As you may have noticed, I haven’t blogged for a long time. This is because last year I was what a colleague terms ‘underemployed’ – ie the church ran out of money to fund my chaplaincy position and I worked in a range of short term casual research positions whilst looking for something I want to commit to for an extended period. Most of the research I did was related to previous qualifications and I simply didn’t have the mental space to think about the Gospel of Thomas. Three months ago, I started a new chaplaincy position and now am almost at the stage where I can concentrate on something other than learning the lie of the land. Last year, although I made minimal progress on my research, I learned and was reminded about useful things.
I have been editing theses/dissertations for quite a few years, and in the latter part of my undermployment, I was paid to check whether the revised versions of papers submitted as peer reviewed articles for a conference proceedings had satisfactorily addressed the reviewers’ comments and then to edit them for inclusion in a book. This was an eye-opening experience, not the least because by no means all the authors of problematic manuscripts were students!!
It does not matter how brilliant your argument material is, if it is presented with poor formatting, spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax or general written expression, it is less likely to make a favourable impression. As a result, I offer the following for students who are preparing articles/papers for peer review and theses/dissertations for examination:
- Even if the style guide being used by the publication is, IYNSHO, an abomination unto the Lord (like APA 5 or 6), you still have to follow it if you want to see your paper in print. If you are submitting for a conference and they are desperate for papers, the organisers/editors might send your paper out for review in the wrong format, but they will not reformat it for you for publication and in particular they will not transform your beloved footnote referencing system into in-text references or vice versa. Or even transform your Harvard references into APA. This is at least partly because your paper in its current format does not contain the information they need to do this quickly and they certainly don’t have the time to go looking for it. I would recommend putting all your references into a good bibliographic software program (eg Endnote or Zotero) because you can change referencing styles quickly, easily and far more accurately than you can manually.
- Having a PhD, even in Education, does not guarantee that a person has a good grasp of grammar, syntax, punctuation or general good written expression – just that they know a lot about a particular area. It is also not your supervisor’s/advisor’s role to proofread and edit your work, unless his/her name is going on the paper. Even then, s/he may not have good proofreading skills. Thus, the fact that s/he has read it and said it is OK does not mean that it is ready for publication, just that it contains no major errors or idiocies.
- If you are enrolled in a good educational institution, they will provide guides on spelling, punctuation and common grammatical mistakes. Read them. If anything in them surprises you, check your manuscript to see that what you have written complies with the information in the guide. If you are writing in English, pay particular attention to how you should use (and not use) “however”, “which” and “that”, commas and apostrophes. If you are writing in another language, there will be equivalent common mistakes.
- Note particularly that usage varies between different English speaking countries. If the publication wants you to use American spelling, it will also want you to comply with American grammatical and syntactical conventions. If you did not grow up in the US, this means that some of the things you were taught at school will be considered wrong. One of my friends did her PhD in the US and she said that for the first six months, she would submit written work to her advisor who would want her to change the grammar and syntax from what she believed to be correct to incorrect usage. It was only when she got a US style manual to replace her Australian one that she realised that she was being asked to change from correct Australian English to correct US and things settled down. If the publication uses British conventions, you are fairly safe if you grew up in Australia and New Zealand (although there are some differences), but if you grew up with US conventions, you will be asked to do things that you were taught were incorrect.
- If you grew up in a country that uses English as the lingua franca although it is no-one’s first language, there will be some conventions of usage that are not considered correct in the standard English used by any publications outside your home country, and some vocabulary that has been adopted from the traditional language(s) of your country which will need either to be translated into standard English or explained. This is why Word allows you to select from such a wide variety of versions of English. A proofreader from outside your home country will be able to point these out to you, or you can select the desired version of English from the Word menu, but the latter is not without risks.
- Be very careful about using a thesaurus to provide variety in your text if you are not writing in a language in which you are very fluent – you may select an option that is wrong in the context in which you are using it even though it is listed as a synonym.
- If you are writing in a language in which you are not extremely proficient, you should try to find someone who speaks it as their first language to proofread your document. Correction: you should try to find someone who speaks it as their first language and has a good track record of writing academic papers in it. If the student in the next room to yours offers to proofread for you, it would be good to find out, tactfully if possible, whether s/he gets consistently high grades or merely passes. If the latter, then your grasp of the grammatical rules of the language is probably better than hers/his.
- Remember that the way you speak a particular language or use it to write emails is not necessarily appropriate for publication in an academic forum. Unless you are transcribing the content of an interview, you should avoid colloquialisms and contractions. As one of my early supervisors said, “you can’t use ‘gut feeling’ in an academic paper, even if you have put it in inverted commas”. The academy is currently undergoing a shift in opinion about how appropriate it is to use the first person (ie “I”, “me”, “my”) and active rather than passive voice (“I have shown that” or “the author has shown that” rather than “it has been shown that”). Read material written the last 5 years to get a feel for what is being done in your language and your field. If you are preparing something for a journal, read recent editions of the journal you are targetting. Talk about it with your supervisor/advisor.
- The previous point reminds me that one of the differences in convention between British-based and US-based punctuation is how you use single and double inverted commas (quotation marks). I have switched between the two so often now that I can no longer remember which belongs where and I always check the style manual for the publication.
- While it is probably wise to remove the bibliographic software codes from your manuscript before you send it off for review (so that there is no risk of the file throwing a hissy fit on another computer and transforming all your citations into field codes eg #239, rather than the author and publication details) you should only do this as the last step, after making sure that you have saved a copy of the file with the codes still intact.
Because this is now a very long post, I will put the points about dealing with reviewers’ comments in another post.