannies. They tell me that they’re holding onto everything “just in case.” You never know when that electronic potato peeler might come in handy. But, of course, when they really do need to find something, it’s almost impossible. They’ve got some good stuff, but it’s hidden in all the clutter.

Writers are amazing pack rats. (Students are too.) We’ve accumulated so many important sentences, paragraphs, footnotes, and research. We just don’t want to let go.

So, we end up with papers and books that feel like they’ve been stuffed full with all the accumulated debris an academic pack rat can find. There’s probably some good stuff in there. But who can tell? Who can find it?

So, today’s advice is: kill the clutter.

Cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can. It is comprehensible when I write: “The man sat on the grass,” because it is clear and does not detain one’s attention. On the other hand, it is difficult to figure out and hard on the brain if I write: “The tall, narrow-chested man of medium height and with a red beard sat down on the green grass that had already been trampled down by the pedestrians, sat down silently, looking around timidly and fearfully.” The brain can’t grasp all that at once, and art must be grasped at once, instantaneously.  ~Anton Chekhov (HT AdviceToWriters)

This works in non-fiction writing as well. Unnecessary modifiers deaden prose; they numb the reader and make it difficult to figure out what you’re saying. Of course, adjectives usually aren’t the problem in academic writing. Even simple adverbs are too prosaic for us. We prefer to use entire clauses to muddy our writing.

Here’s an exercise for you.

  1. Take any paragraph from the last paper you wrote.
  2. Identify the main idea of the paragraph. (If it doesn’t have one, pick a different paragraph and remember that paragraphs should have a purpose.)
  3. See how much you can eliminate and still have the paragraph communicate that main idea. Make it a game. See how short you can make it and still deliver the purpose. This is the core of your paragraph and it’s what your reader needs to know. Anything that you add to this core has the potential to muddy the waters and make your reader miss the point of the paragraph.
  4. Go back to the original paragraph and look at the extra words/clauses one at a time. Ask yourself whether they really contribute anything. If you left them out, would the reader really miss anything important? If not, leave them out. If they’re not helping, they’re hurting. There is no middle ground here.

Now, I’m no minimalist.  Brevity can be bad. Short sentences get boring. Variety is good. This is choppy.

So, feel free to mix things up a bit. Just make sure than when you do, you have a reason for doing so.

It’s the beginning of another school year, so it’s time to clean house. Set your pack rat ways behind you and commit to using your language carefully, your words wisely, your prose purposefully. (How many adverbs should I cross out from that sentence?)

Kill the unnecessary clutter.

[This post is part of our Tips for the Th.M. series, offering suggestions on how to survive and thrive in a postgraduate program.]

How to destroy your own research paper in one simple step

Some words should never find their way into research papers. Wikipedia is pretty high on that last. So is anything that is not technically a word (e.g. IMHO). Fortunately, though I’ve heard from others who’ve experienced the terror of encountering these in papers, I have not yet experienced it myself. That’s a good thing. (Note to my students: for your sake, please keep it that way.) But, there are some other student favorites that I’d like to see disappear forever.

“So, I would like to try to explore the possibility of….”

Just stop.

This sentence and its ilk taint the beginnings of far too many otherwise good papers. Using a sentence like this to describe your paper is like building a solid table and then ripping one of its legs off. It may still be standing, but no one will want to use it. With one sentence, you’ve cut the legs out from under your own research paper.

Here’s why.

1. Explore (investigate, consider, etc.): Really? You’re handing in a 20-page research paper and the only thing you’ve done is “explore” something? I’m going to assume that you didn’t actually find anything interesting, otherwise you would tell me. Right? You wouldn’t keep that a secret, would you? Because if I thought that you found something cool and were just keeping it from me, I’d be pretty upset. And that wouldn’t be good. So, as your reader, I only have to options here: (1) you didn’t find anything interesting and I shouldn’t bother reading your paper; (2) you found something interesting that you’re hiding from me, and I should be angry with you. Neither option ends well for you.

So, I’d suggest that you go ahead and tell me what you found. If Indiana Jones goes on an expedition and finds some ancient and extremely valuable treasure. He doesn’t come back and tell people that he just explored for a while. He tells them what he found! So, start with that. And, by the way, not finding something is still a discovery. If you went looking for X and didn’t find it, that’s worth reporting. If nothing else, you’ve demonstrated that it’s not there.

2. Try to (attempt to, seek to, etc.): This just makes it worse. With “explore” you’re telling me that you just wandered around for a while exploring without actually finding anything. Now you’re telling me that you’re not even sure you accomplished that! You didn’t explore, you just tried to. Was it hard? Did you encounter monsters along the way that made it difficult for you to complete your expedition? Whatever the obstacles were, I appreciate that you put further the effort. But, your paper would make much more compelling reading if you gave me some reason to believe, especially here at the beginning, that you may have actually succeeded. Otherwise, I think I’ll just stop here.

