Sunday, 20 December 2015

How to Write a Research Essay

In my editing work, I come across some wonderful essays that give me great hope for the next generation of scholars.

And then there are the others.

Don't despair. For many people, a few simple steps will get you on the road to writing research essays that will boost your grades and give you the skills you need to thrive in the modern economy.

In my opinion, research and writing are the most important skills that you gain from a university education. Being able to analyze an argument, find information, express opinions, make conclusions, and justify opinions are all vital in the wide variety of professions that require a post-secondary academic education. Writing a research essay, whether in first year courses or at the graduate level, contributes to developing these skills.

Before you start your research, have a pretty good idea of the topic you are going to write about. Research means looking for information, and you need to be specific. You may find that as you do research, you will see that your first ideas were not practical, or you might find something that is more interesting. It's usually OK to change at this point, unless you need permission from your instructor.


The first step to writing a research essay is the research. Forget about Google. Your school should provide you with a login to access your university's database. In fact, there should be several databases, each of which is subject-specific. Choose the database appropriate to your area. If you are not sure, ask a librarian.

If you don't know how to access the school databases, you need to talk to the library staff. If it's Sunday night and your essay is due tomorrow, then say a prayer and use Google. However, what often happens is that Google will lead you to the names of the articles that you want to read, but they are in databases that you need to pay to access. Sometimes you can access whole articles through Google Scholar, but it's hit and miss.

Assuming you are on the library database, you are going to search for articles. Think of several key words that could be used to describe the topics you are interested in. You can search for these individually or separately. At this point in the research your goal is to identify several research studies that will give you information needed for your essay.

I like to combine specific words to get a smaller search result. However, being too specific might end up with no results. Don't expect to strike gold with the first search. This process can take a little while as you try as many combinations of search terms as you can think of. As you find articles, first look at the title, then check the abstract to see if they will be helpful. Only save the ones that show some promise.

Most of the time with a university database, you can save the article in pdf format. Sometimes the articles come with weird names like yscef2343.pdf. Save this with a name that makes sense to you. You are going to (hopefully) end up with a dozen or more articles (to be narrowed down later) so naming them sensibly saves you time later.

After you have a number of articles saved, your next step is to decide which ones are helpful. The normal structure for a research study is the introduction, methods, data, discussion and conclusion. The introduction will tell you the relevance of the study to existing theory. Usually it will identify gaps or contradictions that it is designed to address. That can be useful to provide you specific places to look for other studies in the area you are researching. I find that the methodology and data (especially for quantitative studies) are not useful at this point. I usually skip to the discussion to see what is of value of any particular study.


The important thing before you start writing is that you have the information you need available. This doesn't mean that you have a certain number of studies, but that you have reliable data to back up any statements you are going to make in your essay. No matter what claims you make, you will need to show that someone of authority believes the same thing.

First create an outline. An outline is simply a point-form map of your essay. First you will establish some basic facts (point 1, 2, 3). This might take two or ten paragraphs. Then you are going to make an argument about these facts, supporting some and contradicting others. This is true for virtually all subject areas.

Each paragraph will be structured like this:

  1. Topic sentence will begin the paragraph.
  2. Statement of fact with citation.
  3. Your discussion of this information (may go on for several sentences, or may introduce new information with citation).
  4. Apply this to a case at hand (if relevant).
  5. If additional information is related to this topic, include in the same paragraph.
All information needs to be cited. That's one of the places where people lose marks on research papers.

Be careful about quoting. APA style specifically says paraphrase unless a quote is so perfectly worded that you couldn't find better words. Don't quote statistics or findings, paraphrase. It's very poor style to insert a sentence quoting a statistic. Also make sure the quote really adds to the argument. I often see quotes that are inconsistent with the logic of the argument, or make some reference that is irrelevant.

After you've written all your paragraphs, you need to read it over and edit it several times to make it consistent and smoothly flowing. Write the introduction last, or at least be prepared to revise it after you write the body of the essay.

Get a friend to read it before you hand it in. There's nothing better than a second set of eyes to review what you've written to catch typographical and logical errors. If you don't have a friend who can do it, then consider hiring an editor. Look at the comments and edits to learn how you can write better the next time. Writing is a skill that takes time to learn, but if you've come this far, you can do it.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

How to create a table of contents in MS Word

If you're writing a book, or even a thesis, you will need a table of contents. It's a pain to have to meticulously note each page that a subheading falls on, in addition to the chapter headings. Any of these can shift at the last moment after a small edit, making your table of contents inaccurate.

However, there's an easy solution. And it's built into MicroSoft Word.

If you create your headings using MS Word's built-in styles, you can create an automatic table of contents. It's easy. You can later update all the entries automatically as the page numbers change, or if you change or edit the titles and subtitles.

Here's a screenshot of the toolbar in MS Word when you are in the Home tab. Notice on the left, the icons for the various styles available. The default is "Normal." If you click on the little triangle on the far left, the icons will scroll and you'll see additional styles. And the last icon opens the Styles Pane, which is a mini-window showing more styles. Remember, you can edit styles to make them look any way you like: font, size, indentation, etc. When you change a style definition, it will be applied to every instance of that style, saving you the trouble of going through the document changing the style on different blocks of text.

On the left is a screenshot of the styles pane. I find it a little easier to work with styles in this view. The pane scrolls to show additional styles.

The styles "Heading 1" and "Heading 2" will automatically appear in your table of contents when you create it. In fact, as you use these styles, additional styles that will be called "Heading 3" and so forth will be automatically added to your style list so they are available as you need them.

Styles such as "Title" and "Subtitle" will not be added to the table of contents, so you can use them or create others as needed. You can also change the names of the headings that do appear in the table of contents. In a book editing project, I changed "Heading 1" to "Chapter Title" so I knew which style to use when formatting each chapter. I modified the style so it always forced the chapter onto a new page.

