All posts by Steve

The Importance of Organization


Okay, so you’ve got a paper due in a week. Will you get it done on time? Sure! Well, I think so. I mean, maybe, if I don’t get too caught up with other stuff. Um, actually, I don’t know, but hopefully I can pull it off.

If you’ve ever been in a position like this, you may realize the importance of being organized. In fairness, this is something that most of us struggle with. However, deadlines are deadlines, whether you’re a student or an employee. Here are some tips to help you make sure you don’t miss the deadline for your next essay.

Consult your syllabus:
Most syllabi will tell you when important papers are due, and how long they should be. You may want to ask the teacher how much preparation time will be needed. Then you can plan for this project weeks in advance, setting aside time to get it done.

Start immediately:
This doesn’t mean to necessarily start writing or researching immediately. Rather, it means that as soon as you are assigned the paper, you adjust your schedule and plans right away to accommodate it.

Since you probably have several classes (and some kind of a life, job, relationships, etc.), you can’t just shut out everything all the time. By putting things in their proper place, however, you can be sure to have a good plan that will work, and will enable you to meet your obligations while still enjoying life.

Be careful not to get sidetracked:
Yeah, I’ve got this paper due, but I don’t want to miss Gilligan’s Island tonight. It’s that one real cool episode with…Come on. You can find a million reasons not to do the work, but when it actually comes due, you’re going to want to have it done. And getting it done doesn’t happen by accident. Stay focused.

Reward yourself as appropriate:
If you stick to your schedule of working three hours on your paper tonight, you deserve a treat! Let yourself have fun. Give yourself positive reinforcement for doing the right thing.

So, be organized, enjoy yourself, and good luck on your next essay!

Vetting Your Sources


If you’re writing a run-of-the-mill, two- or three-page essay for an undergrad class, you might get away with citing just any old source. Plucking quotes from different websites is not difficult, and in so doing, you can create a paper that, to someone who didn’t know better, would think that you’ve written a scholarly, professional work.

From your perspective, it seems fine. Your research took all of a half-hour, and you’ve pulled plenty of quotes and citations from professional-sounding organizations and people. But what if you happen to run into a professor who, in addition to having a great deal of knowledge (if you’re at the university level, your professor will almost certainly have a doctorate), also has the time and inclination to actually check the reliability of your sources?

This could be embarrassing for you if it is discovered that the ultra-professional-sounding organization you cited in your paper happens to be a kook fringe outfit with zero credibility. As bad as this would be for an undergrad class, it is inexcusable for graduate-level work.

Thankfully, there are some easy ways to double check that your sources are reliable. Here are a few:

Use well-recognized sources:
If your paper is full of quotes from obscure or little-known groups or individuals, you’ll have to verify that what they say is true—and this can be time-consuming. However, if you cite sources that are widely recognized as being reliable, you’re in good shape from the start.

Avoid agenda-driven sources:
Impartial and unbiased sources are not always easy to find. After all, every person or group has an opinion. However, many groups exist simply for the sake of performing research in the pursuit of truth. These usually make excellent sources, especially if they are well-known.

Check sources against other sources:
If Group A says one thing, you may want to see if equally reliable Group B says something else. (Of course, if Group B is a bunch of nutters, you can safely ignore them). But it’s wise to present the opposing point of view, if it has any merit, as this will lend credence to your own argument.

So, be careful to ensure that the sources you use are reliable—especially if you’re doing graduate-level or professional writing. The credibility you preserve will be your own.

That’s the Breaks

That's the Breaks

As an editor, I’ve seen plenty of papers with pages that were separated by the writer hitting the enter key as many times as necessary to put the cursor on a new page. When this is done, it looks fine—until the writer later makes changes to the document. Then what happens is that there are suddenly all these spaces, but now they’re in the wrong place. So, delete delete delete here and enter enter enter enter enter enter enter enter there—and the whole process starts all over.

