Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

Sentence of the Week

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

“The proportion of biopsies that occur because of these false-positive results that are retrospectively deemed unnecessary (that is, the woman did not have cancer) is about 7%; therefore, many more women will undergo unnecessary biopsies under annual screening than biennial screening.”

The University of Chicago Writing Program offered this passage from a medical journal as its sentence of the week. It’s not a particularly egregious example of bad writing, but it does not convey its meaning as clearly as possible. They identify three main weaknesses:

  1. A long wait for the verb in the first clause.
  2. A long chain of modifiers for “biopsies.”
  3. A missing statistic

Their rewritten sentence reads:

When women between the ages of forty and sixty-nine receive annual mammograms, they get almost twice as many false-positive results as they would if they received mammograms biennially. These false-positive results can lead to unnecessary biopsies. When women in this age group get a positive result on an annual mammogram and then get a biopsy, only X% of them prove to have cancer. But the other Y% prove to be cancer free. Therefore, many more women will undergo unnecessary biopsies under annual screening than biennial screening.

Significantly, the new version is longer than the original. Usually brevity is desirable, but in this case it can squeeze out important statistics and cloud meaning.

Cover Letters

Friday, March 11th, 2011

A friend of mine and I were talking about the difficulty many people have in finding jobs. News reports profile job seekers who send out hundreds of resumes without landing a single interview. While I find those stories painful to hear, my friend mentioned that she was one of those employers who receive hundreds of resumes and had a different view.

In the case of the job opening in her office, the response to the ad was strong. But many of the resumes submitted did not match the stated qualifications or came in without a cover letter. If the goal of an application is to make the candidate stand out, an unattached resume fails to call attention to the strengths of the applicant.

The conversation reminded me of other applications that academics submit. Whether it's a manuscript for a journal or a nomination for an award, a cover letter explains why the candidate is a good fit. The letter shouldn't merely restate the CV or the manuscript; it should connect the application to the mission of the award or journal. Keep it brief and jargon-free, but always include a cover letter.

Narrative Medicine

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

After Rachel Adams's son was born with Down Syndrome, she became very familiar with hospitals. With attentive care, her son's health remains good. But she's noticed how doctors tend to treat the problem in front of them without considering the patient's larger story. She writes that they fix his tear ducts yet never ask how he's doing in school or how the family is coping with his treatment.

Rachel Adams is also a Professor of English. She sees an opportunity both to make her discipline more relevant and to increase the quality of patient care by infusing medical practice with humanistic values. By writing and reflecting on their patients, doctors will come to see them as characters in a larger drama. By reading novels, they will become more compassionate listeners.

Columbia already has a program in narrative medicine. It may sound like just one more task for busy clinicians to incorporate, but the theory is that reading and writing will ultimately save them time and improve patient care.

Sentence by Sentence

Monday, March 7th, 2011

A new book by Stanley Fish exalts the sentence. Fish, who is a literary theorist, academic dean, and New York Times columnist, argues that writers must love language. They must treat their prose as a craft, constructing it as carefully as a sculptor. For writers, the sentence is their clay. It is the elemental building block by which meaning gets conveyed.

One review of the book contrasts its encouragement of creativity with the more prescriptive writing guide, The Elements of Style. Students can often benefit from the pithy rules and an emphasis on clarity that The Elements of Style provides. Fish's argument seems more suitable for the experienced writer. He recommends reading master author's sentences closely and importing their rhetorical tricks.

Even formulaic academic writing can benefit from varied sentence length and structure. In the end, all scholarship aims to convince its readers of a certain point. Language is the primary tool we have to persuade.


Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

I began my training in the last days of the card catalog and the first wave of the Internet. It was still a novelty to own a computer, but I brought a word processing machine--essentially a souped-up typewriter--to my freshman dorm.

Like many of my generation, the grammar of computers has influenced how I approach writing. I look at a paragraph and wonder what I can cut and paste. I scroll down the page and add notes to myself for future sections of the paper. Of course, I also spend time changing fonts and backing up files.