It's helpful to learn how to use the styles in MS Word. (The basic thing you need to know is that to apply a style, simply click anywhere in the paragraph that you want to be in that style, then click on the name of the style in the list and the paragraph will be automatically formatted to that style.)

So the key to creating the table of contents is that you do it after you create the text. Write your paper or book, and then use the styles to format the headings. Remember, you can make changes and additions easily after you create the table of contents, but you need to have some of the writing done first.

Before you create the table of contents, click at the place where you want the table to appear. It won't automatically appear at the beginning of the document. If you have a title page, create a new blank page after the title page (or after the abstract). Wherever your cursor is flashing is where the table of contents will appear.

To create the table of contents, use the Insert menu. You will see "Index and Tables..." Remember, if you see an ellipse (...) after a menu item, then it will open a dialogue box. In this case, you can create an index as well as a table of contents. I'm not going to explain the index here, since it's not a tool I normally use.

In the screenshot to the left, you can see the menu items. The words beside are a list of styles that I created in a document as I was writing this blog post. This is from MicroSoft Word 2014 on the Mac. Your screen may differ somewhat.

The picture below shows the dialogue box for creating the table of contents. There are several style options. I'm showing the basic on from the template. Notice, I've added Heading 3 here. But the other styles, such as Title, don't show up.

Once you have created the table of contents, the only other thing you need to know is how to update it. With a PC, you can right click anywhere on the table of contents to get a contextual menu to appear. With a Mac, Command-click or use a two fingered click.

In the contextual menu, choose "Update Field". You'll get an option to update all or only page numbers. If you choose "Update All" then all the corrections and changes to titles and subtitles will be reflected in the actual table of contents.

If there are additional MS Word functions you want to use, let me know in the comments section. If you like this post, give it a Google +.

The first image is courtesy of Keerati at Additional images are mine.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Top 5 Grammar Resources

When I'm asked a grammar question, or even in my editing work, I often have to turn to other sources for advice. People often ask "What's the rule for...?" but there's no official book listing rules. In fact, English doesn't have an official body setting rules for the language. If it did, the language wouldn't be the lively, ever-changing tool that it is. Often grammarians will disagree. Nonetheless, there are generally agreed-upon conventions.

In fact, there are two distinct approaches to grammar: prescriptivist and descriptivist. Prescriptivism is the idea that the rules are set and we must follow them. Descriptivism is the idea that grammar is simply the description of how words convey meaning. For example, verbs change to convey whether an action is in the present, past or future. The general rule is to add -ed to make a verb in the past tense. But everyone understands when that rule is broken and someone says "Yesterday I carry heavy load." However, without the marker "yesterday" it gets harder to understand. So the more grammatical errors in a statement, the more likely the person receiving the message will be confused.

People learn to speak their native language without even being aware of the rules. And many speakers use non-standard variations of both grammar and pronunciation. Despite these facts, it is still necessary for people to be able to write standard English, especially in academic writing. Thus we often need to consult reliable sources.

1. Grammar Girl. Mignon Fogarty has to be the smartest grammarian out there. I've been listening to her podcasts since I got my first iPod 10 years ago. What I love about Grammar Girl is that she's so thorough. If she gets a grammar question, she researches the history of the usage, she consults Google ngram, and she has access to a wide variety of sources. If I search for a grammar question on line and Grammar Girl comes up in the search results, I usually go there first. Plus, last year in Poetry Month, I won her grammar poetry contest with my Ode to the Adverb, which she read on her podcast. You can buy her book as well.

 2. The Blue Book of Grammar. This site is in support of a book by the same name authored by Jane Strauss, who sadly has passed away. With free quizzes and lots of resources, it's a great place to determine the correct usage. Technically, grammar only refers to how words convey meaning. But frequently we include punctuation and capitalization and other issues of writing. The Blue Book of Grammar includes resources for all these language issues. If you really want a book on your bookshelf for reference, you can buy the Blue Book of Grammar at Amazon.

3. Grammar Monster. With daily tips, glossaries, common mistakes and a twitter feed, you'll find a lot of grammar resources at Grammar Monster. I like how thorough it is. There are a huge number of resources here, all gathered together on the homepage, so you can simply click through to the topic you are looking for. In addition to grammar, it provides tips on common mistakes, homophone errors and punctuation issues. This would be a great place to explore if you are learning English and simply want to learn.

4. English Page. Speaking of learning English, this site is designed for people learning English as a second language, but I like it too because it is so well organized and thorough. It contains plenty of tutorials and quizzes to help you reinforce your understanding. I highly recommend it.

5. English Grammar Online. This site has a real focus on verbs. Verbs are one of the most important areas of knowledge when learning English since they change into so many forms to convey meaning. This site also includes games and riddles, so it's a great place to play to improve your English skills. Try chatting with Egon the dragon-bot.

I hope you find these sites useful. Use the comments below to suggest other sites for grammar help. However, as always, spam will be deleted, so if it's not a grammar site forget it.

Click here to shop for more grammar books

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Friday, 20 November 2015

How to use spell check to improve your essay writing

The attached image comes from an essay I recently edited. Clearly, the intended word was "profitability." Fortunately, I spotted the error and corrected it. But it's unlikely that the client typed "probability." It's much more likely that she typed something else and the spell checker in M.S. Word flagged it, and she changed it to this word. Look what happens if I write a similar word to "profitability," but slightly misspelled.

Of the three suggestions for "profability," the correct word "profitability" is not included! It's so easy to choose the wrong word from the list. In fact, our brains are wired to see the word we expect to see. That's why proofreading your own work can be so hard. Once you believe that the correct word is there, you will see the correct word. Part of the skill of proofreading is teaching yourself to slow down and really see each word that's on the page, not the word that we think should be on the page.

Once you accept the wrong word, it becomes even harder to spot when you are proofreading. Because it's a correct word, it's no longer underlined in red. But now your brain really thinks you've corrected it, so it's even more likely to fail to notice the error when you proofread.

