Analytical Writing for Science and Technology
Copyright © 1996 by T. M. Georges.
How to Edit -- And Feel OK About Throwing Most of it Away
The last part of this course has two lessons. One tells you how to edit your manuscript using all the principles you've learned so far. This quality control will let you know when you've got a product you can safely send out the door. The last lesson tells you how to speed approvals for your writing by getting enough feedback from your intended audience as well as from those who have to approve your writing.
In this Lesson:
- Don't be afraid to cut
- How to design your writing so it looks easy to read
- Make your section titles more informative
- Should you worry about sexism in your writing?
- Should you use readability formulas?
- The trouble with readability formulas
- Getting it all together -- a final checklist
- Some practice passages
Editing is where you find out how good you are at putting yourself in someone else's shoes and figuring out what your reader needs. Your job as editor is to go through your paper and read it from your reader's point of view. Cut out or change those things that don't help your reader find the information she's looking for.
DON'T BE AFRAID TO CUT
After you've worked so hard to finish the first draft of your manuscript, all of your instincts probably tell you not to cut anything. Many writers regard their writing as a kind of offspring, and defend it with the same zeal. But no matter how large your investment in some group of words, they turn into a liability if your reader doesn't care about that particular information. This may be a good reason for not editing your own work -- or at least for letting it sit for a few weeks before tackling the editing job.
Remember that cutting just weeds out the parts of your writing that are not carefully designed to do a specific job. And that gives the part that's left a fighting chance. Think of editing as your quality control. If a part doesn't perform up to specifications, you don't want it to go out the door, do you?
When you edit your writing, you usually read through it and look for one specific problem at a time. For example, on a given reading, you might look only for misspelled words, inflated words, passive verbs or abstract nouns. You usually make several passes, focusing your attention on a different thing each time.
I recommend that you edit your paper or report by using the checklist at the end of this chapter. The checklist summarizes the important concepts you've covered in this book. In this chapter, I'll introduce a few new concepts for you to attend to as you edit.
HOW TO DESIGN YOUR WRITING SO IT LOOKS EASY TO READ
This section has to do more with form than the substance of your writing, but you should understand how the visual appearance of your written piece affects your reader's attitude and his desire to read it.
For example, if you jam all your information into page-long paragraphs with no section headings, few readers will feel like plowing through it. Or if you write pages of solid mathematical formulas, only a mathematician will be inclined to decipher it.
The same information can be made more visually appealing by breaking it up and by supplying informative section headings. Look at this course, for example. Can you list the things you can see that make it appear to be easy to read?
MAKE YOUR SECTION TITLES MORE INFORMATIVE
After you break up your text into paragraphs and sections of manageable size, you'll have to think of titles for each section. You can conform to tradition and have titles like:But why not make them more informative? How about section titles like:
- Earlier studies of public responses to storm warnings
- Full-wave solution to the boundary-value problem
- Humidity profiles measured by radiometers
- Aluminum cable is stronger and lighter
- Three reasons for switching to digital thermometers
- How can we improve the color of our beer?
Look through this course and notice the chapter and section titles. Do you think they work well as signposts to tell you where you are and what's going to happen next?
The best way to select a title for your sections is to ask yourself what each one's message is, and then think of the best way to tell your reader in a few words what she's going to find out as he reads that section.
SHOULD YOU WORRY ABOUT SEXISM IN YOUR WRITING?
I recently received a computer-generated letter with the salutation: Dear Person....
In his/her politically-correct effort to be gender-neutral, the exasperated writer of this letter no doubt felt that he/she had no choice but to use this absurd salutation, when the sex of the addressee is unknown. Without entering the debate about who should or should not be offended by the use of gender-specific terms, I can offer some reasonable alternatives for those who care.
You can often avoid gender-specific terms merely by substituting a genderless equivalent, for example, fireman becomes firefighter, mailman becomes letter carrier, chairman becomes chair, manpower becomes labor force, and foreman becomes supervisor. Sometimes this goes smoothly, but sometimes not. You probably don't want to call cowboys "cowpersons" or "cattle handlers." Or a journeyman a "journey worker." Don't invent bureaucratic-sounding terms that call attention to the problem and make people's jobs sound ridiculous.
