A pet peeve: MS Word is more than a typewriter! Learn it!

Ok ok. I’m going to let off a bit of steam here. My biggest pet peeve is having to deal with a document written by someone who has never learned how to use even the most basic features of MS Word. Beginning with…would you believe…word wrap?

I still get materials from writers who use a carriage return at the end of each line.

Yep.

Most, of course, do understand word wrap — that is, that the software will wrap the text to fit any line length you specify. So, for instance, if you have need for a 4″ text line, you just set your margins, and voila, Word wraps your line around that length and there you are. But beyond that most are clueless.

Among other things, I will secretly hate you if you use tabs or spaces for indents, and tabs or spaces plus carriage returns to set up the format of your bibliography. I will hate you because in order to properly format all of the above, I will have to remove every tab, every space, and every carriage return that doesn’t follow the final period in a citation. I will secretly hate you because having to do all that repeatedly (remember most of you send me long documents, and I have many other clients doing the same thing) results in repetitive stress injuries and the need for physical therapy.

Back in the dark ages, long before computers, I took a typing class as a freshman in high school with the expectation that it would serve me well throughout my education as I would be typing many papers. I was right. I learned to touch type and ultimately pushed up my speed to 65 wpm as I also began composing with the typewriter. Now with my compact Mac keyboard I am able to type almost as fast as I can think!

I bring that up to make another point: somewhere along the way you all should have had a class in how to use the amazing functions of MS Word. I don’t care how “un-intellectual” or how “vocational” such a course might seem. Like the typing course I took in high school, it will serve you well throughout your education, and your life if you plan to be an academic.

Word’s style format function is a dissertation editor/writer’s godsend. If you set styles for body text, headings, footnotes, and bibliographies, and use them religiously, you can be guaranteed that your final document will match up to your Graduate College’s requirements. And if there is a mistake it can take a minute or less to fix the problem. Even more wonderful is that Word can generate a Table of Contents, with all the pages perfectly matched to the headings, in the blink of an eye.

Because I have learned the hard way that the vast majority (as in 99.9999%) of the people who will be submitting work to me will have little to no acquaintance with Word beyond Word wrap and maybe setting margins, and as a consequence I would be having to deal with massive amounts of formatting and the resulting RSI’s, I am going to charge a separate fee for formatting, to wit: an extra $1.50 per page. Now, believe me, this is not me being either mean or greedy. It is me trying to save my body. Because the point of it isn’t to bring in more money for me, it is to get you to do your own formatting.

I will be providing every client with a style template geared to their own College and selected stylebook requirements. Of course, that doesn’t mean you will know how to use them. For the completely uninitiated, I suggest that you look at one or more of the following:

For PC users:

Microsoft Word 2007 Style Basics

The Essentials of Creating and Using Styles in Word 2007

Setting Up a Paper in APA Style Using Microsoft Word 2007

Styles, Templates, and Quick Styles in Word 2007 – Libby Hemphill

Have later versions of Word? Well, there’s a simple thing you can do. GOOGLE! Here are good search terms for that:

Word 2010 format styles (change the year for later versions)

Here are a couple that I get from that search:

How to Use a Formatting Style in Word 2010 – For Dummies

APA Format in Word 2010 – YouTube

Of course there are many more.

Now, if you are a Mac user like me, using styles is even simpler. Here are some tip pages that show up with I modify the search with Mac versions (Mac versions come out a year later)

Word 2008 format styles (change the year for later versions)

How to Define Formatting Styles in Word 2008 for Mac – For Dummies

Applying Styles in Mac Word 2008

Word 2008 for Macs: Text Styles – Tufts University

You may even find instructions and templates specific to your own university if you just add the name of your university to the search terms.

Ain’t life wonderful with Google? You just have to know what search terms to use, and often that’s pretty basic, as above.

So, if you haven’t had a class in how to use Word, don’t have the time for one, but expect to be producing written documents for academia for some time, whether as student or faculty, it’s time to give yourself a self-driven course in using styles for formatting. You will thank yourself, and your editors (including journal editors) will thank you.

