Better advice

OK groupies, we need to start posting on a regular basis. I’ve been ill this past while; otherwise I would have started hounding you guys much earlier. Need I remind everyone that our little blog will be evaluated—for 20% of our marks—this very week? So find something to say, even if what you have to say is more criticism than compliment (to employ Kevin Sharpe’s famous division to describe the rhetorical binaries of early 17th-century masques).

Here’s who I am:

Here’s some other great advice that I can impart. This advice will carry you through your MA / PhD far better than Luker’s. This advice comes in a series of useful exercises.

(1) Play cards with your essay / chapter to proof it—by this I mean shuffle your pages and read them out of order.

(2) Read books on usage. Here’s a list of the ones you want: Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words;; Chicago Manual of Style, usage section (memorize it); and, Bill Walsh’s The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English (an update to the celebrated Strunk and White).

(3) Think about pedagogy and approach. A friend of mine told me just yesterday how he taught reading methods and analysis. He’d ask each student to bring in a personally annotated copy of the weekly readings.

(4) Over edit and return. Sure, you may be that lucky lad or lass with an eager supervisor willing to edit repeatedly most parts of your thesis / dissertation in draft form. But chances are very slim that this is the case. What you want to do is draft an essay / chapter and—immediately—save a copy. Put that copy aside with a special title (e.g., “chap1_draft1_done.doc”). Then, edit, edit, edit—and, when you think that you’ve turned a beautiful piece of prose into incoherent rubbish, return to the copy of that first draft and only insert the emendations which really improve it.

(5) Use the full capabilities of your word processor. Write your essay / chapter / article in single line spacing. Proof it at triple—not double—line spacing. And, when you are proofing, you should keep beside you copies of well-written books (non-fiction).

(6) Don’t be culturally ignorant or clichéd. And here are two books to help you avoid being so, both from Oxford University Press: Orin Hargrave’s Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (the most comprehensive study on ‘translating’ transatlantic English); and Rosemarie Ostler’s Dewdroppers, Waldos, and Slackers (a history of dated expressions, progressing decade by decade throughout the 20th century). Oh, and you might want to look into Noah Webster’s writings on the America language as a political instrument. Here are some major ‘tells’ of a British writer, like Knight: “towards / afterwards / etc … ” (Brit.), no s= Amer.; “ … or” vs “ … our”; dipthongs in words deriving from Greek but adopted into Latin=British (Americans revise them); zs—Brit. and CDN., s = Amer. To Webster, silent letters represented unnecessary ties between America and British cultural hegemony.

(7) Bring a dictionary with you—everywhere you go. Use the Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE), which you can buy as an ipod app. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) simply has too much content, and often not the right content for you, unless you need to cite the word in your paper, in which case you should probably considering using instead The ODE has built-in tutorials on both usage and etymology—which the Webster lacks, or offers in abbreviated form.

(8) Work, work, work. As a graduate student you should be working 80% of your time. Holidays provide occasion for either reading or writing articles. Only three reasons justify an unproductive night / morning: (1) illness; (2) social networking; and (3) serious depression. Sure, you will have colleagues who will talk, ad nauseum, about their balanced lives. Believe me, they don’t speak the truth.

(9) Be fearless. Most likely the best ‘nodal point’ isn’t in your department. So, write e-mails to the scholars you respect. And, just maybe, if you’re lucky, one will respond. If you’re really lucky you might even be able to persuade him / her to read some of your work.

(10) Learn how to speak English in a socially acceptable way. This includes avoiding errors in usage (see note 2), correct pronunciation (see American Heritage Dictionary, 100 Words Almost Everyone Mispronounces), and—probably most important of all—speak in complete sentences. Try to avoid misplaced modifiers, errors of is / are and of the subjunctive (was / were).

Good luck,


2 thoughts on “Better advice

  1. Hmmm I definitely think you suggest some good ideas. I particularly agree with your note about over editing. When I’ve finished drafting a written piece, I will send it to at least three different people to proofread for me. Amazingly, they all get back to me with different feedback! So it’s great to have these different perspectives.I was also lucky enough to have a supervisor who edited every subsection of my honours thesis, and then re edited it all again when the whole essay was completed. That made a huge difference to the quality of my work, and was also a very positive experience. Working closely with a good supervisor/mentor was the highlight of my academic life thus far.

    While I also think having a dictionary on hand is useful, I’d argue that a good thesaurus is every bit, and perhaps more, valuable! I’m sure there are also thesaurus apps, but I don’t have a smart phone unfortunately. I also really like the “be fearless” approach that you suggest. This has actually worked really well for me so far, in terms of making connections within my field. I think it works even better at conferences or lectures when you can approach people you admire and introduce yourself to them in person.

    I have to respectfully disagree about the work, work, work you describe, at least in my personal context. Maybe some people can afford an 80/20 split, but for me it’s more like 70/30, even 60/40. I have to set time for myself to do things I enjoy like martial arts, reading, and spending time with family. I think if I didn’t do those things, it could lead to serious depression! I guess it’s important for everyone to suss out how much time they need to do things. I find I am very efficient when I set out time to do work, so I can stick to the times I alot for work very well. This scheduling method has worked for me, but I can’t speak to what other people might find beneficial! All in all, interesting thoughts Josh, and I will for sure be applying many of them to my work!

  2. Hi Katherine,
    Thank you for your thoughtful—and well-articulated—feedback. You’ve persuaded me to correct one point: I should have added a few more qualifiers to note eight (i.e., Work, work, work). Obviously I didn’t include in the 80% figure time for sleep, meals, and one’s morning ablutions. Normally I like to multitask, which might skew my figure. For example, when I go jogging I listen to audiobooks related to my discipline. When I go drinking (an occurrence which seems to happen all too often these days) I go drinking with friends eloquent and clever enough to allow me to learn something useful from the experience. My calculation is also based on the expectation that the student does not have a supervisor—or need I say academically minded older sister—committed entirely to the advancement of his or her cause. And I should probably add here that, though you may be able to obtain multiple comments on short items—comments which you should be crediting in your published work—you won’t be able to secure such comprehensive feedback on larger pieces of research. When I submitted my PhD to my former supervisor, for instance, I received a three-line e-mail to the gist of ‘go for it; it’s ready.’
    The ODE has a built-in thesaurus.

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