There’s a much better way for getting to the next page in your document: use the Break feature in MS Word. Actually, several possibilities exist for adding a break to your paper. We will discuss the two most commonly used: page break and section break.

Page break:
This feature is fantastic (and very easy). Let’s say you’ve just written the abstract for your essay. Generally, abstracts are short—often less than half a page. So, when you start your actual paper, you’ll want to have it begin on the next page. But instead of hitting the enter key 10 or 15 times, let’s use the page break feature. Here’s how:

  1. Go to Insert
  2. Select Break
  3. Select Page break

When you do this, your cursor will jump straight to the beginning of the next page, which is right where you want it.

Section break:
Breaking up a document into sections, by using the section break feature, is a powerful word processing tool. You can format different sections in different ways. For example, in the introductory portion of your paper, you may want to use lower case Roman numerals. Then, in the main body of the paper, you want to start the numbering over and use standard Arabic numerals. No problem:

  1. Go to Insert
  2. Select Break
  3. Select Section break

Do this for the first section, and then do it again (wherever and for as many times as you choose) to create a new section. There are also different types of sections you can create; the Help feature (and some experimentation) can tell you more.

All Knowledge Helps

All Knowledge Helps

When writing an essay on, say, recommended marketing strategies for a startup business, you might think that only business, financial, or other directly related knowledge will be helpful. But consider some other factors, other areas of knowledge that may be useful:

What? Yes, philosophy. Every business has one. In short, it’s simply the way of thinking that translates to how a business decides to conduct itself. Its marketing, management, HR, and other components will necessarily adhere to a specific philosophy.

In today’s world, some computer knowledge is almost indispensable. For example, in marketing a business, you’ll probably want a website. You might also want to invest in search engine optimization (SEO), so that your site will rank higher in search engine results. A shortcut to this would be to use Google AdWords or something similar.

Arts and Literature:
How can this possibly be business-related? If you are a wordsmith, your advertising and other copy will read better—this is true for websites, promotional materials, sales letters, etc.

If you are up on tax law and other regulations, you’re ahead of the game. Many small business owners find such things out too late.

So, let’s consider how the above skills may help in writing about marketing strategies for a startup company…

A company’s philosophy should more or less follow a utilitarian approach. In other words, do whatever works. However, an organization would also do well to adhere to the Categorical Imperative, which, in effect, is more or less a restatement of the Golden Rule.

This is certainly more colorful and interesting than the average essay instructors read. If you show knowledge and make your writing interesting, you’re more likely to get a good grade—and get noticed for your knowledge and writing skills.

So, be “well-rounded” in your essay writing, where appropriate. Let your knowledge in many areas shine through. Your paper will likely be much richer and more readable than many of your peers.

Address the Opposing View

Address the Opposing View

If you’re writing a paper about women’s rights, and your sources consist only of Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Molly Ivins, you will no doubt be branded a committed liberal. On the other hand, if your sources are only Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, and Rush Limbaugh…well, you get the idea.

The point is, to write a compelling essay, you’ve got to tackle both sides of the issue. And face it—there are (at least) two sides to nearly every issue. Successful debaters know how to not only make the case for their own side’s views, but are also able to persuasively defend their position against the viewpoint of their opposition.

How is this done? With plenty of facts backed up by persuasive writing. But to be persuasive, it helps to acknowledge that there are other perspectives and that in some measure they may have a certain amount of validity—only your view happens to be better (and then explain why).

Do the research

Part of a teacher’s job is to play devil’s advocate to your position. So, you need to know what the opposing views are, and what their arguments are. You need to know their positions as well as you know your own, if you’re going to be able to defend against them.

Give the other side credit

Unless you’re arguing against something truly reprehensible (such as child abuse), the counterview to your position will likely have merit in some areas. Be sure to give due respect to these areas. If you don’t, your arguments will look weak, as though they cannot stand up to any serious scrutiny. You might also come across as mean-spirited or immature.

So, know your stuff. And know the other side’s stuff, too. Your writing will be far more interesting—and possibly persuasive—if you make the effort to be fair-minded and well-informed.