I actually think many people would benefit in their writing if they turn off spelling suggestions. This means you won't see any red underlined words at all, during the writing process. The advantage is that you can simply focus on the content of what you are writing. For anyone who struggles with spelling, or even keeping in mind the complex ideas that make up an essay paragraph, this means completing the whole sentence before even thinking about the spelling.

To do this, simply uncheck the "Check spelling as you type" option in the M.S. Word preferences. You can write with spelling errors and focus on your ideas. When you complete the whole document, you can still use the spellcheck tools to check your work.

However, as you can see, the options are still limited by the guess that M.S. Word has for what is the right word. In this scenario, you would still be wrong to pick the word from the list. You need to pay sufficient attention to the suggestions to realize that you need to actually type in the correct word. If you can get closer, then the spell checker can probably guess it.
And one more thing. Here's a screen shot from an on-line proofreading service, Ginger. Notice that Ginger, like MS Word, can't see the error. For accurate proofreading, there's nothing like a human.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Research Sources: Library vs Internet

Image courtesy of iosphere at
Teachers (like me) often try to force students to use libraries for their research. We assign essay topics like "Compare using a library to the internet for research." Students today constantly ask "Why can't I just Google it?" In fact, some even don't think learning anything is important because all information is available on the internet. Let's take a look at the reality.

First, I use the internet for research all the time. Even Wikipedia. The most important skill in research is finding good, trustworthy information. You can do this on the internet as well as in a library. The advantage to a library is that almost all of the information available has already been evaluated as trustworthy, whereas on the internet you are on your own. Remember, anyone can put up a website. They can give it a reasonable sounding name such as "Institute for Climate Evaluation" and then put up the most garbage information imaginable. So you have to be careful who you get information from on the internet.

Teachers seem to hate Wikipedia. They often state that this is because information on Wikipedia can change and the editors are anonymous. There is no central authority. But this is nonsense. Wikipedia consists of a community of people who are strongly dedicated to truth and accuracy. When I want a quick understanding of a topic, I turn to Wikipedia. But I would not cite Wikipedia as a source in a research project because it is at best a secondary source. That means it is repeating information that has been developed by experts somewhere else. That somewhere else is usually a peer-reviewed journal article. It could be available on the personal website of a researcher at a university. It is much better to go to the original source.

The problem is that if you are in high school and you are doing a research project, the depth of knowledge you are expected to develop is much lower than that of a PhD in the subject area. Your reading skills are not developed to the university level. You may not have access to peer-reviewed journals, which you could get through university libraries, but high school libraries do not have the funds to subscribe to. Therefore, it is much harder for you to access and evaluate original sources.

The sources in your school library are designed for your reading level. They are designed for your knowledge level. They are organized for your use, and the librarian is there to help you. In fact the easiest way to do the research is to go to the library and ask the librarian to help you.

Typing a search term (is it the right search term?) into Google gives you millions of websites to choose from. I have no doubt the right information is there, but can you find it? You may need to wade through dozens of sites to find what you are looking for. It's more like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Using the internet is convenient. If it's Sunday night and your essay is due on Monday, then it's all you have. But if you have a little time, using the expertise of your librarian should be a no-brainer.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

How to use APA references: Just the basics

We edit psychology papers

In every new school year, another crop of scholars is faced with the perennial issue of using citations in their writing. Many people engage me to edit psychology papers. Of course, psychology is the main discipline to use APA, but many professors assign APA style as the reference style for papers in a wide variety of disciplines. Here are a few tips to make it easier. I'm keeping it short and sweet with just the basics here, so if you have more questions, check out some of my other posts under APA Style, or visit the OWL, which is a great source for writing advice in APA, MLA or Chicago style.

Use parentheses correctly

The first thing you need to know is how to use parentheses. When you put something in parentheses it adds to the sentence, but the sentence must be able to stand alone without it. When you use APA, you are told to enclose the author's name and year of publication in parentheses (Francis, 2015). Notice that the sentence above reads perfectly well without the part in parentheses. However, there are two ways to make a citation. Sometimes you introduce the author's name with a signal phrase at the beginning of the sentence. In this case, you only put the year in parentheses.

According to Francis (2015), blah blah blah.

What I see with some new writers is that they have got stuck on the idea that the author's name is always in parentheses, so they write: "(According to Francis, 2015), blah blah blah." That's quite wrong, since the words "According to Francis," are supposed to be part of the body of the essay, not extra. Notice also that the comma comes after the closing parenthesis mark because the parenthetical date belongs with the name.

Find the right source

The next place people commonly make errors is in citing material they found on the web. Now the first thing you need to know if you are writing a college or university essay is that you DON'T TRUST THE WEB. Use your college or university library and cite peer-reviewed journal articles that you access through the college library. You will probably need a log-in to use the college library, but they have access to journals that are written by experts in the field, and reviewed before publication by other experts in the field. That's why they are more trustworthy. So if you are writing about the history of gun control in the US then the Journal of Social Science is much more trustworthy than the San Jose Times. Choosing the right source will show your teacher that you are seriously researching and will be reflected in your mark. In high school, teachers are trying to get you to learn to simply use citations. In college, they are trying to teach you how to do research. If you are not digging deep, then you are not doing the job and your marks will reflect this lack of effort, even if your writing is good.

