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Category Archives: Reference materials

Essay tips for new students

This time of year, rather than January, always seems like the start of a new year to me.  I suppose I was at University, then working at a University, then studying again, working in library supply where the renewal cycle was at this time of year, then back to working at a University.  I’ve also started at University twice (undergraduate and postgraduate), and my partner, Matthew, undertook a Master’s degree a few years ago.

So, I’m going to talk today about some hints and tips for new students on coping with those first essays.  I’d like to broaden this out, too – so if you have any questions on this topic that I don’t cover here, please either post a comment to this post, or contact me via email or via my contact form, and then I’ll write a follow-up post in a question and answer format.

Starting at University or College can be really daunting. You have to get to grips with a new environment, a new place to live, new people around you … and what’s likely to be a new way of doing academic work, too. I know some A-level courses encourage students to do some research in a bigger library, but I also know from running library tours at my part-time job, that many of you won’t have been in a big academic library before, and might need a few hints and tips. So, here we go!

Use all the resources you’re offered

Your library is the main place for this. At the beginning of term, you’ll have the opportunity to go on a library tour. Take that opportunity to familiarise yourself with the library, and with the staff and where to ask for help. You’ll find where the books are for your course, and how to operate the photocopier, self-issue machines and other bits and bobs of technology. If you miss the tour schedule, many libraries offer downloadable audio tours, or other ways to help you orientate yourself.  Library staff may offer training sessions and hands-on work with databases and other resources you may not have come across before.

Seek out the support and information that’s been put together to help you.  This may come from library or departmental staff.  At my university, study skills modules are available on the student portal part of the website. This is quite common and gives tried and tested advice, in far greater detail than I can go into here, on how to maximise your study skills and learn how to learn, and write those essays.

Don’t fear your essay … or your library

Your university library might look big, and you may not have used a large, academic library before, or even have been inside one – but in reality, most of your books are going to be in just one or two locations in that big building.  You’ll need to get used to the classmarks on the spines of the books – usually made up of letters and numbers, like PR 1234.A6, these are simply a way of making sure books on the same subject are shelved together. Your library should have paper or online guides to where books at a particular range of classmarks are shelved, and once you’ve looked up a book, checked its classmark and found it, you’ll find other books on the same subject shelved alongside it.  Electronic resources are ever so easy: access them online whenever, and from wherever, you want to.

Regarding your essay … the tutors are not out to trick you. They want to see you succeed, not fail. Yes, they want to push you and help you learn, but the essence of University work is finding out, following your interests – it’s far more flexible and enjoyable than all the cramming of facts into your head that you did for your A-levels. If you get stuck, ask for help (see below). If the department offers more resources about writing essays, use them. If your tutor makes lots of comments on your work, don’t be downcast, but use them to learn for next time.

Plan, plan, plan

If you’ve just done your A-levels, you’ll be more used to doing coursework than I was when, fresh from batches of 3 hour exams, but no coursework, I suddenly had to learn how to plan an essay! It’s a cliché, but don’t leave it to the last minute. You will (believe me) remember the hell of pulling a 24 hour session on an essay on Middlemarch, but you won’t remember anything about the book or what you wrote, and you’ll go right off coffee for a bit. When you get each course outline, there’ll be a note of what coursework is due and when. Note all these down once you’ve chosen your courses, and then plan time to spend on each essay.

When you’re researching and writing your essay, write a plan. Just like you did in your exams (right?).  Now it’s all on Word, type in the headings – introduction, conclusion, the bits in between. Do some mind-mapping or write out a plan, however you like to do it. But plan the essay, even make a note of how many words you need for each section, and it’ll be all broken down into bite-sized chunks that are much, much easier to face.

For more information on essay-writing, by the way, you might want to look at this post, which is mainly for those writing dissertations and theses, but has some useful points, too.