Information, Please

Information, Please

In the Information Age, it’s almost quaint to use a paper dictionary. It’s so much simpler to access information almost instantaneously from one’s computer, whether from the Internet or software programs such as Microsoft Word. If you’re not yet acquainted with such resources, here are a few tips for getting started.

Remember that in MS Word, you have access to a dictionary, thesaurus, and reference books—if you’re online. To get to them, just highlight a word or phrase, and then right click and press k. Or, you can go to Tools and select Research. Then, from the Search for list, you can select a reference book or (again, if you’re connected to the Internet) a reference website.

Even if you don’t have MS Word, and you’re using some other means to write your essay, help is available. Here are some of the most useful resources:

(Well, duh.) In addition to its obvious use a premier search engine, you can find images, news, video, maps, and much more.
This is a very nice, kind of all-inclusive site. You can type in a word, term, or phrase and get all the information you want. It will also offer you links to more or related information about what you’re searching for.
The site of Merriam-Webster (the dictionary writers). Look up any word or phrase to get the origin, pronunciation, and meaning. A thesaurus is also available.

What do you do if you don’t have Internet access? Well, you can always go to wherever you happened to see this blog, assuming you’re not just reading a printed-out version.

Seriously, though, there are some options available in case you don’t have ready Internet access. If you’re a student, your school will almost certainly have a computer lab you can use. Otherwise, the public library is a wonderful, free resource—and they even have paper dictionaries for those who want them.

Be Consistent with Your Citations

Be Consistent with Your Citations

How’s this for a bunch of acronyms: APA; MLA; CBE. Add Chicago to that, and what do you get? Several different methods for documenting your paper’s sources. Are they really all that different? Well, let’s take a look…

If you’re using APA, your in-text citations will look something like this:

Lowman (1995) points out that “there’s nothing worse than incorrect citations in an essay” (p. 4).

However, the same quotation in MLA formatting would look like this:

Lowman points out that “there’s nothing worse than incorrect citations in an essay” (4).

Why the difference? In using MLA, the Works Cited page (where you list all the works you cited in the paper) will contain all the details about Lowman’s writing that you’re making reference to. So, it will be clear to the reader what you’re referring to when you use the author’s name and page number. Note: the APA equivalent of a Works Cited page is a References List.

Many students (understandably) have trouble keeping all the rules straight. For example, a student may cite a source in MLA fashion in one section of the essay, and then use APA formatting in a different section. This is not intentional, of course, but it does become confusing for the reader (normally a professor who will be assigning a grade).

Which citation style should you use? The most important thing is to use the same style throughout your paper. But most instructors will say which style they prefer for a given assignment. If they don’t have a preference, you will most likely want to use APA or MLA. These are the two most widely recognized (and more-or-less intuitive) styles.

In general, it is standard to use APA for social sciences, while MLA is used more for work in the humanities. However, most professors, unless they specify a style preference will be quite happy if you just make sure to use your style of choice throughout the paper.

Incidentally, if you don’t have time to deal with the tedious job of putting in all those citations, you may want to consider an online editing service such as Papercheck.

Don’t Be Afraid to Get Feedback

Don’t Be Afraid to Get Feedback

Sometimes when we write, we really don’t want to face criticism for our ideas. This can lead us to be overly insular, shielding our work from honest review. After all, it can be tough to hear that there are problems with what we’ve written, especially if we’ve invested a lot of time and effort into it.

It would be a mistake, however, to take constructive criticism as a personal attack. No one can know everything, and sometimes the infusion of a different viewpoint can be just what a paper needs. It is, therefore, a sound idea to seek and give due consideration to the perspectives and advice of others.

Here are some helpful tips to remember when seeking feedback:

Remember that other people have a life, too. It’s best to avoid giving them too short notice. Try to allow for at least a couple of days, as this will also give them enough time to really look at your work and give a worthwhile evaluation.