Cite the author's name

Once you have found a fact that you want to cite, the first thing you need to know is the author's name. Any journal article should provide this easily. If you have difficulty finding the author's name, then possibly it's not a reliable source. If the San Jose Times doesn't give a byline to the author, then it's about as trustworthy as a rumor you heard on the bus, but if you are citing a general publication like this and there is no author, then and only then, do you use the title of the article, enclosed in quotation marks ("Gun control bad", 2015). Often you find organizations that publish web pages with the information you need, and you can cite the organization as author (American Association of Gun Dealers, 2015). Neither of these is as reliable as a peer-reviewed journal article (Smith, 2015). Notice that in all these cases, you provide the minimum information to identify the article. Every citation must match a full entry in a reference list where you provide the name of the author, date of publication, name of publisher, and URL if you downloaded it from the web. Here are some tips for writing a reference list in APA.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

How to find a book editor

I had someone send me a personal letter for editing that he wanted me to edit for free. He claimed he had a 45,000 word book to come later and he wanted to sample my editing services. When I declined, he sent me another email that suggested I was foolish to miss out on this opportunity and that another editor had similarly declined.

My experience is that people who want some free service or a massive discount based on generating goodwill for some future later work are generally unreliable as clients. After all, a business relationship goes both ways. Treat me with respect and get the best work I have to offer. If you are trying to get the most for the least, then you probably think I'm trying to give the least for the most. I don't have time for clients like that.

If you are looking for a book editor (and with more and more people self-publishing, this is very common) then there are certain steps you should take to ensure you are able to develop a good working relationship with your editor. Editing a book is more than just reading and correcting grammar. An editor will provide structural advice (or make structural changes), ensure consistency of style, provide fact-checking (if negotiated), and generally help you to ensure your book is the best it can be. Even if you are hoping to sell your manuscript to a publisher, you will need at least three polished chapters with your proposal.

The first thing to do is to narrow your search. Editors are specialists. My expertise is in academic writing and business writing. Book editors are even more specialized. If you are going to search the internet, use a search term such as "food book editor" or "technical book editor."

Better yet, use social media to help you find your editor. I'm a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association. Every day, I receive emails telling me about editing jobs that are available. Many are from people seeking book editors. If one of these fits my abilities, I can respond directly to the client. The client can choose between numerous qualified editors. Click here to post a job at the EFA site.

When you locate an editor, whether through the EFA or other means, provide that editor with a significant sample of the work that you are going to have them edit. This means several thousand words of a book, perhaps a full chapter. You are within your rights to ask for a sample edit (and the editor may or may not want to oblige). If the editor doesn't want to oblige, you need some other criteria to judge whether or not this person can do the job. If not a sample edit, get references, or recommendations.

For example, like many freelance workers, I have a profile on LinkedIn. You can see personal recommendations there. Moreover, I have a page on my website with recommendations.

Yes, you can negotiate prices. We all have posted prices, but especially for a longer job, like a book, the prices are going to vary. If your book is beautifully written and you have an excellent command of the English language, then the editor might be able to work quickly and complete a lot of pages quickly. If you are using English as a second language and the book is highly technical or requires a lot of fact checking, then the editor is going to want to be compensated for that time. That's why it's in both your advantage and the editor's advantage for you to provide a substantial sample of your writing for a sample edit.

You want an editor to give you his/her best. Begin by treating them with respect.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

5 tips for your APA reference list

Creating an APA style reference list can be complex. Many students, even graduate students working on PhD dissertations still get it wrong. In this post, I'm going to give you the basic format.

If you can do these five things, you will get your references at least 90% right every time.

Here's what a citation should look like.
In this case, the organization is cited as the author. Read this post about citing webpages. It explains when to cite the organization as an author. The format is the same when you cite a human as an author.

1. Begin with the author(s). Most of the time you will have the last name of the author. In the example above, there would have been no individual connected with the article because it was a statement put out by an organization. Write the last name of the author followed by the first initial. Include the second and third initials if they are provided. Do not try to treat the name of an organization as a personal name. I've seen writers who would have written Association, A.S. as the author for this citation.

2. Get the date right. Use the date supplied by the document. If it's a webpage and it's "Copyright 2012-2015" then the last date is 2015. Use it. Do not use the date you accessed it. Once I found that every webpage cited by a writer was 2015, the year the paper was written. This seemed strange to me, so I looked up the actual documents. I found dates from 2005 to 2012. The writer was using the date they accessed the documents. What the APA cares about is when was the document written, so you know how recent the information is.

If, as in the example above, an exact date is provided, then use it. That's common for periodical publications that are monthly, or in this case, a public report that was released on a specific date. Most of the time you will only have the year.

3. Where to use italics. Use italics for the name of the publication. Generally this is only the journal name or a book name. Do not use italics for the name of an article. Notice the article above is very long. Write out the whole name of the article, but do not use italics.

4. Citing electronic sources. Electronic sources are one of the common sources of information. Journals are published on-line, and we often search for information while sitting at our desks. Notice that the citation above is from an on-line source. However, according the the APA style blog, you don't often need to cite the access date. You  only need to cite the date when it's something like a Wikipedia entry that could be constantly changing. However, you do need to include the source (Retrieved from http://www....)

5. Formatting. Create the reference list using 12 point Times (or the same font and size as your essay), center the word References at the top of the page (not bold), use a 1/2 inch hanging indent, and double space throughout with no extra space before or after each entry. (That's 5 extra tips in this blog post, absolutely free!) If you don't know how to set up MS Word to format a hanging indent using the paragraph tool, read this post.

Bonus! Notice that each individual part of the citation is separated by a period. Name (period) Date (period) Title (period) Source (period) Retrieval date (NO PERIOD). What?! There's no period at the end of the URL to avoid confusion. Makes you yearn for MLA, which encloses the URL in < > signs just for clarity.

Monday, 10 August 2015

How to use transitional words effectively

Students are rightly taught that the use of transitional words and phrases will improve their writing. By and large, this is true. However, in my essay editing work I find that many people are not using transitional words and phrases correctly. Therefore, I am writing this blog post to help educate writers on how to use transitional words and phrases. This list is by no means exhaustive. Use the link at the bottom of the page to see more.

There are many different transitional words and phrases, and they should be used for different purposes. The key is to understand the logical connection between the phrases or sentences that these words link. "Transition" means "change" and there are many kinds of changes that can happen in an essay.

