Category Archives: Blog

Thoughtful writing goes beyond negative grammar “rules”

Yesterday I posted about how I sometimes let my Random Capitalization Syndrome shine through. “For me, the key is to know when it’s appropriate to unleash my RCS,” I explained, citing texts, personal emails, and Facebook posts as better venues for it than official publications and other formal contexts.

Then I found a great post in The Chronicle’s Lingua Franca blog by Geoffrey Pullum that fantastically echoed my message. Most grammar advice is framed as an absolute “don’t-do-this-don’t-do-that brand of usage bullying.” Instead, writers “need answers to open interrogatives about when to do what, and why, and how.” So it’s not that RCS should always be banned, it just needs to be used in the right place and time. Same goes for other “rules” like not ending sentences with a preposition.

As Pullum eloquently put it, “You have to steer between the Scylla of sounding like a tweet by an excited high-schooler and the Charybdis of sounding like a great-grandfather in a starched collar.” A good editor will help you do just that to produce a final product that’s appropriate for its intended context. We spend a lot of time thinking about when, how, and why to do the whats of grammar.

Are you afflicted with RCS? I am (in some contexts).

RCS stands for Random Capitalization Syndrome. In the words of Mike Pope,

RCS causes writers to capitalize Words that they think are Important. It is related to, but not the same as, CEWIASS (Capitalize Every Word in a Sentence Syndrome), which often affects children, and it’s not to be confused with CELS (Capitalize Every Letter Syndrome), which is sometimes known by the colloquial name SHOUTING.

I’m inclined to agree with the author’s Winnie-the-Pooh Theory of etiology: “RCS victims learned to read via the books of A. A. Milne, especially those featuring a Bear of Very Little Brain (who would sometimes Think of Things).”

When it comes to official publications and other formal contexts, I completely agree that RCS is a scourge. But I have to confess, I am unapologetically afflicted with RCS when it comes to texts, personal emails, and Facebook posts. Yes, I like to talk about things that are a Big Deal, describe my Awesome weekend, and tell my friends they’re The Best. For me, the key is to know when it’s appropriate to unleash my RCS. 

So are you sometimes afflicted with RCS too? Or do you want to yell at me for my ungrammatical writing? Share your thoughts below.

A mixed review of the new tool Presenter and a nuclear power infographic

Yesterday I got an email from someone at Easy WebContent about their new app Presenter. They were seeking a review here on the blog because they found my earlier post about Bunkr. Because there are many similarities between the two tools, I didn’t feel like writing a full review of Presenter. In case you’re interested, this review describes many of its features.

I did want to try my hand at creating my first infographic. I used an article about nuclear power that I copyedited as inspiration. I think it turned out to be pretty awesome! Here’s a taste:

potential energy

You can view the entire (clickable!) infographic here. I’d love your feedback so I can improve if I ever decide to make another one.

Presenter certainly is a powerful tool and it was fun to play around with. That said, I had to deal with a lot of bugs…or things that aren’t actually bugs but seem like they are because the correct functionality was non-intuitive for me. For example, objects and text would frequently re-size themselves seemingly at random; I eventually figured out that if I zoomed in to view my canvas at 100% then zoomed back out to my preferred 75% view, everything would be back to normal. Weird and super annoying. Another problem is that the infographic tools are not very flexible. For example, the percentage of Uranium-235 in mined ore is actually 0.7%, but it forced me to round to 1%.

So while I don’t advocate flocking to Presenter (especially given how much I liked Bunkr), it might be worth poking around. If they fix some of my current gripes in future updates, I’ll be much more likely to enjoy the tool and take advantage of its unique features.

So what do you think? Do you have experience with either of these programs? Which do you prefer and why? Or will you never abandon your beloved PowerPoint? Let us know in the comments.

Improved functionality at Thesaurus.com makes finding your “lightning word” easier than ever

As Mark Twain famously said,

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.

Thesaurus.com is now better equipped than ever to help you find that lightning word.

The other day I was struggling to think of the perfect word to use in a letter of recommendation for a former student. “Deftly” was close, but not quite right, so I headed to Thesaurus.com for inspiration. I was expecting to see something like this:

deftly old

Instead I was greeted with this:

deftly new1

What a welcome surprise! Here’s a quick summary of the new features:

  • Entries are separated on different tabs so you can focus on the meaning you intend.
  • You can sort by relevance (then alphabetically within a given level of relevance) so the most probable words are first.
  • You can highlight only words of a certain complexity or length or those that are common or informal.
  • The visually appealing column format makes skimming easier.