You also have to deal with gender-specific pronouns and adjectives like him, her, his, he, and she, for which there are no genderless equivalents in English. Once you mention a single person -- engineer, geologist, supervisor -- then all later references to that person must identify that person as either he or she. But repeated use of "he or she" or "he/she" is awkward and annoying.
One way out of this dilemma is to rewrite the sentence. For example,Each department head should file his or her progress report by May 15th.
becomes simplyEach department head should file a progress report by May 15th.
In this exercise, rewrite the sentences to remove gender-specific references:
Each pilot must file his flight plan before takeoff.
Tell your reader exactly what he wants to know.
The chairman of the new committee will have his work cut out for him.
When the engineer reads the gauge, he must not allow his body heat to affect the measurement.
If the patient misses his insulin injection, he could easily go into shock.
The serviceman who installed this new modem didn't know what he was doing.
The foreman said that each cowboy would be given his own cow.
Another way is to continue to use him, her, etc., but alternate them randomly, where appropriate.
SHOULD YOU USE READABILITY FORMULAS?
Wouldn't it be nice to have a magic machine that could quickly and automatically tell you how readable your writing is? You could just drop your scribbled manuscript into its slot, listen to it kerchunck and whirr a bit, and then watch it spit out a slip of paper that says, "Anyone with at least a sixth grade education could read this easily." ...or maybe..."No one with less than a Ph.D. in your specialty is likely to understand this."
Measuring readability in a mechanical and quantitative way is an attractive idea, even though everyone knows that the factors that determine how easily something can be read are many and complex and vary from person to person. But numbers have an air of authority and objectivity that some people accept like a revelation from heaven. So about 50 years ago, writers and educators began trying to come up with a mathematical formula to compute the readability of written text.
The earliest formulas were based on the intuitive notion that readability had something to to with the average length of sentences and the number of long words, and also with how many "familiar" words are used. Competing formulas were developed, some simple, others complex. Some were "tested" in reading laboratories, even though no one could say exactly how readability could be objectively measured.
One of the most popular and easy-to-use readability formulas was developed by Robert Gunning. He aptly called it the Fog Index. The higher your Fog Index, the foggier your writing. To make the numbers easy to remember, Gunning designed his formula to give the grade level or number of years of education required to read a passage comfortably. It's easy to use and compute because it simply estimates the average sentence length and the average number of long words in a passage.
For example, a passage with a Fog Index of 6 could be easily read by a child with a sixth-grade education, whereas one with a Fog Index of 17 is at graduate-school level. Gunning argued that most people feel comfortable reading material whose Fog Index is 10 or lower, and the lower the better. The Bible, for example, tests at 6th or 7th grade level. People magazine scores a 6, and the Reader's Digest and the front page of the Wall Street Journal get a 9.
THE TROUBLE WITH READABILITY FORMULAS
The problem is not that readbility formulas don't indicate readability. Most indices do seem to be correlated with subjective readability (with certain pathological exceptions!). And most popular magazines today do test out to grade-school levels. The trouble is that formulas are so easy to misuse, if they're applied without thinking. Given a simple, easy-to-use index of readability, most people will abuse it. It's so easy to cross the thin line between an indicator of readability and a writing tool, that most people can't resist.
But what happens if you try to write to produce good readability scores? You get short, choppy, simple sentences constructed from a sixth-grade vocabulary. In other words, comic-book style. For this reason and others, many claim that readability formulas are totally useless, especially for evaluating technical writing. These people take the formulas much too seriously. (If you're interested in this debate, see the collection of six papers on the subject in the IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, March, l98l.)
If readability formulas help you flag passages that need defogging, fine. Go ahead and use them. If you get a bad score, you can be reasonably sure that your writing is foggier than it has to be. But where do you go from there? None of the formulas gives any indication of how to improve readability. As Douglas Mueller says: "The thermometer is not the cure!"