3. Possibility: This just keeps getting better. Now we’re not even sure that this thing you’re going to try to explore even exists. And, what’s worse, I’m reading this after you’ve supposedly tried to explore it. So, all I can conclude is that even though you’ve already tried to explore it, you’re still not sure whether it exists. I don’t know about you, but I have better things to do with my time that read about somebody who tried to explore some non-existent thing.

So, with one sentence, you’ve completely undermined my confidence in your argument. And, you’ve done it by making it exceptionally clear that you don’t have any confidence in your own argument.

Nonetheless, I find sentences like this in papers all the time. Why is that? Why are so many students eager to destroy their own papers at the very beginning?

1. Fear: Students use language like this as a shield they can hide behind. If I say, “I am going to argue that X is true or not true,” I’ve backed myself into a corner and I’d better make my argument. But, if I just say that I’m going to “explore” something, I’ve left an open door for escape. I haven’t really committed to anything, so there’s nothing to worry about. Fear is a powerful motivator for creating weak beginnings.

2. Beginning with the beginning: This introduction reads like the student wrote it first and then never came back to revise it later. I can understand how you might think at the beginning of the journey that you’ll just be exploring some issue. That makes sense. You don’t know yet how things will end. So, if you want to sketch an introduction from that perspective at the beginning to clarify in your own mind what your purposes are, fine. But that’s not the end of the story. When your paper is done, you should have something more interesting to report. And, since I’m obviously reading the paper after it’s all done, why not go ahead and tell me what that is? Revise your introduction!

3. No argument: Of course, it’s entirely possible that the problem is with the paper, not the introduction. Maybe you don’t have anything more interesting to report. If your paper just wanders around and “explores” or “summarizes” a lot of information, there’s not much your introduction can do to jazz that up. Unfortunately, if this is your problem, you’ve got some work to do. Simply re-writing your introduction won’t be enough.

4. A “student” mentality: I think this lies at the heart of the problem for many. Growing up, we’re told that the student’s job is to learn. So, we create papers from the perspective of the learner, writing tentatively and cautiously rather than confidently and authoritatively. That may be fine earlier in our academic careers (though I’d question that as well), but not in graduate or postgraduate research papers. If you haven’t already, it’s time to give yourself permission to be a teacher. You’ve done the research. You’ve (hopefully) constructed an argument and drawn a conclusion. Now, you’re the teacher. Inform me.

Let the words of the master guide you here:

Do or do not. There is no try.

Yoda was a very wise man…person…goblin…thing.

[This post is part of our Tips for the Th.M. series, offering suggestions on how to survive and thrive in a postgraduate program.]

The student’s most neglected resource

One of the most difficult things for me as a father is watching one of my daughters struggle with something that doesn’t need to be that difficult. One of my girls got a present the other day, and, after I’d removed the bullet-proof packaging they put on toys these days, I sat back and let her figure out how to make it work.

She’s ten. And, she’s quite smart. She can do this.

Or, she would have been able to except for one small problem. She wouldn’t read the directions. I know she had the directions because I handed them to her. Twice. But it didn’t help. She’d take a quick look, read a line or two at the most, and then try again. It didn’t take long for her to get pretty frustrated.

I wasn’t far behind.

Few things are more frustrating than watching somebody struggle with something that could be so much easier if only they’d use what’s right in front of them.

You’d think that college and grad students would be smarter than my fifth grader. But time and again I see students struggle because they won’t use what’s right in front of them. And, there’s one resource in particular that students constantly neglect. Every school has at least one. But it’s like students don’t even know they exist. Sometimes I wonder if they’ve decided that their classes are just too easy. So, they need to make things harder.

That’s like deciding to scale a cliff without any ropes. Sure, it’s more challenging. But it’s also a good way to get yourself killed.

So, what is that most neglected resource? The librarian.

Now, before all you digital natives begin to scoff and explain how outdated libraries and librarians are in this modern world, hear me out.

If you had asked me a few years ago what a librarian did, I think I would have mumbled something about keeping track of books, maintaining silence, and keeping me from drinking coffee while I studied (which, by the way, is why I stopped using libraries). I’ve learned better since then.

At the very least, a good librarian can do two things that every student desperately needs. First, the librarian knows the best ways to find information. That information may be stored in the library’s physical books, its digital archives, or just out there on the internet. Regardless, it’s still information. And, information is only useful if you can find it. That’s what a librarian has been trained to do. I’m continually surprised by students who are frustrated that they can’t find enough good resources on their topic, but they haven’t bothered to consult a librarian. That’s like the guy who’s angry that he can’t find the pickles in a grocery store, but hasn’t bothered to ask someone who actually works there.