Resources on Academic Writing Part I

As I continue working with new clients I am discovering a great deal of common ground: graduate schools appear to do very little to help prepare their students for the rigors of academic writing.

Now, don’t get me wrong. My own original literature review began exactly the same way. It was rambling, overly long, inchoate, disorderly…leaving readers impatient for me to “get to the point!” I had good excuses for that. After all, I had bit off an giant chunk of ideas to chew on: sociological theories of agency, historiography, feminist theory, and women’s history; all of which I intended to bring to bear on a field that by its very nature had given very little thought to any sort of theory at all: journalism history. And oh yes, I forgot, I also had to cover various approaches within communication theory as well.

Needless to say, “cutting to the chase” was a long, drawn-out process struggling with decisions to cut prose with which I had become enamored and that seemed indispensable — to no one else but me.

I went looking for something to help explain to a new client the problems with her literature review and to offer some ideas on how to resolve it, and happily came across this wonderful article, “A Guide to Writing the Dissertation Literature Review,” by Justus J. Randolph of Walden University. As Randolph writes in his abstract, “Writing a faulty literature review is one of many ways to derail a dissertation.” It is also one of the many ways to cause your editor to tear her hair out!

Guide to Writing the Dissertation Literature Review. By Justus Randolph.

This article provides a terrific taxonomy of the different kinds of literature reviews, and approaches to writing them. Little did you know that there are many ways to accomplish this task, with the choice depending on your audience(s) and purpose.

Here is a table of that taxonomy, created by H.M. Cooper in “Organizing Knowledge Synthesis: A Taxonomy of Literature Reviews,” Knowledge in Society (1988) 1: 104-26:

Cooper's Taxonomy of Literature Reviews

As you can see, there are many variations of focus, goal, perspective, coverage, organization and audience. As noted in the U Illinois-Urbana/Champaign library I took this from:

This chart seems overwhelming! But don’t be afraid. All it is doing is laying out some simple questions you should ask yourself before beginning a Literature Review. For example, the first row, “FOCUS,” is asking what outcomes, methods, theories or practices your literature review is about. Are you tracking the outcomes of previous studies, the methods that have been used over time, or something else?

You don’t need a definitive answer to all these questions, but they will help focus your research.

Questions to consider:

  • Which of these characteristics seem to fit within your field?
  • What would you like your Literature Review/thesis/dissertation to accomplish?
  • Is your aim to influence theory within your field, or have specific application?
  • Who is your audience?
  • Does your field necessitate a particular perspective?
  • How does your field typically organize its findings?

****

Another very useful article is this one, the first chapter in a book by Eric Hoftsee, Constructing a Good Dissertation:

Writing the Literature Review

As Hoftsee notes:

A literature review serves several purposes in your dissertation. A good literature review shows

  • that you are aware of what is going on in the field, and thus your credentials
  • that there is a theory base for the work you are proposing to do
  • how your work fits in with what has already been done (it provides a detailedcontext for your work)
  • that your work has significance
  • that your work will lead to new knowledge. 

Hoftsee has some very helpful suggestions for how to organize your literature review and select the materials to include. This one is a bit simpler and easier to understand than Randolph’s, but both are useful.

Indeed, I plan to make the both of them required reading for all new dissertation clients! So get busy!

The importance of being stingy with the word “important”…

One way to improve your writing — please banish the word “importance” and all its variations from your vocabulary. Every once in a while the word and its cohorts might have a place, but for the most part it is empty and it says absolutely nothing.

Instead of CLAIMING value for a finding (or whatever else you are saying is important), DEMONSTRATE it.

Example from a client:

  • In addition, all three pedagogical projects are characterized by an articulated personal investment in the process. The importance of an articulated personal investment in the material was characteristic of all three pedagogical projects.

Which I changed to:

  • We all used a variety of approaches to enunciating or deflecting attention away from elements of our identities as a part of the pedagogical project.

This not only eliminated the word “important,” it also eliminated a lot of excess verbiage.

A variation, using one of the “cohorts” of “important”:

  • Documenting these experiences, challenges, and our reflections on them, using detailed portraits, is a major contribution to the field.

Which I changed to:

  • Documenting these experiences, challenges, and our reflections on them, using detailed portraits, revealed new insights into the body as text in the classroom.