And what does readability have to do with informing? Informative writing tends to be readable as well, but the reverse is by no means certain. For example, all readability schemes would give this incomprehensible passage a good score:Find a green day to read, when every cow says not. If any car does too maybe who knows? Do nothing but ever kind bog walks. So any more red cups find wet slugs. Forget page numbers? Divide by seven then die home.
What do you think readability formulas leave out? I suggest that you forget them and concentrate instead on the real attributes of clear, analytical writing -- the ones we've covered in the earlier lessons of this course. The following checklist will help you remember them all.
GETTING IT ALL TOGETHER -- A FINAL CHECKLIST FOR ANALYTICAL WRITING
This is a checklist to help you edit your manuscripts of any length, from a memo on up to a book. Take one or at most two of the items on the list at a time, then read through your manuscript and search for the relevant items. Mark them in a way that lets you know what needs to be changed. Don't make changes on the spot (unless they're trivial) or you'll get distracted from your task. When you get so many marks on your manuscript that it can't hold any more, go through it and make the changes, produce a new manuscript and continue down the list.
1. WORD-LEVEL CHECK CIRCLE ANY INFLATED WORDS OR GOBBLEDYGOOK THAT YOU CAN REPLACE WITH EVERYDAY EQUIVALENTS. CIRCLE ANY TECHNICAL TERMS THAT NEED EXPLANATION, OR THAT YOU CAN REPLACE WITH EVERYDAY EQUIVALENTS.
2. SENTENCE-LEVEL CHECK MARK ABSTRACT NOUNS WITH YOUR GREEN HIGHLIGHTER; ELIMINATE THE UNNECESSARY ONES. MARK THE PASSIVE VERBS WITH YOUR PINK HIGHLIGHTER; REPLACE AT LEAST HALF WITH ACTIVE VERBS. MARK ALL PREPOSITIONAL PHRASES AND STRINGS OF ADJECTIVES WITH YOUR YELLOW HIGHLIGHTER; REPLACE AS MANY AS YOU CAN WITH DEPENDENT CLAUSES. MARK ALL PERSONAL NOUNS WITH YOUR BLUE HIGHLIGHTER. IF TOO FEW SHOW UP, ADD SOME PEOPLE TO YOUR WRITING.
3. PARAGRAPH- AND SECTION-LEVEL CHECK IS THERE ENOUGH ORIENTING MATERIAL? ARE IDEAS CONNECTED TOGETHER TO MAKE EACH PARAGRAPH A LOGICAL UNIT? ARE IDEAS ARRANGED IN THE RIGHT LOGICAL SEQUENCE FOR THE SUBJECT? ARE TECHNICAL DETAILS SPREAD OUT AND ADEQUATELY EXPLAINED?
4. OVERALL ORGANIZATION CHECK ARE YOUR RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS PLAINLY STATED AND PLACED WHERE ANYONE CAN EASILY FIND THEM? ARE THE "WHAT" AND "WHY" EXPLAINED IN YOUR OPENING PARAGRAPHS? IS INTRODUCTORY AND HISTORICAL MATERIAL ARRANGED TO SUPPORT THE NEW DEVELOPMENTS? ARE DETAILS ARRANGED IN DESCENDING ORDER OF IMPORTANCE? HAVE YOU ANSWERED THE QUESTION "SO WHAT?" AT THE END? ARE YOUR ILLUSTRATIONS AND THEIR CAPTIONS SELF-CONTAINED AND INFORMATIVE? HAVE YOU MADE YOUR WRITING EASY TO READ BY BREAKING IT UP INTO SMALL UNITS, EACH WITH AN INFORMATIVE HEADING?
THESE CATALOG THESE ANALYZE Prepositional phrases Dependent clauses Simple sentences Complex sentences Abstract nouns Concrete nouns Passive verbs Active verbs Impersonal style Personal style
SOME PRACTICE PASSAGES
Here are a few short passages for you to practice your editing skills on. Use only the first three parts of the checklist, because the passages are not long enough to evaluate for overall structure. After you're done editing, if your editing marks are extensive, try to rewrite each passage using the principles of analytical writing.