Use some different resources

When you were at school, you probably used textbooks, the texts themselves if you were studying humanities subjects, the internet (Wikipedia? Don’t use Wikipedia now, please!).  Now you have a huge wealth of information at your fingertips: books, e-books, journals, e-journals, databases of articles … Make sure you use a range of materials. Your course reading lists will probably guide you here – they should have a mix of materials on them. I didn’t really get to grips with journal articles until my post-graduate course (but then again, in my day they were all indexed in big, fat books; online searching was only just coming in) but wish I’d learned about them earlier.

It shows initiative and differentiates you if you read around your topic and search out some interesting articles, etc. to quote in your essay. Most of the electronic databases and e-journals are really easy to search (the designers put a lot of work into making them user-friendly, and there are often tutorials within the source itself, or written by library staff and available on the library or departmental website).

If you get really stuck with a particular database, and think you’ll need to use it a lot, it’s worth finding out who your Subject Advisor, Library Tutor, Learning Support Staff – whoever it is who’s paid to help students find stuff – and booking a session with them to get some more detailed help.

Record your references

Now’s the time to start recording where you found the information you’re discussing and quoting in your essays.  Academic writing is quite a rigorous discipline, and the academic world frowns on plagiarism, which basically boils down to passing other people’s work off as your own. I’ve written a separate article about this here, so I won’t go in-depth about it again, but basically, make sure you note down where you got that idea or quotation from, and make sure you state that in your essay. You might use footnotes or you might just put a note in the text and put together a bibliography, but you’ll be expected to do this from the start.  Get in the habit, and it won’t be so bad when you come to do your undergraduate dissertation or extended essay, or if you go on to postgraduate study.

You don’t need to do anything fancy – a Word document or an Excel spreadsheet with the author’s name, article or book title, journal title and volume/issue if it’s an article, and date, and there you go.  Start doing it now, and it will become a useful habit that will help later on.

If you need help, ask for it, or accept it

If you’re feeling a bit stuck or panicky when confronted with your first tranche of essays, don’t fret. Help is at hand.

For a start, as I said above, your tutors are not trying to catch you out or trick you.  You should have a personal tutor, and there will be some sort of academic support, too. Go to them – they are there to help you. No one is going to think any worse of you for seeking help. After all, in the world of work later on, the bosses will prefer it if you ask what the big red button does rather than just pressing it! And, you’re paying fees, so the university needs to help you get the best out of your education. So, ask.

If you have a particular issue, whether English isn’t your native language, you are dyslexic or need to use voice-activated software, support should be in place at your University. You might need to contact the Overseas Students office, in the first example, or Disability Services / Accessibility in the second, but there will be something in place – as far as Accessibility is concerned, there are laws to make sure that’s the case.

If you feel happier getting some private support, using an academic coach or proofreader, be very careful indeed. There are a lot of companies out there who prey on students who need their services. Obviously I’m decent and ethical, and if you feel you need some support with your essay writing, do get in touch – I can always recommend another person or company with whom I have personal experience and contact. But beware companies who charge a high fee and then just run your essay through a spell-checker (it happens). You shouldn’t pay more than about £8.00 per 1000 words for proofreading, and try to find a company or coaching service that will tell you the person’s name who you’re dealing with, and has references on their website.

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OK, so these are a few general hints and tips. As I said, I’m more than happy to answer questions – ask me via email or via my contact form or just pop a comment on this post, and I’ll post up the answers in a week or so.  Good luck, enjoy your course and your University life, and if you like this article, please share it using the buttons below!

 

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Top tips for dissertations and theses

It’s right in the middle of dissertation season, and thousands of students will be hard at work putting together both undergraduate and postgraduate dissertations.  I work with many students  – including lots of people whose English isn’t their first language as well as native English speakers.  I love working with students – helping someone out at the beginning of their career, supporting them in their writing and helping them improve their English and writing skills (of course I’m careful not to help TOO much – see this post for how I avoid plagiarism!).