Notice how “revealed new insights” makes clear what the contribution is, DEMONSTRATING the contribution, rather than merely CLAIMING it.

Now obviously there are going to be times when the word or similar words are appropriate. Another example from the same author:

  • Language and self-identification regarding sexual orientation and gender expression emerged as an important theme among the cases.

An interchangeable word would have been “significant” or “major.” But there’s another word that I believe serves the purpose better: “salient.” “Salient” means “most noticeable.” It has a more specific connotation than “important.” In this case the word “important” wouldn’t be wrong, but rather not quite as precise as “salient.”

Here is an occasion where the word “important” fits:

  • Similarly, I find sharing my experiences as a student to be very important, particularly for students of color.

Still, another way to say it would be:

  • Similarly, I find sharing my experiences as a student to be very helpful to others, particularly for students of color.

It is the “helpfulness” of the sharing that makes it important.

Another:

  • Language and self-identification regarding sexual orientation and gender expression emerged as an important theme among the cases.

This is one I’ve let slide by. But consider this instead:

  • Language and self-identification regarding sexual orientation and gender expression emerged repeatedly throughout the interviews.

or

  • Language and self-identification regarding sexual orientation and gender expression emerged as a constant theme throughout the interviews.

These latter two, though only slightly different from the original, still avoid the repetition of the word. Most important (grin), is that it reserves the word important to be used when it truly is important!

Respect (and honor) your process

Tonight I was conversing with one of my clients who’s finally found her way through the tunnel she was in when we first started. As I told her, to be perfectly honest, if it had not been for what I know about the psychology of writing and learning to write (after decades of working with people at various levels of skill), I would have responded to her first drafts with something like “Who let you into graduate school?” Her work appeared to be about the level of a first year student in need of remedial instruction. And it would have been easy to dismiss the job and say “sorry, I don’t think you are cut out for this.” As, apparently, other faculty have implied. But I knew there had to be something deeper going on. You don’t get to that point in graduate school without being smart.

And then there was the topic of her dissertation, about what African American women students have to deal with, particularly the isolation, and being bombarded with cultural images telling them that they will never have what it takes.

I knew something deep was going on here, and we had to track it down and work through it.

And we have. Much of it has to do with the process she must go through in order to learn the material and apply it. This is very much like the process I had to go through with my then undiagnosed ADHD, where it took me forever to do the same work other classmates did in no time. (Though, to be quite honest, their end result often was nowhere near as good as mine, as reflected in my receiving my department’s award for Outstanding Doctoral Student in Research.)

She said she felt embarrassed about the work she had submitted earlier. I said, no! Don’t be embarrassed about it.  Don’t let yourself get bogged down in that self-criticism. Respect and honor your process. Clearly there are some people who will not understand, and from them you need to hide your process. But don’t let their lack of understanding give you something to beat yourself up over.

That’s how you work your way into another block.

Equally important, I saw how she was bound up in the very same conditions about which she was writing, in the same way that another client of mine who is facing blank page panic. Both of them must deal with not only all the conditions that lead the rest of us to have that panic; they must also deal with the cultural images telling them that they as black women aren’t cut out for academia.

All the more reason to respect and honor the process. This is how you get where you need to go.

Silencing the critical voices

All of us at one time or another have had to confront “blank page panic.” There are many reasons for that panic, but the #1 reason is that the voices of all those critics who have torn apart our work are blasting in our ears, making it impossible to hear our own voices.

I have two clients right now whose various advisers and committee people have responded to their submitted chapters with criticism that, however polite, however much phrased in the language of “nice,” has made the authors feel as if their committees believe, deep down, that they are grossly incompetent. Surely they must be thinking, “How in the world did we allow this student into our program? She’s clearly not cut out for it!”

Whether or not the committee members are ACTUALLY thinking that is irrelevant, particularly (but not only) for minority students, because for so much of their lives they have been told that they will never measure up, that they will never be good enough no matter how hard they work, because they were born into the world as second-class human beings.