The first sense of change is to continue the present thought in a new sentence. We call these "additive" transitions. Additive transitions introduce an idea or example, continue a thought, show similarity, or provide reference or clarification. The following words are used as additive transition words:

  • moreover: Mountain climbing is physically challenging. Moreover, it is expensive and time-consuming.
  • indeed: Lamborghinis are expensive and rare cars. Indeed, I've never even ridden in one.
  • further: Michael Jackson was extremely popular in his day. Further, he sold millions of records.
  • furthermore: I will not tolerate disrespect from my students. Furthermore, lateness will be punished.
  • what is more: My education was very expensive. What is more, I had to borrow the money.
  • in addition: The prisoner was sentenced to 10 years for robbery. In addition, he received 5 years for escaping custody.
  • in fact: Donald Trump is very rich. In fact, his assets are estimated at between 3 and 10 billion dollars.

Another sense of change is to introduce an idea that is different from the previous idea. These are called "adversative" transition words. Use adversative transition words when the idea being introduced conflicts with ideas already introduced. This is useful in a persuasive essay, because you need to be providing a sense of two sides of an argument. Depending on how you handle the logic, these transition words can introduce an idea that supersedes the first idea or is negated by the first idea.

  • but: Smoking causes cancer, but many people continue to smoke.
  • still: Head injuries are very dangerous. Still helmets are not used in some sports.
  • however: Carbon dioxide is a proven greenhouse gas; however, many Americans remain in denial of climate change.
  • in contrast: Republicans deny climate change, in contrast to Democrats, who admit it.
  • while: Democrats are focused on income inequality, while Republicans are focused on conservative credentials.
  • whereas: The Senate voted to support the tax increase, whereas the House voted to repeal it.
  • on the other hand: Several major economists support the idea of universal daycare. On the other hand, the Treasury Department says it is unaffordable.

The fourth class of transition words are those that relate to cause and effect. These are called causal transitions. (Please watch out for the common transposition of letters that changes causal into casual; your spellchecker might even make the change for you.) I often see errors here when I edit student essays. You need to be very careful with your logic when using these transitions. Nonetheless, they are very important in laying out the logic for your essay. Notice that there are five different causal conditions: Cause, Condition, Effect/Result, Purpose, and Consequence.

1. When an assertion is followed by its reason

  • because: I am bringing my umbrella because it is raining.
  • due to: I am upset with my brother due to his lying to me.
  • inasmuch as: I am not going to vote for that politician inasmuch as he's a scoundrel.
2. When an action is conditional upon another event.
  • granted that: I will buy a car tomorrow, granted that I receive my bank loan.
  • even if: I will not purchase a Ford, even if the salesperson throws in a free oil change.
  • unless: I will marry that girl, unless I meet someone I like better.
3. When a cause is followed by its consequence.
  • as a result: I won a lottery, as a result I quit my job.
  • consequently: I closed my company, consequently I will no longer need your services.
  • hence: I took up skydiving, hence my life insurance rates went up.
4. When an action if followed by its motivation.
  • in order to: I started bodybuilding in order to impress women.
  • so as to: I enrolled in law school so as to become a lawyer.
  • so that: I bought a lot of books so that I could fill my bookshelf.
5. When a condition is followed by an outcome.
  • then: If my father gives me permission, then I will set sail tomorrow.
  • otherwise: If I am allowed to be an explorer I will first go to Antarctica, otherwise I will return to law school.
Other transition words are sequential. That is, they help us to keep track of arguments. The types are numerical, continuation, conclusion, digression, resumption, and summation.

1. To provide the first of a number of related items.
  • initially: The plan had several components. Initially, the army was to build a bridge.
  • first of all: First of all, the French Revolution was set in motion by a series of crop failures.
2. To relate items in a time sequence.
  • subsequently: Subsequently, the middle class lost faith in the leadership of the King.
  • previously: Voltaire had visited liberal philosophers in England.
  • eventually: Eventually, the revolution was followed by the Reign of Terror.
3. To provide the final item in a series.
  • finally: Finally, the British gave up their claim to the Thirteen Colonies.
  • in the end: In the end, the Constitution became the source of law.
  • to conclude: To conclude, Washington was elected President.
4. To provide a related point that is not directly part of the argument being developed.
  • incidentally: Incidentally, sans cullottes means "without britches", meaning the working men who did not wear the same type of pants as the elite.
  • by the way: By the way, the guillotine was not invented by Guillotine; it was merely advocated for by him as a less cruel means of execution.
5. To return to the main argument after a digression (as in 4).
  • to resume: To resume, the development of political parties had several consequences for France.
  • anyhow: Anyhow, the chaos of the Reign of Terror led the way to Napoleon's rise.
  • anyway: Anyway, the Constitution was never seen to be a perfect document, being amended several times in its early years.
6. To provide a summation of an argument.
  • to summarize: To summarize, there are many reasons for wearing a hat.
  • therefore: Therefore, the urban sombrero is destined to become a fashion staple.
  • in brief: In brief, nothing could demonstrate a man's savoir faire than a hat echoing multiculturalism.

The list of words for this blog post have been partially sourced from, which is licensed for re-use through Creative Commons license 3.0 <>.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

How to use MS Word's Track Changes Tools

When you receive your edited document back from our editing service, it will show the changes in a color like the picture at the right. (The color may be different, and if more than one editor has worked on your document, the color will be different for each editor.) This is the Track Changes function of MS Word. If you are using MS Word 2016, read this blog post for an update. The purpose of this function is for you to review the changes to see whether or not you agree with them. We also hope that you will learn something about writing, using references, and following the appropriate style guide, which is why we use this function. If your writing is good, then you may only see a few changes per paragraph as per the example. If you are having a lot of trouble expressing yourself, either because English is your second language, or because you have not mastered formal writing yet, then you may see an awful lot of changes. Certainly, this will make it harder to review each individual one. Whether you have many changes or just a few, it is quite easy to accept the changes so you can have a clean document.