Over the years I’ve worked with almost a hundred students getting ready to submit dissertations and theses.  Although I didn’t end up completing my Library Master’s (I moved away from the population I was researching!), I supported my partner through his (and proof-read it; perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever proof-read.  Cognitive neuroscience!) and am working on my own research project at the moment. So I’ve called upon my experience and that of the “hive minds” of Facebook and Twitter to put together some top tips for getting that dissertation or thesis researched and written.  Thank you to everyone who contributed!

The start – reading, topics and supervisors

It’s vitally important to choose a topic you’re interested in and can commit to – even for a shorter undergraduate dissertation.  For a PhD, you have to almost be obsessed with your topic, otherwise, when the going gets tough, it’ll be easier to give up.  Meg1987 (via Twitter) agrees with this from an undergraduate perspective: “Start early and make sure it’s on a subject you don’t mind taking over your life!” and tutor and supervisor Gill Rose agrees: “Choose a topic you are really interested in.  Then, when you get completely demoralised, your interest will keep you going (oh yes it will).

The proposal can be an important part of the process; this isn’t usually needed at undergraduate level, but you’ll usually have to think up your own topic from Master’s level onwards.  Gill recommends keeping it simple: “Making it complicated does not show your superior knowledge, you usually just get tied up in knots”, and is more keen on the students showing that they can take a research methodology and apply it to a real-life situation than seeing intellectual fireworks.  And if the thing changes between proposal and writing up? Linda Bates, who recently gained a doctorate from Cambridge University, reassures us: “By the end of your first term or first year or whenever, your actual work won’t bear much resemblance to whatever is in your research proposal. But that’s the nature of research and not something to worry about (unless it’s so far away from the proposal that you have to send an entirely new proposal to your funding body in order to keep justifying their payments…)”

It’s worth having a look at some books on writing a thesis / dissertation.  I’ve personally found Gary Thomas’ “How to do your research project” (London: Sage, 2009) very helpful, although it’s more for the humanities/social sciences/education fields.  You’ll be based at a University – so use the library – subject specialists will have recommended purchases that they consider to be useful, and these books can give you a good base from which to start.

A word on supervisors.  Yours is usually chosen by their specialism as well as their teaching role, so they know something about your subject or its background.  Zoe Toft (via Twitter – playbythebook) stresses the importance of a good, honest relationship with your supervisor, right from the start, adding: “It’s important not to be afraid of criticism (as a student) or acknowledging areas where you’re not an expert if you’re a supervisor – which happens more often than supervisors like to admit!”

Concentration and keeping going

So, you’ve had a chat with your supervisor, you’ve submitted your proposal and had it accepted (or chosen your subject) – now what? How do you get down to the work?

Linda Bates acknowledges the need to maintain contact with the outside world: “The internet is a real friend/foe dichotomy: in subjects like English where you can spend 3-4 years working on a PhD without having to speak to a single person, it is valuable to use [social media] to interact with peers” but warns that it mustn’t be allowed to get out of control.  I tend to turn off Twitter, etc., if I’m really concentrating on something, with a half hour break at the end for chatting and catching up with emails.

When I’ve got a big project to concentrate on, I try to make myself just sit down and DO SOMETHING, whatever that something is, for a set amount of time.  Some people structure their time management around half hour blocks, some, such as Ali Noakes, suggest longer time periods (Ali’s just finished an Occupational Therapy degree):  “It helped me to set aside a block of time, such as a day, rather than jumping between assignments. I needed to become immersed in it. We occupational therapists call it occupational flow.”

And Laura Stevens simply says: “Set yourself deadlines and stick to them.”

Keeping records

I talked about referencing in another post.  It’s so important to make a note of the books, journal articles and websites you’ve referred to as you go along.  You can use specialised software for this or just keep a spreadsheet going – or even a notebook! This will solve a lot of problems when you come to write up.