Second, a good librarian knows how to assess the quality of your information and its sources. Do a Google search on something. Anything. How many hits did your search return? I’m guessing it was more than three. Now what are you going to do? How do you know if any of them are any good? Like most students, you’ll probably just stick with the ones that came up first. After all, they’re on top so they must be good. Um, no. You’ll need to do better than that. And, for that, you’ll sometimes need help.

Good, reliable information. That’s what the student needs. And, that’s what the librarian is all about. Seems like a match made in heaven. If only they’d meet more often.

Sadly, that’s not how it often works out. According to a recent study, “when it comes to finding and evaluating sources in the Internet age, students are downright lousy.” As “digital natives,” they use Google frequently, but they don’t know how to use it effectively. And, even when they find information, they don’t know how to assess it. Today’s students desperately need good librarians, but they don’t know it.

Be smarter than a fifth grader. If you want to be a good researcher, especially at the beginning of your journey, get to know your librarians. Ask them questions. Take their advice. Bring them cookies. It will pay off in the end.

A postgrad survival guide

Quite a few of you are either current, former, or even future postgrad students (Th.M. or Ph.D.). For those of you who have been down at least part of that road, what do wish wish would have been included in a “postgrad survival guide” that someone just handed to you before you started your program?

I was looking back over the posts that I’ve written in the last year in my Tips for the Th.M. series, and I ran across quite a few others that revolved around the idea of how to succeed/survive in a postgrad program. So, I’ve started to wonder if it would be worth supplementing those with some other posts on the subject and eventually compiling a free resource on how to survive your ThM/PhD program.

I’d love to hear what you think. What would you add/delete? Would something like this be useful?

Here’s what I have based on what I’ve already written, grouped into a few logical categories.

Part 1: Introductory Issues

  • Are you sure that you want a postgraduate program?
  • Is academic Bible/theology a waste of time?
  • Should pastors pursue postgraduate work?
  • How to choose a postgraduate program.
  • How do you apply to a postgraduate program?

Part 2: Surviving Your Classes

  • How to succeed in a postgrad seminar
  • How to read well

Part 3: Surviving the Research Process

  • Why you should use journal articles
  • How to use journal articles well
  • The danger of over-research-itis
  • Using Google Scholar in research

Part 4: Surviving the Writing Process

  • Constructing strong arguments
  • The importance of clear and concise writing
  • Writing research proposals
  • Understanding the research proposal process
  • Finding good thesis/dissertation topics
  • Picking a thesis/dissertation topic
  • How to tackle something the size of a thesis/dissertation
  • How to use quotations
  • Common errors in research writing
  • How to take criticism

Part 5: Surviving Your Oral Examination

  • Answering concisely
  • Saying “I don’t know”
  • Summarizing your research

Part 6: Surviving after You Graduate

  • Writing the perfect resume
  • Advice on applying for a teaching position
  • What to do when you don’t get a teaching position

Want easier bibliographies:? Create citations by taking pictures

Tired of typing all those citations for the paper that you’re writing? Wish there was an easier way? Don’t worry, there’s an app for that.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, QuickCite is a new app available for iPhone or Android that can create citations in several common formats (APA, Chicago, MLA, or IEEE). You just take a picture of the book’s barcode and it quickly emails you a bibliography-ready citation formatted in your chosen style.

The reviewer does note that the app has some drawbacks:

E-mailed citations don’t indicate which style is being implemented, so users who switch between different citation styles will have to keep tabs on the differences when using the scanned citations. Another challenge is that bar codes only became standard on books in the 1970s, according to the U.S. ISBN Agency, which is run by R.R. Bowker, so books published earlier might not work with the program.

And, since it’s bar code based, it won’t work on journal articles or other sources.

I have to admit that to me it sounds like a pretty limited tool that might be more hassle than it’s worth. But, I suppose if you’re putting in some library time and going through lots of books, it may be worth a shot. And, at only 99 cents, it’s hard to complain too much.

The importance of reading strategically

One of the greatest frustrations many students have is the overwhelming feeling that they have more to read than could possibly be digested in a single, human lifespan. Okay, maybe it’s not that bad, but it feels like that at times. How do you work your way through that stack of books, articles, and handouts while retaining some small shred of sanity?

Fred Sanders was recently interviewed about his reading habits, and in his response he offered some good advice for dealing with this very challenge – read strategically.