At the top of your MS Word window are a number of Tabs. They are labelled Home, Document Elements, Tables, Charts, SmartArt, and Review. The Track Changes controls are found under the Review Tab.

Click on the Review tab to reveal the Track Changes buttons. Each one controls a pop-up menu. Click on the down arrowhead at the side of the "Accept" button to access the menu. To review and accept individual changes, begin by clicking on the change in the document. Then access the pop-up menu. You can either click on the actual point in the document where the change has been made (indicated by an underline, or line from the indication in the margin) or click on the marginal note. If you select the second choice, "Accept Change", the change will remain, the indication will disappear, the pop-up menu will disappear, and you can go ahead and do something else. In fact, this is the action that will occur if you click on the "Accept" button instead of its arrow. Most people probably want to review the next change, so a better choice is to select the first option, "Accept and Move to Next." In this case, the change will be accepted and the indicators will disappear (along with the pop-up menu) but the cursor in the document will jump to the next change. That's helpful, as you can then simply repeat the process by accessing the pop-up menu and clicking on "Accept and Move to Next."

The final way to accept changes, is to simply click "Accept All Changes in Document." This will remove all the comments at the side, all the lines indicating where changes have been made, and you will have a clean document (I will talk about the comments further on in this post.)

My suggestion for clients is to read through the entire document before you accept all changes. There are different options for displaying changes. I like to leave a document that is easy to read, so when I delete a word or move it, you can see it at the side, but the sentence in the document reads with all the intended changes. Sometimes other editors show deletions with a strikethrough, moves can also be displayed, and other variations exist. With these options, you need to read more carefully to be sure of what your sentences will be after you accept the changes. With document that we have edited, additions are shown in color and deletions are only shown in the margin. The sentences you read are the final form.

In addition to changes, sometimes editors want to put comments in documents. These could be to alert the reader to potential errors of fact. They could be to indicate where a reference is needed. In addition when I'm really unsure about a writer's intention, I might make an edit that I really want to draw the writer's attention to in order to ensure that I haven't changed the meaning. Sometimes editors simply write "Can't understand this sentence. Please revise." Personally, I think that's weak. If I really can't understand what my client wants to say, I will send a quick email asking for an explanation while I'm still doing the editing. My intent when editing is to return a document that's ready to use. Comments are shown in the accompanying image as green. Like changes, they can appear in many different colors.

Comments are not removed along with the edits when you choose "Accept All Changes in Document." Comments must be removed one by one. Nonetheless, they are very easy to remove.

To remove a comment, simply click in the X at the right top corner of the comment. Even with dozens of comments in a document, you can scroll along and remove them all fairly quickly.

If you have a lot of changes in a document, or some very long comments, they might not all fit into the space at the right hand side of the document on your screen. MS Word will automatically collapse them into a small bubble. While this looks more tidy, it prevents you from being able to read the comments or see the changes in detail. There's a simple way to deal with that. You can have the comments and changes appear in a list on the left. However, because they all appear, they can take up a lot of space, so they might not appear close to the actual change in the document.

This view is called the Review Pane. You can make it appear/disappear with a button located in the Review Tab, to the right of the Track Changes buttons. If you want to see the details of the changes, use this button to make the Review Pane appear. You can also close the Review Pane with the close box in its top left corner.

The final thing you may be struggling with is that after your document has been returned and you have accepted all changes you might want to do a little more writing. Perhaps you are adding material to your reference list, or perhaps you are simply polishing. But every time you make a change, it appears on the right and you have to go through the whole process of accepting changes. You know you shouldn't have to do this because you don't have to review your own changes. So you want to turn off Track Changes. Here's how:

You might have noticed this button already, but it's part of the Track Changes suite of tools in the Review Tab. Simply click on it to stop recording changes. Now your document can be edited as much as you like just like before.

If you have more questions or comments about the use of Track Changes, please leave a comment below. Thanks for reading!

Friday, 7 August 2015

How to write an abstract

Unlike abstract art, an abstract for an essay should be concise, clear, and easy to understand.

An abstract is neither an introduction nor a conclusion. Although it must introduce the reader to the topic, it must include information on what the gist of the subject is, the methodology used (in the case of a science or social science study) and the conclusions drawn.

APA style requires the heading to be "Abstract" centered on the page (with the running head.) This should be page 2 of your document.

Do not indent the first line. Begin with a summary of the key points of your research. The abstract must cover all elements of the study: research topic, research questions, participants, methods, results, data analysis and conclusion. Here's the hard part. You must accomplish this with fewer than 250 words.

This means you must be exceedingly concise. The abstract does not include references. The key points are contained in a single sentence. The research questions may be limited to the main questions, without subquestions. The results will only be one or two sentences. You probably want to have about half the abstract focused on data analysis and conclusion.

At the end of the abstract, you can provide a list of keywords. These will be the words that will be used to find the document when it is listed in a database. This is somewhat anachronistic, and dates back to when things were filed in hard copy. Since today, search engines can see every word in a document and make intelligent decisions about what the keywords are, providing a separate list is not critical for researchers to find the document. However, the practice continues.

Indent the keyword line. The first word should be Keywords (in italics). It's followed by a colon and then a list of keywords, separated by commas.
       Keywords: abstract, APA, essay writing, executive summary

The purpose of the abstract is to summarize everything of interest in the paper so someone researching similar topics will know whether or not to read your whole paper as a source of ideas for theirs. Details are not as important as the precision about what you have written.

In a business document, a similar opening page is called the Executive Summary. An executive summary should also be short, but there is no defined limit as in APA. I'd suggest that 300 words should be enough. It's important to define the topic being discussed, identify the important factors, and provide a brief summary of the important discussions and conclusions. In no case should the executive summary be longer than one page. The point is that someone should be able to read this brief page in a few minutes to understand the whole of what the document will lay out.