Back up your work regularly, preferably onto a pen drive or an external hard disk (or you could email it to yourself if you’ve got enough bandwidth on your email account).  And keep control of the versions – if you make a lot of changes, number the versions of each chapter as you go along, so you know which is the most recent one.

Chaletfan says, via twitter, “don’t put a superbly edited print out in the bin. I’ve *totally* not just done this.”

Writing skills and writing up

So, it’s the end of the project, and it’s time to write it up.  Or is it? Should you write as you go? One thing I was always taught was that your introduction and conclusion, at least, should be written such that a reasonably intelligent and well-educated person can understand what you’re saying.  So keep it clear, explain the acronyms, and don’t make assumptions about the readers’ prior knowledge (this also means you can use a general proof-reader, like me, rather than someone very specific to your field, unless it’s something very highly specialised, like maths).

A dissertation or thesis will usually include the following sections: Introduction – Literature Review – Design and Methodology – Findings – Analysis and Discussion – Conclusion.  Gary Thomas, in his book referenced above, suggests allocating the following amount of the work to each section: Introduction 5% – Literature Review 30% – Design and Methodology 15% – Findings 15% – Analysis and Discussion 30% – Conclusion 5%.  Break your total target word count down in these proportions and you’ll have a guide to how much to write for each section.

Zoe Austin-Cope recommends (for a dissertation) “Start writing the thing at least three weeks before the deadline, not two.”  This certainly applies to making sure you’ve got all the text in the right places and that the document works as a whole, and in many cases you can work like this.

There’s also a case to be made for writing up as you go along. Arthur Lugtigheid told me how he did this:  “When you’re doing experimental work, write as you go along. It will save you so much work later. I find writing very difficult, almost like starting a painting – where do you put your first brush stroke? Once I get going I find it easier and easier and when you have something to work from as a first draft things get very easy. But you need to get there first. I start with a rough outline – and I find that for me, getting to a first draft requires ‘verbal diarrhoea’ stages, where I just write whatever comes up. I then structure this into a more coherent story. It’s a bit like polishing a gem piece by piece.”  He goes on to detail: “I always start with the methods while I’m actually working on the experiment. Then you write results. You might argue that the introduction is important to write first, but that’s not true at all. In practice, what you want to mention in the introduction largely depends on what you find in your results and how you write your methods. The discussion is always written last, but before your abstract.”  Gill Rose, working in a different discipline, agrees that it’s best to plan it out then fill in the sections in general before going into more detail: “If you have not been given a structure to work to, organise one of your own. Don’t feel you have to do one section before moving on to the next. Much better to do an initial plan, then fill out each section a bit, then get down to the detail; that way, you are better able to see what should go where.”

I agree, too – my research consists of a case study and then a questionnaire-based study.  I’m writing about my methodology as I formulate the theory behind it into the appropriate terms, as well as getting information for the case study in two halves: one half is already written up and the other is awaiting further input.  Meanwhile, I have a lot of the theoretical background of the main study done, and am able to do this while I’m waiting for the rest of my questionnaires to come in.  It’s good to know I am learning how to code up the questionnaire results before I actually have to do it!

Other tips

I would say this, I know – but do have someone read through your work before you submit it.  Even if you can do without a proofreader (really a copyeditor but it always seems to be called proofreading in this context: you all read the blog and know the difference, anyway), then have a friend or family member read it through for any glaring errors.  We all make mistakes and we all get tired, and this can prevent you from submitting a piece of work containing the sentence “More things that could be researched on this are more things” (real-life example, not drawn from any of my clients!)