The first two passages are abstracts of actual articles written by professors of English in a journal concerned with excellence in technical communication.
PASSAGE NO. 1
The business or technical writing teacher can mitigate against his pragmatic students' recalcitrance toward language studies by pointing out the utility of knowing how to write well. However, rather than turning to hackneyed arguments or to literary evidence, he can motivate students more effectively by turning to compelling testimonials from leaders in business and industry, to appropriate personal experiences, and to stimulating classroom strategies that emphasize the importance of language ability in career, social, and civic aspirations. The lively use of such readily available resources can improve student attitude toward the course and should thus improve student performance.
PASSAGE NO. 2
For the purpose of continually improving an English teacher training program, an attempt was made to research the expected competencies of reading instructors in relation to technical report writers. Interviews were conducted with those involved in the teaching of technical report writing. The interviews reflected very little familiarity with reading instruction at the college level. The results were coupled with current research findings on training and duties of college reading instructors. This suggested a possible strategy for improving services to technical report writing students.
PASSAGE NO. 3
Here is a passage from a popular scientific journal:
A birefringent material has a "fast" axis and a "slow" one. The index of refraction depends on how the light is polarized when it passes through the material. The index is higher if the light is polarized parallel to the slow axis and lower if it is polarized parallel to the fast axis.
Suppose linearly polarized light (light polarized along a single axis perpendicular to the ray) is directed through the birefringent material with its axis of polarization at an angle to both the slow and the fast axis of the material. The polarization can be separated mathematically into two components, one parallel to the slow axis and one to the fast. These two waves are in phase when they entered the material, but because of the different indexes of refraction they probably emerge with a different phase relation.
The result is that the emerging light probably has a polarization different from that of the incident light. The new polarization might still be linear but with the axis of polarization oriented differently. The emerging light could also be circularly or elliptically polarized, which means that the axis of polarization rotates about the light ray as the light passes.
PASSAGE NO. 4The following article written by Susan E. Ross (©The Washington Post) provides an excellent and humorous writing sample for you to practice translating pretentious governmentese into everyday English:
A BUREAUCRAT'S GUIDE TO CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES
Total Lead Time: 35 minutes.
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup softened butter
1/2 cup shortening
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
12-oz package semi-sweet chocolate pieces
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
After procurement actions, decontainerize inputs. Perform measurement tasks on a case-by-case basis. In a mixing-type bowl, impact heavily on brown sugar, granulated sugar, softened butter and shortening. Coordinate the interface of eggs and vanilla, avoiding an overrun scenario to the best of your skills and abilities.
At this point in time, leverage flour, baking soda and salt into a bowl and aggregate. Equalize with prior mixture and develop intense and continuous liaison among inputs until well coordinated. Associate key chocolate and nut subsystems and execute stirring operations.
Within this time frame, take action to prepare the heating environment for throughput by manually setting the oven baking unit by hand to a temperature of 375 degrees Fahrenheit (190 degrees Celsius). Drop mixture in an ongoing fashion from a teaspoon implement onto an ungreased cookie sheet at intervals sufficient enough apart to permit total and permanent separation of throughputs to the maximum extent practicable under operating conditions.
Position cookie sheet in a bake situation and surveil for 8 to 10 minutes or until cooking action terminates. Initiate coordination of output within the cooking rack function. Containerize, wrap in red tape and disseminate to authorized staff personnel on a timely and expeditious basis.
Six dozen official government chocolate-chip cookie units.
PASSAGE NO. 5
These paragraphs are from a National Bureau of Standards monograph:
The quality of time and frequency information depends ultimatey on two things: the quality of the clocks that generate the information, and the fidelity of the information channels that disseminate the information. There is not much point in building better clocks if the face of the clock is covered by a muddy glass. In a sense, we might think of the world's standards labs as the wholesalers of time, and the world's standard time and frequency broadcast stations as the primary distribution channels to the users of time at the retail level. Let's explore the possibility of better dissemination systems for the future.