Image courtesy of athiwat at

Saturday, 1 August 2015

On-line education: buyer beware

The on-going scandal in predatory student loans has now led the University of Phoenix to suffer a 54% decline in enrolment and a plunge in the stock price of its parent company. This is a positive sign for students and long overdue.

However, the University of Phoenix is not the worst of the offenders and certainly does not deserve to be singled out. I've worked with numerous clients in graduate programs at the University of Phoenix and I can attest to the quality of education that they receive.

Nonetheless, the University of Phoenix is clearly admitting students that are not successful. That's not unusual. All universities have graduation rates less than 100%. Most notice a big dropout rate after the first semester. University is harder than high school, and students who are away from home for the first time, struggling to maintain passing grades and unsure of their motivation often leave to get a new perspective on what they want to do in life.

But the success rate for the University of Phoenix is only 4%! That means that 96% of students who enrol in undergraduate courses do not graduate with diplomas. Essentially, they have paid money for courses that will do little to help them move forward in their careers. And much of that money is borrowed. That's the problem.

I think they are admitting students that are not prepared for the academic work that they are going to face.

Students know that higher qualifications will help them get better paying jobs. They know that investing in themselves is a good strategy. But they often don't have a clear idea of their skills and abilities. The schools advertise about opportunities. They even might truthfully advertise that 90% of graduates are earning some nice salary. But they don't say that 96% of students will walk away with nothing but debt.

There are two parts to the university. The recruiting and enrolment office are sales people. Their job is to sell you on the program. The teachers are an entirely different thing. They are skilled  educators who want to do a good job. That's not to say that there's no connection between the two.

A friend of mine was teaching at the University of Phoenix in a classroom program. He is a highly ethical teacher, and dedicated to his students. I met him as an undergraduate many years ago, and we became and remained friends. He told me he was pressured by the administration to give better grades, but he insisted that he would not lower his standards. His contract was not renewed. He now has a PhD and teaches at a public university.

In the United States, the quality of the university is an important component of the value of a degree. Some of the top universities in the country, such as Harvard, are private universities. But many public universities offer high quality education programs. There's no doubt that students can greatly advance their life prospects through public education. President Obama made this easier by his proposal to make community college free. Community colleges, leading to state colleges and degree programs are a great way for public education to be extended to all worthy students.

The key is "worthy students." When colleges admit students that are not qualified, the chances of successful outcomes are low. Some students are able to pull up their socks, utilize academic assistance services, and develop good academic skills. Others cheat their way through, using paper writing mills, and other nefarious means to pass. Many use private tutoring and editing services, such as mine, and I'm happy to assist student who what to learn to write better. I can see improvements over time with many of my long-term clients.

But I also see students who fail to grasp the some of the fundamental concepts in academic writing. Some, even at the graduate level, do not understand the basics of APA or MLA style. Some do not understand the difference between research and plagiarism. I believe universities who admit these students are failing in the screening process. But private universities have an incentive to admit, not to screen. Their bottom line is profit.

The worst offenders are private universities at the bottom of the tier. They get less publicity than the University of Phoenix because they are small. But the costs for students is no less dire. One client, studying healthcare management sent me an essay to edit. I happened to look up the name of the professor. It turned out the professor was trained in restaurant management, not healthcare management. And it wasn't easy to find the professor, because when I Googled his name, most of the hits that came up were people re-selling essays that had been written for the course in the past. So what quality of scholarship is coming out of that course? Do you want your grandmother cared for in a facility run by one of these healthcare management grads?

I encourage students to seek higher education, no matter what your skill level; however, be prepared to work hard to improve your skills. Do your homework on the school before you take on student debt. And, as always: buyer beware!

Image courtesy of pakorn at

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

It's too late to learn APA when you're finishing your thesis

APA citation stylesFrankly, I'm amazed how far people can get without learning the basics of citation styles. I've edited many Master's theses and even a few PhD dissertations in which key parts of citations were done incorrectly. These things should be mastered in first year college.

Let's review the purpose of citation. We use citations to provide credibility to the arguments we are making. A citation answers the question "How do you know?" for each fact that you assert.

APA style uses two criteria to show how much weight a source has: author and date. It assumes that later citations are more likely to be correct than earlier citations. It also assumes that some authors are more credible than others.

But APA doesn't want you to fill up your page with a lot of other junk that's not necessary to show the credibility of your source. That's why the URL and publisher information are listed in the reference section. The whole idea is to keep the body of the paper nice and tight, and leave it up to the reader to check out the reference section if he/she wants more information or to track down the original source.

I just finished editing a Master's thesis in which almost all of the in-text citations did not appear in the reference list. In the reference list was a whole bunch of stuff that was not cited in the paper. It's a complete disaster from a credibility point of view. The reference list is not suggested extra reading for anyone with a burning interest in the topic. The point of a thesis is to make an argument and to show that the facts behind your argument are credible. References should be strictly a list of sources of information actually used in the paper.

Don't Master's programs require you to write a number of essays in courses leading up to your thesis? I know that some undergraduate teachers can be lazy or inconsistent in checking writing for APA style, but surely there must be some kind of course for people who are required to write a thesis? I'm actually shocked at some of the people working in graduate-level programs. I think (private universities are particularly guilty of this) that the admissions offices looks at the tuition fees more than the academic ability.

I think part of the problem is the move to teach undergraduate courses by sessional instructors. These instructors are underpaid and over-worked. They may not have the luxury of time to carefully critique papers, thus teaching undergraduates how to write proper academic essays. When I was early in my education, I thought references were for the birds. I was casual about citing sources. A great teacher set me straight. After that I was diligent in citing sources, but rarely did I get a paper back where a teacher had corrected some technical aspect of my citations. Really, it took until I became a professional editor that I learned about sources like Purdue's OWL, which sets out clearly all the formatting to properly reference a paper in MLA or APA style as well as providing other writing instruction.