Treat yourself! Save up supermarket rewards and treat yourself to a nice meal.  Studenthood often goes with poverty, so this can be a real bonus. Also, and I can’t stress this enough: look after yourself.  It can be a really frazzling experience writing a dissertation or thesis.  Make sure you get: Enough sleep.  Enough good food (not junk). Enough exercise.  Even though I’ve got a job, a business to run and a research project to work on, I always prioritise the gym and running. I see so many students, especially if they’re in a new country, grappling with a Master’s course, or they’re on the long haul of a PhD, running themselves into the ground, getting thinner and paler (or fatter and paler), short-tempered and wild-eyed. When someone gives me the final version of their precious chapters, I usually email them: “Now have a good meal and go to sleep!”  Pay special attention to good nutrition and having enough sleep.  You don’t need to turn into a gym bunny, but go for a walk – and do get out of the house at least once a day!

I hope these fairly general hints and tips, backed up with information from people who know about the process first hand, prove helpful. If you have more tips to offer, please do put them in the comments!

All my posts to do with students can be found here.

 

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Referencing for academic writing

It’s dissertation season, in the UK at least, and so I thought I’d talk a little bit about some topics that are important to students, whether you’re doing your undergraduate dissertation or a postgraduate Master’s dissertation or PhD.  I’ll cover referencing this time, and then something on planning, structuring and handy hints. If you’ve been through the process and have any hints and tips to share, do get in touch so I can weave them together into a useful document.

So: referencing.  We reference (or cite) what we’ve read when writing an essay or thesis in order to avoid plagiarism and demonstrate that we’ve read around the subject and know what we’re talking about.  There are two aspects to referencing:

  • recording what you’ve read and referred to
  • referring to it appropriately in the text and bibliography of your dissertation

Recording what you’ve read

Putting together your references and bibliography is so much simpler if you keep a note of what you’ve read and consulted as you go along.  In the days of my Library and Information Studies post-grad, it was all done on card index cards.  Now there are lots of different options, including software like EndNote and Reference Manager.  For my research project, I’m just keeping a list on a spreadsheet in Excel.

The information you need to note:

  • Author’s full name.  Editor(s) if appropriate
  • For books: full title of the book.  Full publisher information for the book (you can find this on the bottom of the title page, or the back of the title page), including publisher name, location and date published
  • For chapters in books: Full title of the chapter and a full citation for the book, too (see above)
  • For articles in journals: Full title of the article.  Full title of the journal.  Page numbers for the article
  • For everything: page numbers for any direct quotations or sections you are going to refer to heavily
  • For websites: full URL and date you accessed the web page

Obviously, this is easy to do at the time; just note down the details and off you go.  Much, much harder to reconstruct after the event.

Referring to what you’ve read / citing

Now we’re talking about how you refer to what you’ve read and quoted in the text of the document you’re writing. The most important thing to do here is …

  • CHECK WHICH REFERENCING SYSTEM YOUR ORGANISATION PREFERS YOU TO USE!

This is hugely important.  Get it right first time, and you’ll pop all the references in easily.  Get it wrong, or don’t bother to check, and you’ll be going through and through the thing, fiddling around with the references, when you should be spending your time refining your arguments and putting your thoughts across.  Or you’ll be paying someone like me £x an hour to sort it out for you!

Referencing systems include Harvard Referencing, APA (American Psychological Association), MLA (Modern Language Association).  They all differ in how they ask you to present the information you collected above within your text.

For example, you could be expected to add a footnote number to each quotation in the text, with either a full bibliographical citation in the footnote section or a shortened reference there and a full bibliographical citation in the bibliography.  Or you could be expected to put Smith (2001) in the text and supply a full reference in the bibliography.  Or you might be putting a number in the text, referring to a numbered list in the bibliography.

A full bibliographical citation looks something like this:

Smith, J.L. (2001) The correct way to do referencing.  Birmingham: Libro Publications.

Jones, A.B. (2001) “Me and my essay”, in Smith, J.L. The correct way to do referencing.  Birmingham: Libro Publications.

Robinson, X. (2009) The different forms of citation.  American Journal of Footnotes 33 (1): 202-204.

But it doesn’t always, and the citation method does affect how this looks.

Always, though: ALWAYS, the bibliography is in alphabetical order by author’s surname.  It can take ages to sort this out if it isn’t!