The most important advice I can give about reading is to make decisions in advance about what you want from the book you’re about to read. You’ve got to stay in charge, and not just let yourself accidentally fall into the reading experience. Before you really engage the book, decide if it’s the kind of book you need to read slowly, repeatedly, taking notes, and pondering. Or is it the kind of book that covers familiar territory and will only offer a few new details? Is it a book you want to immerse yourself in and get lost in, or the kind you want to dip into for bits of information? Or is it a book that you need to figure out so you can put it on your shelf and know how to use it for reference later on? Some books contain analysis and perspectives that are brand new for you, and require slow assimilation. But others just confirm, deepen, or extend things you already know. And it’s fine to read for fun and entertainment, or even to read haphazardly. But you need to have made a decision that you’re going to do so. There are some books that I’m done with in 90 minutes, because I already knew what was in them before I picked them up, and I got everything I needed from them in a short encounter. I’m not an especially fast reader, but I do read strategically.

Tips for the ThM – Part 15 (over-research-itis)

It’s been a while since I’ve posted one of my Tips for the ThM. But, as I’m looking back over the papers from our recent philosophy and theology class, I’m reminded of a problem that I suffered from throughout my graduate programs: over-research-itis. This debilitating illness manifests itself in a tendency to spend almost the entire semester researching, leaving yourself with precious little time in which to actually write the paper that all of the research was supposed to be for.

If you’re not sure whether you suffer from this unfortunate syndrome, just ask yourself whether you tend to be frustrated with your papers because you don’t think they really reflect the quality of research you did for the project. If so, you probably suffer from over-research-itis.

I was finally able to defeat over-research-itis in my doctoral program by realizing two things. First, there is always more research to do. You will never have done “enough” and you’ll probably never be satisfied with what you actually have done. Get over it. Give yourself sufficient time to do good research and just get used to the feeling that you really should check out just one more book/article. Second, all that research isn’t terribly helpful if you don’t leave time to write a good paper. Research is just a bunch of interesting books and messy notes until you take the time to put it all together in a well-crafted, well-argued paper. That’s when you really take ownership of your research and make it available to other people. That’s the payoff. If you’ll remember that the paper is the goal and not just the onerous task waiting at the end of the semester, it may help you not put it off to the bitter end.

Realizing these two things, I decided to set firm deadlines for when I would (mostly) stop doing new research and begin writing my paper. And, the key here is to set that deadline far enough out to leave yourself sufficient time to write a quality paper (i.e. not the week before it’s due). Know that it’s going to take a few weeks to do a good job writing up all of that research and commit to giving yourself the time in which to do it. You’ll get less research done, but you’ll end up with a better paper, and you’ll probably learn even more from the experience.

And, by the way, be careful that you don’t swing the pendulum in the other direction and end up suffering from under-research-itis. I like well-written papers, but the best prose in the world can’t disguise the fact that you haven’t done the work.

Flotsam and jetsam (12/29)

Much of what medical researchers conclude in their studies is misleading, exaggerated, or flat-out wrong. So why are doctors—to a striking extent—still drawing upon misinformation in their everyday practice?

How much has the evangelical movement changed in the past 100 years? A quick review of The Fundamentals suggests that evangelicals 1) have shed some unfortunate biases of those bygone days, 2) continue to struggle with similar intellectual issues, most notably evolution, and 3) retain a common message of grace through Christ.

  • In a Wired editorial, “Wake Up Geek Culture. Time to Die,” Patton Oswalt argues that the internet makes it to easy to be a geek and that is detrimental for creativity and culture.

I’m not a nerd. I used to be one, back 30 years ago when nerd meant something.

forgiveness is neither just a therapeutic technique nor simply self-regarding in its motivation; it is fundamentally a moral relation between self and other.

Flotsam and jetsam (8/25)

Publish or Perish: Why publishing is important for your church, your institution, and you

Anna Blanch has a very helpful post today on why Christian scholars should seek to publish their research and writing. As she points out:

It makes sense to be involved in the intellectual conversation – to engage with the latest research and much debated issues – but the pressure can feel almost overwhelming, especially in the early part of one’s career.

Despite this occasionally overwhelming feeling, she draws on an earlier post by Ross McKenzie to argue that we should pursue publication for at least three reasons.

  1. You should publish for the Church. As academics, we are called on to serve the church and make sure that our research meets the needs of the church. I think we do need to be careful here that we don’t understand this too narrowly. It will often be difficult to see how one particular research project has a direct bearing on the life of the church. But, the overall direction of your research/writing should have a more noticeable connection.
  2. You should publish for your Institution. Publishing your work helps to raise the profile of the institution and it helps sharpen you as a teacher and supervisor. It’s easy to forget at times that those of us working for academic institutions are actually writing on their dime. At the very least, then, we should keep institutional needs in mind in the process.
  3. You should publish for You. She identifies three things here: (a) it helps you stay intellectually vital; (b) it keeps you critically engaged with a broader community of learners; and (c) it’s good for job security. Several of her comments here sounded like some of the same reasons that Billy and Brian have given recently for why they blog.

You should definitely read Anna’s entire post. She has a number of other good thoughts that I haven’t covered, as well as a couple of other posts on the academic life that are worth reading: