Thursday, June 22, 2017

Making syntax work for your writing

Continuing our summer series on Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style, I must admit I was not enthused to read the syntax chapter, replete with sentence diagrams. However, it did remind me of many of the syntax tricks I use in my own writing that I outline below. Although I won't be showing you any word trees (you're welcome), I will abbreviate some of Pinker's discussion to offer you some quick tips for maintaining good syntax.

Asking too much of your reader
One of the most common syntax faux pas is when a writer asks the reader to keep the subject of a sentence in their mind while leading them through tangential clauses before they conclude with the predicate. For example:

My best friend, Brian, whose sister's birthday was last week and wanted to go to dinner with their family, is busy on Thursday.

Here, I'm trying to say "Brian is busy Thursday," but to say that I lead my reader through a twisted and unnecessary path and ask them to bear the subject, Brian, in their mind until I get back to my original point and offer my reader a predicate, is busy on Thursday. Even though my example is silly, I encourage you to not test your readers' memories in one sentence. Find ways to write things where you're not placing the subject and predicate of your sentence far apart.

Coordination, when it comes to syntax, refers to the aligning of tenses and plurals in a sentence. So when I say, The choir sing nicely, something sounds off and we realize that I have not coordinated my subject and my verb and it should be The choir sings nicely because choir is singular. This seems easy enough, but it's amazing how complicated it becomes when a sentence gets longer, with more clauses.

Take this NIH abstract example:

Lastly, we will assess the role that delinquency case dispositions (i.e., condition of probation) plays in the relationship between behavioral health service utilization and criminal recidivism.

In this example, plays is our verb in question. Do we see coordination in this example? The trick we use to check on coordination is to first figure out to what noun the verb is referring. When I first read this sentence, I thought it was referring to the role, in which case we're good, because the role plays is correct. But then I looked closer and decided that plays was referring to dispositions. We would never dream of saying dispositions plays because dispositions is plural.

What makes this example extra tricky is the parenthetical phrase condition of probation, which puts a singular noun, condition the closest to the verb in question, plays. Yet, using our trick of identifying which noun goes with our verb, we can then create an abbreviated sentence to check if we're using the right verb form, and in our example we're not. It should be play cause it's referring to dispositions.

Who vs. whom
I had a friend in high school who, when asked for on the phone, would reply, This is she. At the time, I thought it sounded pretentious, but of course (many) years later, when asked for Naomi on the phone, I reply with This is she, because my friend was correct. Figuring out the proper pronouns gets more difficult when we're talking about who and whom. Going back to our phone conversation, is it correct when someone says, Who's calling or what about Who are you trying to reach?

The trick to use for who and whom is to first categorize who and whom with like pronouns, as shown here:

Who: he, she, they
Whom: him, her, them

Next, we answer the question with one of the pronouns.

Who's calling? She is.
So, since she is in the same category as "who," "who" is correct here.
Who are you trying to reach? I'm trying to reach her.
Oops! Who and her are in different categories, so we need to correct our question to say, Whom are you trying to reach?

Using these syntax tricks can make your writing more readable and keep you out of trouble with the people who are always on the lookout for a grammar mistake. Below are a couple of resources. I downloaded the Grammarly App and so far it's been catching errors, although I noted that in our NIH example, it thinks that plays refers to condition. So, of course, we can never rely on these tools, but we can let them help us. The blog referenced below is a good place to go for quick and dirty grammar explanations. Happy, error-free writing to you!

Grammarly App
Grammar Girl Blog

Thursday, June 15, 2017

What's in an abstract?

This week I was working with a PI on her proposal, and found myself considering what exactly should go in a proposal abstract. This may seem a question with an obvious answer, but oftentimes a PI will write their abstract as an afterthought to their larger proposal. The trouble with shirking an abstract is that although it might be the last thing a PI writes (which makes sense), it is the first thing that reviewers see. So, even if you wrote the clearest, most compelling proposal in history, if your abstract is lackluster, the reviewers will have a bad taste in their mind when they get to the main body of your proposal, if they even get that far.

Hopefully that's enough to convince you to give your abstract some serious thought. To help you with this, I thought I'd identify some dos and don'ts (in reverse order) for your abstract based on the errors and strengths I commonly see in proposal abstracts.


  • Make the intro to your proposal and the abstract the exact same language. Remember, the reviewer who just read your abstract will now start reading the body of your proposal. It looks sloppy if you just do a cut and paste, even if it's using brilliant prose
  • Give extraneous details/examples: remember you don't have much room. Make every word count
  • Include an equation: Even if it's the key to your entire project, an equation cannot be fully explained in an abstract to justify its use
  • Use jargon/excessive acronyms: Remember, even if your proposal has to be very technical, the abstract should still be understandable by the layperson
  • Describe the problem you're trying to address and how bad it is
  • Show how your project will help solve the problem
  • Give a brief summary of your project and your goals
  • End with the vision or broader impacts of your project
  • Use the first and last sentences of your abstract to drive home the importance of your project
I first learned to write an abstract in my freshmen biology lab. I remember our TA telling us that lab reports were not mystery novels, and that we needed to lay everything that was important out in the abstract, including our results. Don't treat results like the surprise ending to a novel; tell your reader the conclusion right at the start. This was good advice that I still remember today, and I share it with you to encourage you to put all you have into your abstract, so your reviewer is excited to read the rest of your proposal!


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Trading the esoteric for the understandable

Continuing our summer series on Steven Pinker's book The Sense of Style, this week we look at what Pinker calls, "The curse of knowledge." Pinker explains that writers who are experts in their subject-matter often write about it poorly simply because they cannot remember what it was like before they were experts or before they understood their subject-matter. He argues that writers rarely muddy their writing with jargon intentionally, but because they are describing it through the concepts that they know like the back of their hands, and yet their readers do not understand.

Pinker then breaks down how we as writers can start recognizing the esoteric nature of our writing and revise to translate these concepts to our readers.

As you become an expert, as a way of remembering and using the barrage of information of which you control, you must create umbrella concepts to package the smaller ideas and concepts that you've mastered. This "chunking" of concepts is useful to the researcher in this way. The problem comes when the researcher sits down to write a grant application and uses all of the high-level concepts she has been thinking about without any explanation of those same concepts for the reviewers.

Functional fixity
In addition to chunking, Pinker suggests that experts also develop a fixation on the function of objects, which they themselves are focused on, instead of offering descriptors of the objects themselves. So, for instance, Pinker uses the example below:

Focus on function: "Participants were tested under conditions of good to excellent acoustic isolation" (p. 73).
Focus on description: "We tested the students in a quiet room" (p. 73).

We realize that in the first example, the researcher was focused on what makes the conditions optimal (and in what way they were optimal). But in the second example, it's much clearer to the lay audience what she's talking about, because she described the room instead of focusing on its function. 

Technical terminology 
Now certainly chunking and functional fixity can lend itself to a researcher using technical terminology or jargon in their grant proposals. But, sometimes researchers are just using a term that could be easily substituted. Pinker offers a relevant example, when he suggests that researchers instead of saying "murine model" say "with rats and mice."

To combat these, Pinker suggests that being aware of the gap between our knowledge, as experts, and our readers, as lesser-experts (in our area) is key to being able to write for our audience. But, he also suggests that after we complete a draft that we put it away for a while and then re-read and revise the draft with a fresh perspective. Additionally, have a representative of your audience review a draft and give you feedback on what is confusing and what might be more helpful.

There's really no way around the gap of knowledge that occurs between an expert and a novice, but experts can still write well for novices by acknowledging the gap and bridging it through writing.

Write for your Reader: A Plain Language Handbook - NWT Literacy Council

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Using classic style to combat bad habits

In part two of our Steven Pinker style discussion, we look at the value of classic style in grant-writing. Pinker begins by saying that classic style can serve as "an antidote for academese...and other kinds of stuffy prose," (p. 27) which as a grant-writer working with academics is one of my top goals for you. :) Pinker suggests that the best way to describe classic style is "a writer in conversation with a reader, directs the reader's gaze to something in the world" (p. 56). He argues then that classic style draws on two of our most natural instincts (talking and seeing) to develop our writing. So, if we envision our reader being a bright, educated, researcher, what we're trying to do in our proposal is call their attention to our problem and have a discussion about the problem and the best ways to fix it.

However, academic writers fall into a whole bunch of bad habits when writing that add useless words and sentences into their writing and distract from their actual goal. As Pinker points out, "classic writing, with its assumption of equality between writer and reader, makes the reader feel like a genius. Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce" (p.36). Thus, below is some advice on classic style.

Use elegant metadiscourse:
I remember in high school when being assigned a term paper, my teacher instructed us to format the paper to "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them," and this is not a bad place to start off your high school writing career, but there is some elegance that you need to accrue as you advance as a writer. Pinker tells us in fact to avoid this metadiscourse and to just tell people what we want to tell them. I'm not sure he was talking specifically about grant writing, however, I do think we can take away from this point that one should avoid repetition in any metadiscourse. Pinker suggests that returning to your overarching point and even using key words to summarize is useful, but don't say the same thing again; find a new way to describe and convey the crux of your piece.

Avoid hedging:
Pinker also describes how many people hedge in their writing and they fall into this bad habit unintentionally. He suggests that we can often chuck the hedging words. For instance, I can say, "the birds fly by my window" instead of saying, "Sometimes, the birds fly by my window," and be confident that no one will call me out, saying, "Oh yeah? There are birds flying by your window nonstop? Liar!" But returning to my second sentence I used to in this section, you may notice that I hedged by using the word "often." Sometimes, hedging is necessary. Ah! I did it again. But, it can be useful if we use it intentionally, if it's necessary to make the point. 

Avoid turning verbs into nouns or adjectives:
In his discussion, Pinker cautions us from turning perfectly good active verbs into nouns, or what he describes as zombie nouns. For example, instead of "She affirmed his choice," we turn "affirm" into a zombie noun to say, "She granted him an affirmation." Maybe the second choice sounds a bit fancier, but it is certainly less clear or useful than the original when I let the verb be.

Avoid unnecessary passives:
Now, I've certainly chided you not to use the passive voice in grant writing when you can help it, but since Pinker suggests it, I must take the opportunity once again. Instead of saying, "The experiment will be conducted," say "I will do the experiment." There is no point in removing yourself from the project by writing your grant in passive, third person. Now, you may notice that our heading says to "avoid unnecessary passives." So when are they necessary? Pinker suggests that passives can be useful when we are trying to avoid unnecessary details. For instance, the phrase, "Helicopters were flown in" is passive, but may be the best way to say it since we don't want to get into the details of who was flying the helicopters.

In all of these suggestions, the thing to bear in mind is the importance of being intentional. There are times when breaking these guidelines will make the most sense and then you should. However, when re-reading your writing, look for where you're hedging, turning verbs into nouns or adjectives, or using passive voice, and take a moment to check if that is the most effective way to say it.

The Sense of Style - Steven Pinker
Why academics have a hard time writing good grant proposals - Bob Porter

Friday, May 19, 2017

It's not grammar but style

"Summer break" although elusive for many of us, seems like the ideal time to do some reading for pleasure. And, if that is your plan, I don't want to steal your joy, but I'd like to suggest a practical application for your fun-reading. To do this, I will offer a blog series on Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style, which I'll offer over the next couple weeks starting today.

In this book, Pinker works at "replacing dogma about usage with reason and evidence" (p. 6). Although he lauds the the great style-guide writers, such as Strunk & White, he also cautions against stringent language and grammar rules that seem to regard language as static instead of evolving and suggest that good writing is as simple as applying certain rules.

For me, it's a good reminder. With a technical writing background, I often catch myself offering bulleted lists to grant-writers, including 'get rid of all passive voice' and 'cut out hyperbole.' And, sure, this is in response to the overly complicated and layperson-unfriendly proposal-writing I often see, but I think we can learn from Pinker to find a balance between grammar rules and overly complicated writing that is not accessible to most.

Pinker argues for considering style in your writing for three reasons:
  • to make sure your reader understands: Unless it's in your diary, your writing is meant to communicate, so make sure you're doing that effectively.
  • to build trust: As Pinker argues, sloppy or careless writing also communicates something to employers (or grant reviewers). It suggests that if you can't craft a resume or a proposal well, how can you be trusted to do a good job in the workplace or responsibly manage a research project?
  • to offer joy: If you are reading a great novel this summer, you understand the importance of this, but it's also worth remembering for any other sort of writing, whether that be a publication you're developing or a grant proposal - do not sterilize your writing of your passion. Let your passion always infuse your writing.
Thus, for these reasons, Pinker encourages us in his opening chapter that to become better writers, we must first become better readers. Whose writing do you love? The next time you're reading their work, make a note of passages that jump out at you, ones that you particularly love. Read those passages again and work to identify what the author did that makes you like it so much.

Pinker points out that we're often told that using the passive voice or using alliteration is bad practice, but that's simply not a hard and fast rule, and I'm not just defending alliteration because my name is Naomi Nishi! Instead we need to understand who we're writing for, what we're trying to tell them, and what's the best way to tell them. Oftentimes, in academia and in grant-writing, we think that all emotive words are inappropriate, but is that right even when our goal is to get our reader to feel something? In grant-writing, one of our key goals is to get our reader excited about our idea. Ridding our writing of anything that conveys excitement then is bad practice.