How to conform to each referencing system?  That’s a long, long post that no one would want to read! Your academic institution should provide you with links to reference materials about their preferred system, and, if not, the dreaded Wikipedia does do a good summary of most of the common ones.

Good luck – and happy referencing!

 

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On the humble apostrophe

I wasn’t sure I was going to write anything on the apostrophe, as it seems such a basic thing that people like me who work with words tend to go on about (we don’t really roam the streets, Sharpie in hand, looking for hapless greengrocers … )

But then I noticed more and more confusions, and a friend or two mentioned that they still weren’t sure, so: the humble apostrophe.

Turning to the dictionary, an apostrophe is “an exclamatory passage in a speech or poem addressed to a person or personified thing.” Oh – not the one we want. OK, it’s “a punctuation mark (‘) used to indicate either possession or the omission of letters or numbers.” That’s better.

Let’s move on to Hart’s Rules, which, oddly enough, contains the rules of English. The following information is summarised from Hart’s. Please do pay attention to all but the ones I mark as terribly hard – they are the ones where you need to know there’s something funny about them and you’ll need to look them up. That’s what we all do, just to check …

The apostrophe is used in two ways – to show possession (ownership) and to mark where letters or numbers have been missed out.

Possession
Easy
– Use an apostrophe and an s with a normal single noun or indefinite pronoun to show possession – the girl’s job, the box’s contents, anyone’s guess.
A bit harder
– Use the apostrophe and s combination for plural nouns that don’t end in s – people’s opinions, children’s toys.
– Do NOT use an apostrophe in the possessive pronouns: hers, its, ours, yours, theirs – theirs is the kingdom of heaven, a friend of yours, give the dog its dinner (it’s easier to remember the “its” rule if you think of it belonging to this section).
A bit harder still
– Use the apostrophe alone (no s after it) after plural nouns that DO end in s – our neighbours’ gardens, other countries’ borders.
– In compound and “of” phrases, the apostrophe (and the plural, in fact) go after the last noun – my sister-in-law’s son, the King of Spain’s estates.
– Use an apostrophe and s with personal names ending with an s, x, or z sound – Charles’s, Dickens’s, Marx’s and Jesus’s.
Ever so hard (to be honest I sometimes have to look these up and I don’t often see them used correctly) …
– Use an apostrophe and no s when talking about time passing – in a few days’ time, a few weeks’ holiday. But if it’s in the name of a war, no apostrophe – The Hundred Years War.
– A double possessive (making use of both “of” and an apostrophe) may be used with nouns related to living beings or personal names – a speech of Churchill OR a speech of Churchill’s. But it’s not used with nouns referring to organisations, etc. – a friend of the National Gallery.
– A double set of nouns – apostrophe and s go after them if they are acting together – Broomfield and Dexter’s “The Rules of Grammar” – but not if they’re separate – Shakespeare’s and Jonson’s tragedies.
– Apostrophe and no s for a singular noun that ends in an s or z sound combined with “sake” – for goodness’ sake, for old times’ sake (times here is a plural so has the apostrophe after the s). This is the one I have to look up. Maybe you should save this blog post for those purposes.
Believe me, there are more obscure rules, for example those dealing with Greek names. If you need to know, ask me!

Plurals
Just – don’t. If you really, really need to differentiate, you are just about allowed a small, occasional one, only in examples like – dot the i’s and cross the t’s, find all the number 5’s. But that’s it. And there’s not one with numbers any more, although this has changed in the last decade or so: the 1980s not the 1980’s.

Contractions/omissions
Easy
Use an apostrophe when a letter or number has been missed out: won’t, we’ll, bo’sun, ’70s, it’s warm out today.
A bit harder
Don’t use an apostrophe before a word that’s been shortened but is now in general use – flu, cello and phone, not ‘flu, ‘cello and ‘phone.
If the apostrophe replaces the beginning or end of a word, it has a space before/after it to make the word stay separate – rock ‘n’ roll. If the apostrophe replaces a letter in the middle of the word, no space – ma’am, o’er.
Madly hard to remember
An apostrophe is used before the suffix when an abbreviation functions as a verb – KO’d, OD’ing.