At present the distribution of time and frequency information is a mixed bag. We have broadcasts such as WWV, dedicated primarily to disseminating time and frequency information; and we have navigation signals such as Loran-C, which indirectly provide time information, because the system itself cannot work without it. The advantage of a broadcast such as WWV is that the time information is in a form that is optimized for the users. The signal contains time ticks and voice announcements of time in a readily usable form of information. The formats of navigation signals, on the other hand, are optimized for the purposes of navigation, and the time information is in a somewhat buried form, not so easily used.
From the point of view of efficient use of the radio spectrum, we would like to have one signal serve as many uses as possible. But such a multi-purpose signal puts greater demand on the user. He must extract from the signal only that information of interest to him, and then translate it into a form that serves his purpose.
In the past, the philosophy has generally been to broadcast information in a form that closely approximates the users' needs, so that processing at the users' end is minimized. This means that the receiving equipment can be relatively simple, and therefore inexpensive. But such an approach is wasteful of the radio spectrum, which is a limited resource. Today, with the development of transistors, large-scale integrated circuits, and mini and micro computers, complicated equipment of great sophistication can be built at modest cost. This development opens the door to using radio space more efficiently, since the user can now afford the equipment required to extract and mold information to his own needs.
PASSAGE NO. 6
This is actually a collection of sentences extracted from a government manual of specifications for government jobs. As you read through them, you may understand better why the Federal bureaucracy is in such a mess. Warning: Some of these passages may not be translatable into plain English with only the information supplied.
The requirements for this position reflect the fact that proficiency in application of knowledge and skills at a given level indicates probability of success in similar work at the next higher level....
Many data-processing applications are tailored to the specific requirements of one or more distinct functions at an individual facility; however, an increasing number of applications are developed as comprehensive systems which integrate many functions previously considered separate and distinct....
Judgment is required in selecting the appropriate guidelines for use in a specific situation and in recognizing the occasional situation where existing guidelines cannot be applied....
Individual jobs vary in the specificity, applicability and availability of the guidelines for performance of assignments....
Decisions regarding what needs to be done are complicated by the novel or obscure nature of the problems and/or the special requirements for organization and coordination that are characteristic of projects at this level....
Completed work is reviewed for its effectiveness in meeting user requirements, accuracy of estimated timeframes and projected problem areas, and achievement of harmonious relationships in coordinating the project with other groups....
The assignments consist of various tasks involving different methods and procedures....
The employee must analyze plans to discern deviations or other situations that have a bearing on the choice among established techniques for carrying out the asignment....
The employee plans and carries out the successive steps involved and handles problems and deviations in accordance with agency standards, previous training, established practices, or system controls, as appropriate in the application or specialty area.
PASSAGE NO. 7
This is an abstract of a technical talk on "Measurement of wind and temperature with laser light":
Quasielastic scattering of light in the atmosphere is discussed. The velocity can be obtained by aerosol scattering; the temperature from molecular scattering. A diffraction-limited lidar is explained and some virtues given. Laser velocity measuring techniques are briefly reviewed. The effect of the optical wavelength is emphasized. A time-of-flight configuration is described. Examples of transverse velocity measurements with very good spatial and temporal resolutions are given. A system for measuring vertical temperature profiles in the troposphere is presently being investigated. The basic principles and comments on initial observations are given.
LESSON SUMMARY AND WHERE WE GO FROM HERE
Put at least as much time and work into editing your writing as you did writing the first draft. This is where you refine your crude product and mold it to the specific purpose you want to accomplish and to the specific needs of your reader. The checklist in this lesson gives you a systematic framework for editing using the principles of analytical writing you've learned in this course.
Avoid gender-linked references if you can, but don't use awkward wording that calls attention to the problem. If you find readability formulas useful, use them to flag passages that need defogging, but never use them as a writing tool.
The next and last lesson shows you how to include your readers in your writing a bit earlier than you may be used to doing. Getting direct feedback from your intended audience can save you a lot of rewriting and guarantees that you won't have any trouble getting it approved."I am sorry for the length of my letter, but I had not the time to write a short one." -Blaise Pascal
-- End of Lesson 21 --
Beginning of Lesson 21 || Contents || Go on to Lesson 22