Ellie Mackin is a third year PhD student in Classics at King’s College London, and is working through Wendy Belcher’s ‘Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks’ while attempting to finish her thesis.
With two weeks to go it’s time to get into the nuts and bolts of fixing up this article for good! So this week is all about revising at the sentence level. I recently read George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ and I think this gave me the perfect mind-set to tackle this huge and ominous task. Everything to this point has been what Belcher calls ‘Macrostructure Revising,’ we’ve done literature review, identifying the debate, looking closely at the overall argument and structure. As she says: ‘Macrostructure revising involves big changes.’ This week is all about ‘Microstructure Revising’: grammar, punctuation, spelling, word choice.
Belcher does acknowledge that it’s normal to be sick of your article at this stage. I’ve been living with this article for ten weeks now, and I am ready to send it off into the big bad world – but it’s not quite ready for the same thing. So, we start this week’s exercises with some simple rules from (American) academic English:
- Don’t use two words when one will do
- Don’t use a noun when you can use a verb.
- Don’t use an adjective or adverb unless you have to.
- Don’t use a pronoun when a noun would be clearer.
- Don’t use a general word when you can use a specific one.
- Don’t use the passive voice unless the subject is unknown or unimportant.
(Incidentally, here are Orwell’s rules:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.)
The main part of this week is contained within Belcher’s own ‘Diagnostic Test,’ which has three main parts: ‘Words that might need to be cut,’ ‘Words that might need to be added,’ and ‘Words that might need to be changed.’ These categories are fairly self-explanatory.
Okay – here’s my weekly confession: I am a doubler. I have discovered that I double words. The very first point under Belcher’s very first Diagnostic Test and I well and truly failed. Here’s what I mean by doubling (or rather, what Belcher means): using two words with (near) identical meanings separated by the word ‘and.’ Here’s her example sentence and the fix:
‘Yang and Yu argued that emotion is necessary and essential.’
‘Yang and Yu argued that emotion is necessary.’
I don’t even need to read though my article to know that I am guilty of this. The rest of this category, which includes list making (also guilty) and run on sentences (this is something I have been very guilty of in the past and have come some way to overcoming).
This week’s workbook is worth reading, even if you’re not going to follow the whole twelve week program. I haven’t done the depth of information justice in this post. Belcher’s diagnostic test could be easily applied to any number of types of writing, and would be helpful and useful (see, still totally guilty of doubling!). Belcher gives really clear examples to illustrate each diagnostic point and provides both ‘better’ and ‘best’ revision sentences for a lot of the points, along with clear explanations of exactly why each sentence has been improved.
The basics of the diagnostic test are summed up by Blecher as: scrutinise your lists, scrutinise your verb, scrutinise your pronouns and cut unnecessary words. After coming to terms with the diagnostic test, the next thing to do is to take to your article armed with coloured pencils and start to strip (Belcher also says you can run the test using your word processor, but I wanted to break out the coloured pencils and do a proper mark-up). At the end of the day I had a pile of pages that were scribbled over in red, blue, purple, orange, green and brown (I did just use the colours suggested by Belcher). I’ll be honest, it was a little disheartening to see all those pages absolutely covered in marks. I spent the next two days diligently ploughing through the pages and happily throwing each finished page into the recycling bin. This took a little bit longer than the two hours scheduled by Belcher, and I spent around two hours on each of the two days to get through the whole article. The final day is to fix other types of sentence-level problems including looking at things like making sure your quotes are correct (in a technical sense, more than in a ‘being accurate’ sense), checking your punctuation (Belcher specifically mentions exclamation marks) and capitalisation, checking that you’ve italicised the correct types of words, that you haven’t included any non-explained acronyms, and more generally that your spelling and grammar is correct. I found this final day a lot easier, and it didn’t take the whole hour set out by the schedule.
I’m starting to feel really proud of my article now. It’s certainly a lot better than it was at the beginning. Next week’s task are all things we’ve covered before, but doing the final checks – I’m actually looking forward to seeing exactly how much better my article is!