I'll admit something to you. Although I am a card-carrying Technical Writer (OK, I don't have a card, but a diploma), I have never been a stringent grammarian. So, as an experimental psychologist and a linguist, Pinker speaks to my writerly soul in his acknowledgement of the messy and dynamic nature of language where knowing "the rules" is useful, but accepting that these rules are and should be broken when it is for the good of your writing. I hope you will enjoy this series; I'm looking forward to it!

The Sense of Style - Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker's Website 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Research PR Tips

Being able to discuss your research with a broad audience can help you in many ways. It allows you to write for the layperson in your grants. It allows you to tell your story and get the word out about your research. It allows you to attract students and collaborators. After attending the National Organization of Research Development Professionals (NORDP) conference, I heard from several RD folks on how researchers can better market themselves and tell their story.

Below are some tips:

Have a website:
A website is an opportunity for you to make sense of your work to people who may be interested for a variety of reasons. This is a place where you can organize your research for non-experts and experts alike. It's a place to link to the press you've received and to market your publications and yourself. One website that I like belongs to Professor Jennifer A. Lewis who is admittedly a research rock star, conducting research on 3D Printing at Harvard. But look at the language and organization she uses to illustrate her multi-faceted research. She makes sense of her very complicated research to a broad audience. She is also using her website to link to all the news and publicity she has received on her work.

Create an elevator pitch:
Certainly, I've said this before, but having a clear and concise elevator pitch on your work can give you a great advantage. This is especially true for when you are meeting Program Officers or colleagues at conferences or when e-introducing yourself to folks who may be able to support you and your work in a variety of ways.

Have an FAQ page
When you're discussing your work with colleagues or laypeople, what questions do they ask? What seems unclear to them? Try to make a note when you're asked questions about your research to identify the hang-ups. You can then use these questions not only to revise and clarify how you talk about your research, but consider making an FAQ sheet that you can hand out at presentations or link to on your new website! An FAQ approach can be an easy-to-read approach to offering clarifying information on your research.

Use social media
At the NORDP conference, I was struck by how many folks get their NIH or NSF updates on twitter or how many are discussing research on facebook. If you're not familiar with these channels, try using the twitter hashtag at your next conference. You'll be able to engage and connect with people interested in the same areas as you. You can follow them and they can follow you. After the conference, continue to tweet about your research, especially any updates or publicity you receive.

Making your research clear and accessible to a wide range of people can grow your reach and ultimately your support and network. So, consider these ideas to build good PR around you and your work!

Tips for using social media to promote your research - Nature
Developing a PR Plan - Entrepreneur

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Conference Networking

Well, conference season is upon us. It's a busy time with travel and simply preparing your own presentations, but make sure that you take a bit of time to strategize about your networking. Conferences are an ideal place to meet with colleagues (new and old) and meet with program officers. All of these connections are valuable. Below are some tips to help you make the best of them.

Before you attend any conference, find some time to identify who you want to meet. Are there agencies you're planning to apply to? See if a Program Officer will be there. Looking for a new collaborator with a certain type of expertise? Identify folks who might fit the bill. 

Seek them out
After you've figured out who you want to meet, look at the conference program to figure out where they'll be, whether they'll be presenting or in a round table. Sometimes, round tables or alternative sessions can be a better place to catch up with people instead of panel sessions that can get very large and make it difficult to talk to folks. Also, consider emailing folks beforehand to set up time to meet for coffee or a brief chat.

Name drop
When meeting someone new, bring up any connections you might have. Do you share a mutual colleague? Do you know someone who went to or worked at their institution? Once you've identified a connection, name drop. People are much more likely to meaningfully engage with you and your research if they have a mutual friend or colleague that serves as a sort of validation for you and your work.

Always follow-up with people. If a Program Officer is interested in your work and asks you to send an abstract on your project, email that to them, preferably within 24 hours while you're still top of mind for them. Also, follow-up with notes to folks after the conference. Consider sending "nice to meet you" notes via snail mail to add a personal touch. Although a follow-up email is fine, a hand-written note can be a nice touch especially when folks are sifting through their email after having been out of the office for the conference.

These tips can help you get the most out of your conference experience and networks, and can help you to grow and enrich your network effectively.

Pro tip: How to maximize networking at conferences - Forbes
How to network at a conference - Wikihow