Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Grammar Mines, page 23

I've been assured that it's good to rant. Within reason, of course. You can't just fill your life with ranting. But opening the steam-valve a bit when necessary does a world of good in getting the garbage and gunk out of your mind, leaving you fresh to work. So I'm feeling free. And I'm not promising to be any more coherent than the text I'm working on. But here I don't have to be!

Sometimes I think I'll never be done with this thing.

One of my problems is with the style of the manuscript. Style, you'd think, shouldn't be such a big deal. But it is.

When a scientist sets out to explain how something works, he describes how it works. References are added as support, but it isn't necessary to go into the gory details of what's in those references. If the reader wants to know more, he can go look it up. You just go ahead and make a statement, and at the end of the sentence you add [Smith, 2007; Jones et al., 2008b] to show where the data is that allows you to say what you're saying.

If as in my present case you're describing a field of knowledge, you can group together information from diverse sources into one whole. If they don't overlap perfectly, it's fine to say what's common, and what's unique to different studies.

What you don't do is use the references as the text. In 1998 Albertsen said... Then in 2002 Harris noted... Lastly Wickwood used the same technique but added a widget to get...

That's an annotated bibliography.

And it can actually impede the formation of a global idea of what's going on.

Putting the author and year up front makes that appear to be the prime information to be gleaned from each entry, when these things are in fact utterly dispensable to our understanding of the topic. Second, we're drowning in details about how each study was done, how many people involved, what exact disease, what exact measures. These details are not essential to the big picture. When a detail really is essential, okay. But you can't make everything top priority because then nothing is. Finally, the looked-for synthesis is never provided. We have a catalog.

Yes, the reader can ponder the gathered information and create a synthesis, but that's what the author should be doing. I'm not suggesting that reading a review should replace coming up with your own ideas, or that everything must be pre-digested, pre-thought. But we do in fact read reviews to have much of that groundwork done for us. So that we can continue on from there. Plus, as a chapter in a textbook, our readers usually have minimal prior experience with the subject. They're lost in the woods here, and describing yet another tree does little to advance their understanding the forest.

But maybe it's me who's getting lost in the woods. There's so much to mess with that I only just now identified my biggest style problem: there's not a single Topic Sentence in the whole 33 pages. Not a one.

I'm not such a Paragraph Structure Nazi that an odd paragraph now and then bothers me. You get them all the time in creative texts like blogs and novels and blatherings. There, not even sentences have to be complete, even words can get chopped or scrambled, and that's fine. But that's why I've had such a teeth-grinding time of trying to figure out what the point is. Aha. Mrs Kirby was right. Much as we hated having our metaphorical knuckles rapped with a ruler in high school English, there just might be something to it after all.

Topic Sentence. Who'd'a Strunk it?


The Weaver of Grass said...

Hi - thanks for calling at my blog - welcome. Can't reply to your post because I was absolutely mesmerised by those wonderful fish - just had to keep watching them. Call again.

steven said...

oh deary me nanu - and there am i, the teacher writing in lower case with random punctuation just because it feels more natural and maybe even makes more sense to write like we breathe or think. meanwhile you are stuck in academic rigour and that (according to my post doctoral chum) is all of that and carries weight with repercussions yay on through decades past the publication date that ensure moneys come flowing in from anonymous but accountable sources.!!! grrrrrrrr nanu. better suck it in and get 'er done. it ain't going away is it?!!! sweet evening. steven

NanU said...

It WILL go away. 9 pages to go, and then I have to go back over the new version. I've never read the thing straight through, which is not good. The publisher is impatient - a month ago my colleague told them it would take just 2 weeks for the corrections...well, perhaps, if I had nothing else to do...
My goal is to have the whole thing gone over once before dinner with friends tonight.

Barry said...

I hate it when you discover your teacher was (maybe) right all along.

I can just picture their mean little faces alight with triumph, muttering little things like "He who laughs last..."

How depressing.

Enjoy your editing, at some point it will be done. Honest.

Si's blog said...

one of the things I ranted about in my chemistry classes I assigned research papers was the proper use of references bibliography and footnotes lots of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth see not only english teachers and ee cummings can write like this

Cindy said...

As one who once had to rewrite a 10,000 word academic paper in four days, I feel your pain. But you can do it! Topic sentences be damned, you'll kick out a fantastic piece of work!

And, for the record, I love that all the auto prompts on your page are in French. They make me happy.