If you are an undergraduate and you intend to go to graduate school, or continue your academic career in any way, you need to ensure you understand how to use citation styles properly. Access your school's writing resources, or take the time to look things up online. Even if your mark doesn't depend on it now, it may be important later. And it could be too late then.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Colon or Semicolon: a brief lesson

Many people are confused about how to use the colon or semicolon. A colon (:) is used to expand or explain; a semicolon (;) is used to form parallel structure and for lists where items contain commas.

In the British Columbia province-wide high school exams, the "use of a variety of sentence structures" is one of the criteria for marking. One of the ways to do this by expanding your repertoire of punctuation beyond commas and periods. However, when I'm editing college (and even graduate level essays) I see the poor semicolon and colon misused horribly. So let's clarify how to use these punctuation marks, and you can see your essay writing marks improve instantly.

First a warning: this is intermediate level stuff. If you are still struggling to write a coherent sentence, stick to writing simple sentences. I often tell beginning writers to get used to writing subject-verb-object-complement (SVOC) sentences. It's like any other art. You must learn the basic rules before you go off into doing fancy stuff. In other words, "walk before you run."

But once you can write basic sentences consistently, it's time to write more complex sentences.

Colon or Semicolon?

The graphic above provides the basic rules for colons and semicolons. A colon introduces a list, or the part after the colon expands or explains the part before the colon. In essence, these are the same things: a list provides details (expands). Notice from the graphic that we can use the colon whether or not the list is in the form of bullet points. However, the use of the colon depends on the structure of the sentence.
Use a colon to expand or explain.

If the first example had begun with "The expeditions goals were to..." then a colon would be incorrect. No punctuation would be needed to introduce this list. "The expedition's three goals were to explore, seize land, and find gold.  This would be true even if the sentence were structured in the form of a bulleted list.

Semicolons are entirely different kinds of animals. In fact, they used to be known as semiperiods, which I think is a better name. They act like a comma, only stronger. That's why when I'm editing, the most common circumstance when I insert a semicolon is to fix a run-on sentence caused by a comma splice.
Use a semicolon to join two clauses.

A run-on sentence is a sentence where two main clauses are joined improperly. It usually looks something like this: "I went to the store, I bought bread." This is known as a comma splice. The comma is not strong enough to join the two clauses. It needs help. We can fix this sentence with a conjunction: "I went to the store, and I bought bread." Another way to fix the sentence is to use a semicolon because a semicolon is strong enough to do the job. "I went to the store; I bought bread." Two clauses joined together with meanings that are parallel are called "parallel structure." Some nice sentences with parallel structure are what markers like to see when marking provincial exams.

Use a semicolon in a list where items use commas.

Sometimes we need to write a list, but the items in the list contain commas. For example, it is necessary to use commas when writing city names with their states. So it's confusing to the reader if you're writing a list of city names with states and joining them with commas. I went to New York, NY, Springfield, MA, and Dallas, TX. Did I go to Springfield, OH and Massachusetts or Springfield, MA? The semicolon solves this dilemma. I went to New York, NY; Springfield, MA; and Dallas, TX. This is also useful if the list contains commas for other reasons. The body of scientists named for honors included Oppenheimer, father of the hydrogen bomb; Einstein, originator of the Theory of Relativity; and Darwin, whose Theory of Evolution changed our understanding of our place on the planet.

One of the most common errors in using a semicolon is to use it in lists where items do not contain commas. Even if the items in the list are long, there is no need to use a semicolon.

A few easy rules for colons and semicolons will improve your writing:

  • Use a colon to expand or explain (e.g. introduce a list)
  • The introduction to the list must be structured for the use of a colon
  • Use a semicolon to join clauses of equal weight to create parallel structure
  • Use a semicolon to join items in a series when items contain commas.
That's all. Happy writing!

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Improve your essay writing marks with these 3 tips

Follow these three tips to improve your essay writing marks. These tips are from the Canadian Proofreading site

The first point is simple: create an outline BEFORE you start writing. There are a couple of reasons for this. In creating an outline, you are thinking about the big picture. You can map out how you are going to organize your arguments, and you can make some notes about the evidence you are going to present.

Remember: each paragraph should be organized about some evidence, either a citation directly from a work you are writing about (as in an English essay) or a citation from an expert (peer-reviewed) in the field. Most of the paragraph will be taken up by evaluating the evidence, connecting the evidence to other evidence, or discussing the importance of the evidence for your thesis. So your outline should indicate what evidence you are going to introduce, or what main argument you are going to make with some notes about what evidence supports it. Creating an outline is simply a roadmap to organize your presentation of evidence.

I edit a lot of essays that were clearly written without an outline. They tend to wander. The paragraphs are disjointed. The evidence is not clearly connected with the thesis. They lose marks (less so after I edit them).

Second, condense sentences. The most common problem is as cited in the second point in the graphic. People seem to need to remind the reader that the evidence came from a study. That's not needed. All the evidence comes from studies. That's the scientific method! All you need to do is tell the reader who did the study (and when) and present the findings. The examples shown are not the most egregious waste of words I've seen. Often writers spend a dozen words preparing the reader for some evidence when only a few will suffice. In the proofreading process, I reserve a whole step for looking at sentences thinking about whether there is a way to make the same point in a more concise way. Your professors will be grateful. Of course, if you are filling up words to meet your minimum word count, then you'll pay for that with your marks.

Finally, use transition words. Transition words connect ideas. They can continue an idea, or they can introduce a new idea. Transition words can be used within paragraphs or to connect paragraphs. Often, students are criticized by teachers for their failure to use transition words. This happens when ideas are suddenly thrust into an essay without preparing the reader.

Use of these rhetorical techniques will make your essay flow more smoothly, and your marks will improve.

What other techniques can you suggest for improving essay writing marks? Spam comments will be deleted.