References
Concise Oxford English dictionary (11th rev. ed.) Oxford: OUP, 2008.
New Hart’s Rules Oxford: OUP, 2005.

 

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Why bother? The value of proofreading

A while ago, I asked people what they’d like to see me writing about. One that came up there, and has come up since, and before, and whenever I mention I’m a proofreader/copyeditor, is … “why bother?” Why can’t people just express themselves however they want, with whatever spelling, grammar and punctuation they fancy?

I have to state my own view here; that’s all I can do. And furnish some examples, many drawn from a discussion I had with peers in the copyediting business, on a forum to which I belong. I fall in between the prescriptive and descriptive camps when it comes to spellings, grammar, etc. and their (inevitable) changes. I glory in new words and word-formations (I’ve been slightly obsessed with the -gate suffix for more years than I care to recall) and I find it fascinating to see how language changes with time. I don’t think it should be fixed, nailed down and not allowed to change. But I still care deeply about clarity and precision of expression. And, in my opinion, if you don’t know the rules and how to apply them, if you don’t *care* about the rules and how to apply them, then the clarity of what you’re expressing can easily be lost, and your meaning may not come across as you intend it to.

Please note, I am not criticising those who don’t know the rules, or have difficulty applying them. How could I, when my own clients include people whose English is not their first (or second, or third) language, dyslexic people, people who’ve not been taught at school or college how the rules work. I like a laugh at a dodgy shop sign as much as the next person, but I wouldn’t point out those things publicly in this blog, or ever want to make people feel I’m mocking them. But if you are not sure what to put or how to write it, there are reference materials all over the place, and people like me and my colleagues, who can help out.

So, some examples (thanks again to the Copyediting-List folks for providing some of them)

– A purple people-eater is purple and eats people, but a purple-people eater eats only the purple ones.

– Here’s a fascinating link showing the importance of word order:

– Here’s an example of how important language is in the legal field. And it’s not just in the legal field – while many students are not marked down for grammar and punctuation these days, a friend who lectures in speech and language therapy does, as a mistake in someone’s notes can cause many problems down the line.

– On a similar note, haven’t we all got colleagues or other people we communicate with who may not have great written language skills? Doesn’t it devalue their opinions a little in your mind, when everyone’s laughing at the latest email or sign?

– This is a long one, but it shows the importance of punctuation!

Dear Jim:
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy – will you let me be yours?
Anne

Dear Jim:
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?
Yours,
Anne

– Capitalisation matters too, in this great example from Andy Mabbett:

One area of capitalisation that divides even experts in the field is around species names. There are many types of black-headed gulls, and lots of little gulls, but only one species called Black-headed Gull (and it has a brown head!) and one species of Little Gull. Consider:

“Is that black-headed gull a black-headed gull?”

“No, that’s a little gull. The little gull on the railing is a black-headed gull.”

vs.

“Is that black-headed gull a Black-headed Gull?”

“No, that’s a Little Gull. The little gull on the railing is a Black-headed Gull.”

– A classic: Let’s eat Grandma!/Let’s eat, grandma!

– Lynne Truss did well out of this one: Eats, shoots, and leaves/Eats shoots and leaves.

– This one comes in various forms and with various names… I would like to thank my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa.

Publishers and other purveyors of words have style guides, academic departments ask their students to reference books read in a certain way, and proofreaders and copyeditors (and copy writers) use reference materials such as the ones I’ve discussed before, to make sure that what they produce is clear and consistent. We do this, I think, on behalf of the reader, so they’re not distracted by mistakes, howlers and inconsistencies. My aim in my work is to help the writer express themselves clearly and accurately, so their readers can read their texts simply and easily, using their brainpower and concentration to absorb the concepts of the text at hand, or just enjoy a work of fiction without having to puzzle over the word the author meant to use.