Everyone may have an opinion, but…not all of those opinions are going to be worth listening to. While it’s true that you can learn something from just about anyone, it’s best to primarily seek feedback from someone qualified to give it in the area you need it. You can ask a history professor about how to unclog your drain, but wouldn’t it make more sense to ask a plumber?

Don’t be afraid to actually use the advice you get. When you started your paper, you may have had a pretty clear idea about what you wanted to do. Then, after inviting feedback from a well-informed person or two, you see that their ideas about your work have merit. At this point, you can either embrace your pride and ignore what they said, or you can choose to benefit from their knowledge; the latter approach is recommended.

So, don’t be afraid (or too proud) to use feedback. In fact, time permitting, it’s a good idea to make it a habit when writing essays. Who knows? Someday someone may ask you for help in writing their paper.

Customizing AutoCorrect

Customizing AutoCorrect

Microsoft Word has some of the most amazing features. Writers of yesteryear could only dream of having your spelling and grammar mistakes pointed out as you type. Now, however, MS Word does that, and even corrects some mistakes automatically (such as changing didnt to didn’t, i to I, etc.).

Most MS Word users are already familiar with the red or green squiggly lines that appear, respectively, underneath (perceived) spelling and grammar mistakes. And the Autocorrect feature mentioned above is also pretty well-known. But there are some neat little tricks that not every Word user is aware of. These include customizing Autocorrect.

As mentioned above, MS Word automatically corrects common errors, changing typos such as alwasy and alwats to always. But did you know that you can add your own Autocorrect words?

Here’s an example. Unless you’re writing a very scholarly paper, you’re unlikely to use the word cant (cant means jargon). So, you can “train” your Autocorrect to recognize the fact that you have a habit of forgetting to put the apostrophe in can’t. Here’s how.

  1. With your Word document open, go to Tools
  2. Select AutoCorrect Options
  3. Choose the AutoCorrect tab (you’ll probably already be there)
  4. Where it says “Replace:” write cant
  5. Where it says “With:” write can’t

Then, every time you write cant, Word knows you really meant to write can’t, and will automatically correct this for you.

You need to be careful with this, however. For example, if you set AutoCorrect to replace every instance of mildew with milder, and there comes a time when you actually want to write mildew, it will try to AutoCorrect it to read milder. And then it’ll sound pretty strange when your sentence reads something like, “The new tenants liked the house, until they found its milder.”

So, make AutoCorrect do what you want it to. Select your own AutoCorrect choices—but be careful.

Writing from the “You” Perspective

Writing from the “You” Perspective

With time being today’s most prized commodity, you need to be sure to capture—and hold—your audience’s attention. Generally speaking, the only chance you have to succeed at this is to write from your audience’s perspective.

In other words, you can write all you want about how this or that experience was good/bad/dull/interesting, but you have to escape from the persistent danger of your audience having the all-too-common reaction of “So what?”

Here’s an example of how this works. Let’s say you’re writing a paper about the benefits of owning a pet. Some writers might come up with something like this:

I like my dog. He’s a good dog. He has spots and a tail. He’s fun to be around and he likes to lick my face. I take him out for walkies and he does his job. It makes me happy to have good old Spot the dog as my best friend.

Other (perhaps more proficient) writers might instead write something like this:

They say that dogs are man’s best friend. Well, I think there’s something to that. My dog has been like a member of the family for many years; it’s hard to imagine life without him. Many studies have shown that having pets can add years to one’s life. Having enjoyed Spot’s company all these years, I can understand why. Life’s just better with a good pet.

Note that in the first example, the writer wrote entirely from the “me” perspective: I like my dog, etc. The second example, however, is much more interesting, as it brings a broader perspective. It better answers the question, “Why should I consider getting a pet?” While the first example tells how one person enjoys his pet, the second example is much more persuasive and complete.

So, consider your audience’s point of view. Don’t bore them by being too self-absorbed in your writing. Put yourself in the audience’s place and write from a perspective that will be relevant and interesting to them.