Several studies have now demonstrated the benefits of writing by hand. People who wrote down their goals were more likely to achieve them. Students who wrote down vocabulary words were more likely to learn a foreign language. The physical act of writing seems to trigger the part of the brain that focuses attention.

When it comes to long manuscripts, I'm still more likely to use a computer, which allows for more easy editing and sharing. But for to do lists, goal setting, and memorization, writing it out has the upper hand.

Dot Space Space

Friday, January 28th, 2011

When I was in eighth grade, I took a typing class. The teacher was a no-nonsense woman who drilled into us the rules of typography. Tab to indent a new paragraph, Shift to capitalize a new sentence, and space bar twice after each period.

A polemic in Slate by technology writer Farhad Manjoo excoriates the persistence of outdated rules like two spaces between sentences. It seems that when typewriters could handle only fonts like Courier in which all the characters were the same size, putting two spaces after each sentence made sense. But for decades now we've had access to fonts with proportional sizing, so it's not as necessary to mark the end of sentences with exaggerated space.

One space after the period is simpler and more elegant. Notice the difference between this sentence and the previous one and the two spaces after this sentence.  Yet, there are still many writers who cling to the two space rule mostly because that was how they learned it. Like with other seemingly inviolate rules (no split infinitives, don't end a sentence with a preposition), this one is based on nothing other than tradition.

Too many strict rules can make our writing stilted. We've given up the typewriter, so why not get rid of the norms that came with it?

The Grammar Police

Monday, January 24th, 2011

In 2006, Lynne Truss wrote a book about grammar called Eats, Shoots and Leaves. The title refers to the joke about a panda who dines at a restaurant, points a gun at the server, and then takes off. When the astonished owner looks up"panda" in the dictionary, the strange behavior becomes clear: "an animal that eats, shoots, and leaves." The addition of those two commas changes the meaning entirely.

Truss's point is that we should be scrupulous about grammar. I admit I find a silent thrill in spotting a sign at the produce section marked "blueberry's $2.99." It makes me feel superior in my knowledge of punctuation. But when it comes to the check out line, I'm not sure I could say with certainty whether it should be  "10 items or less" or "10 items or fewer." Suddenly, my feeling of superiority evaporates.

Two education experts share their tips for editing in a post on They make a useful distinction between mistakes (careless slipups) and errors (rules we don't know). In editing, it helps to focus on the mistakes first. When it comes to errors, we will have to rely on other sources. As the panda example shows, correcting these glitches is not trivial. If it hinders clarity, then a grammatical mistake or error can confuse a reader, weakening our argument.


Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Faculty aiming for promotion often hear the advice, "Make it count twice." That is, if you develop a new curriculum, present it at a conference. If you make a conference presentation, turn it into a journal article. The idea is that once the effort has been expended, the reward should be maximized.

But how original should each piece of scholarship be? A story in Nature describes A Canadian professor of engineering who recycled much of the same content without acknowledgment in 20 different papers. The matter has led to discussions over how universities and journals can police duplicate submissions.

One biomedical researcher has developed software to detect similarities in published papers. Internet searches in general make self-plagiarism easier to detect. Perhaps as a result, the NIH has investigated zero instances of plagiarism in the last three years related to the 325,000 researchers it funds.

Say It Plainly

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

Yesterday I talked to two researchers on the medical campus. Both expressed to me the need for grant writers to share their drafts with colleagues before submitting them. You don't want the second person to read your grant to be a member of the review panel.

The Faculty Development and Diversity website offers links to grant writing resources. Still, there's no substitute for going over your prose with an experienced editor--or even an interested family member. If the specific aims of the grant are clear to an intelligent outsider, you've done your job.

A good place to start is with removing all jargon. There's even an organization devoted to promoting clean prose. On their website, the Center for Plain Language gives key principles for writing in an accessible way. Using plain language does not mean removing complexity; it means bringing your ideas to a wider audience.