White (majority) students do also encounter that deep and abiding sense that they are somehow frauds, and when their work is being criticized harshly it must be because their true incompetence has been revealed. Every one of us at one time or another had that nightmare where our degrees get stripped from us, or we are told our admission to graduate school was a mistake.

Women also are particularly susceptible to feeling inadequate or having low self-esteem and minimal self-confidence. We’ve been bombarded with messages from every which direction telling us that we will never be good enough, and especially, we will never be SMART enough to be anything more than second in ability or accomplishments. And these feelings stick with us, often, no matter how many accomplishments we have listed in our CV’s.

Men (or at least, white men) don’t understand this. My graduate/thesis adviser (both the same person) told me several years after I started the doctoral program at Iowa that the department determined that it would give me its award for outstanding doctoral student in research after my first semester there. But they didn’t tell me how highly they regarded my work for fear I would get a “big head.” I did eventually receive the award, but I can guarantee that the danger of getting a “big head” was never there! Throughout the entire program I struggled with self-confidence. I sorely needed reassurances and support.

Minority students, especially female minority students, are hit even harder — a double, even triple whammy of cultural forces telling them that they are no good and never will measure up to the best.

So when you are sitting down and facing that blank page, all those voices of criticism come back to you, telling you that the “fraud” you’ve been perpetrating all this time is now being revealed, so you might as well give up. They become a wild chorus, rising in number and volume, to the point that your OWN voice becomes a whisper, or is silenced altogether.

Here are three strategies to counteract that deafening crescendo:

1. Utilize whatever means you have developed to help you relax. Do deep breathing exercises. Listen to soft music. Take a hot bath if need be (assuming it won’t put you to sleep!).

2. Break your tasks down to manageable chunks. I have a “five minute rule” for most of the tasks that I avoid. That is, I know I can do anything for five minutes. After five minutes I can go do something else. Usually after I get started on something that way, I want to keep going.  But even if I don’t, I will have at least accomplished that five minutes worth of work. And it’s amazing what one can get done in five minutes!

With writing, five minutes won’t get you very far. So instead of five minutes, maybe you can say you will write five paragraphs — some small enough quantity that you no longer feel overwhelmed with all that you must get done. The trick is to psych yourself out by breaking your project down into small, do-able chunks.

3. Substitute MY voice (or the voices of members of a support group) for the voices of your critics. Although I am very demanding in my expectations for quality writing, whatever critique I offer has the sole purpose of helping you to succeed. Your success is my success. I’m not there to weed you out of the game. I’m there to help make sure you win it. You are not alone. I’m on the sidelines, cheering you on.

4. Join a writing support group. As of this date, there are five spaces left in “A Room of Our Own.”  Substitute the supportive voices of your friends for the vicious, harsh voices of your academic critics.

A Room of Our Own — new writing support weblog

I created a shared weblog titled “A Room of Our Own” in order to help my clients stay on track with their academic writing by getting support from others struggling with the same difficulties. Clients are encouraged to share their troubles and their triumphs as they negotiate their way through the academic maze, which sometimes seems designed to frustrate and destroy hopes and dreams.

This blog is private. That is, whatever is shared here can be read only by the administrator, Georgia NeSmith (sole proprietor of Matrix Editorial Services) and other participating authors. Authors are invited individually and personally. Additional viewers may be invited with the permission of other participants. Viewers may comment on posts but may not create posts.

Because it is private, I cannot post a link here. Anyone who wishes to participate (it is open to non-clients as well) may go to my contact page here and select the writing support group radio button. Tell more about yourself in the description box.

Participation is limited to 15. Subscription fees are as follows:

Every client of Matrix Editorial Services is invited to participate in “A Room of Our Own” as an author free of charge for six months or until graduation, whichever comes first. Authors are allowed to create their own posts, categories, and tags.

After six months (or after graduation) you may continue to participate for a subscription fee of $15 per month until graduation or an additional six months, whichever comes first.

In addition, writers who do not require editorial services but want the benefits of a writing support group may join for free for three months, after which they must pay a fee of $25 per month if they wish to continue.

Currently the site is “bare bones” but eventually many resources will be added, and the site will be organized to ensure participants can easily track categories of information relevant to them.

If you wish to participate please