So – why bother? Do you think I should? Do you think we should? And have I answered the question?

 

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Copyediting and proofreading

As promised a couple of posts ago, I will now attempt to distinguish between copyediting and proofreading.

I have used New Hart’s rules: the handbook of style for writers and editors, which is one of the reference tools recommended by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders, in setting down these distinctions: any errors, however, are my own.

Copyediting means making sure the copy conforms, first, externally, to accepted forms of word use, spelling, grammar, etc., and any style guide the client might use, and second, internally to itself. The second point is very important and involves checking the author has spelled names the same throughout, referred to people in the same way, arranged rooms described in a house in the same way each time they’re mentioned, etc. That’s a bit like being a continuity person for a film or TV programme, and when there’s a lot of that, it’s called a substantive edit. For example, in a novel I’m copyediting at the moment, I’ve had to pop backwards in the text and insert suggestions for something being mentioned at one point, so it can be referred to later on.

So, copyediting is actually what people usually think of when they think “Liz is running a proofreading business.”

But proofreading is something altogether different. This involves checking a text is ready to be published. Making sure the text starts on the right page, that paragraphs don’t have a trailing word on the next page, that diagrams or tables aren’t split, that the right chapter heading appears at the top of each page. Really, this is making sure the proofs, the final copy before publication, can be published as they are.

Sometimes I do both. I’m working on a non-fiction book at the moment, where I’ve already gone through a copyedit and made sure all the sentences work OK and all the capitalization is consistent. I’m awaiting a copy of the PDF, which I’ll check over for picture captions being correct and the text appearing nicely on the page.

Of course, there’s always an opportunity for people to mix up copyediting and copy-writing. Hopefully, this piece is spelled and punctuated correctly; I haven’t written it half with copyediting and half with copy-editing and I’ve included a citation for the book I’ve referred to. So I’ve copyedited it. The actual writing of the piece in the first place? That’s copy-writing.

Reference
New Hart’s rules: the handbook of style for writers and editors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

 
 

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New books!

I had an exciting package of books arrive from Amazon yesterday – half for Libro’s reference section and half for ME (spending some of my vouchers I’d been saving up). I thought my clients, potential clients and Friends Of Libro might be interested in what Libro now has on its bookshelf…

I really need up to date reference materials to use for Libro, especially if I’m going to be blogging about usage, so now I’ve paid my tax for 2009-10 I have used some of my profit for these. Note: yes, there are online versions of many of these, but they cost as much as the hard copy to access PER YEAR, while the new editions don’t tend to come out yearly. So, for the time being, I am using printed copies, although this may change in the future.

Concise Oxford English Dictionary – 11th edition (luxury edition) – I realised my current Oxford Concise was bought with money I had for my 18th Birthday and is the 7th edition. Oh, and luxury means I get a bookmark and there are fingerholes in the text block so you can access each letter easily.

R.M. Ritter – New Hart’s Rules – this is the companion to the wonderful New Oxford Dictionary For Writers and Editors (which I actually adore as it has all those words you’re not sure how to spell or use!) and explains the rules of punctuation, etc. It comes highly recommended by my copy-editing peers.

Chicago Manual Of Style – 16th edition – this is the American be-all and end-all of rules on everything from typesetting to the most obscure parts of speech and uses of punctuation. I do have quite a few US customers (having worked for an American company, I am bi-lingual in American and British English, and really enjoy the differences and similarities), and this is really useful. As well as FASCINATING! I actually have two copies of this in the house at the moment, as I borrowed my library’s copy to check how useful it would be.

Norm Goldstein – The Associated Press Stylebook – another one for my US customers, this is a guide that a lot of PR agencies and other media people use.

What’s your favourite reference book, and why?

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2011 in Organisation, Reference materials

 

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