But “delicately” wasn’t the sense in which I meant “deftly,” so I checked the “cleverly” tab. I knew I wanted a short word, so I used that slider. My lightning word was now clear: “ably.”

deftly new2

To see what the rest of the options looked like, I also explored the “shrewdly” tab. This output is sorted alphabetically and is organized in a list, so it looks the most like the old Thesaurus.com format*, but it still has the new functionality of highlighting only the common words:

deftly new3

My one complaint is you can’t use multiple highlighting options at once (for example, you can’t highlight words that are simple, short, common, and informal).  Perhaps this will be addressed in future upgrades. I’m also curious about how complexity is measured. After testing a few words, I found some non-intuitive results with that option.

Overall, these changes are very welcome. The new Thesaurus.com is better than ever, so there’s no excuse to settle for a lightning-bug word when you can find the perfect bolt of inspiration instead.

*If you really miss it for some reason, you do still have the option to revert to the old version of the website.

A collection of thoughts on metaphor in science writing

In a pithy post on his Scientific American blog, Caleb Scharf opined:

I like my black holes fearsome and my interstellar gas thin and frail. It may well be that in doing so one reinforces a certain blinkering, but we’re not all Mr Spock, we need structures, we need something to hang on to – as long as we remember to let go occasionally.

To which commenter davedobbs added:

Writing about science without using metaphors is like…it’s like…

In a lofty piece in American Scientist, Roald Hoffmann advised:

They have no substance, these mental fetters that constrain metaphor and teaching and narrative in the communication of science. Break them.

In a fun post on her Madam Grammar blog, Lisa McLendon cautioned:

The reason to use a metaphor is to help readers understand something. If it doesn’t do that, it’s not working — and your best bet (a gambling metaphor) is to rewrite.

The importance of feedback from a naïve reader

Today Science Refinery reaches a milestone: the first guest blog post! The below is from Morton Ann Gernsbacher, Ph.D., Vilas Research Professor and Sir Frederic Bartlett Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She’s a cognitive neuroscientist who for 30 years has studied human communication.  Learn more about her exciting research on her lab website and connect with her on Twitter.

By the way, on the About Lauren page I mention a seminar on polishing scholarly communication that turned out to be one of my favorite graduate courses. It was taught by Dr. Gernsbacher! Please join me in thanking her for her contribution.

~~~

You’ve analyzed your data. You’ve crafted a compelling story. You’ve translated that story into APA style (or whatever style manual your discipline follows), and you’ve asked your co-authors to read over the paper to catch typos. [LM: Or you’ve hired Science Refinery to do your basic editing! :)]

You think you’re ready to submit your manuscript. But you’ve missed a step.

The most important source of feedback on your manuscript comes not from your co-authors. They already know what you were trying to convey even if you weren’t successful at conveying it. The most important source of feedback comes from readers who are naïve to your methods, message, and manuscript.

Over 20 years ago, my former PhD student Matt Traxler, now a Professor at the University of California, Davis, and I empirically demonstrated why it’s important for writers to get feedback from naïve readers.

Matt and I conducted a series of experiments using Tangram figures such as these. One Tangram 2group of participants (whom we called writers) had to write a description of each of these figures. Another group of participants (readers) had to use those descriptions to select each figure from a group of lure figures that the writers had not described.

Tangram 1

In essence, we were measuring how accurately writers could convey the exact message that they intended, rather than convey a related, but inaccurate, message. Such inaccuracy is the bane of scientific writing.

We discovered that one of the most productive ways to improve writers’ accuracy was to give those writers feedback on how accurately their readers had identified the correct figure. Armed with this simple feedback (“your readers were 40% accurate”), our writers improved in their second attempt at describing the same figures.

Providing two rounds of feedback doubly improved our writers’ accuracy. What’s more, armed with two rounds of feedback, our writers improved in their abilities to describe a new set of figures. What was key is that the writers received feedback from naïve readers – readers who were unaware of the exact figure the writers were trying to describe.

In the same way, you can improve your accuracy in describing your research. What’s key is to receive feedback from naïve readers – readers who are unaware of the exact message you are intending to convey, rather than readers who are your co-authors. And, most importantly, whenever a naïve reader tells you that your message isn’t clear, it is by definition unclear. Revise.

~~~

Every paper, poster, and presentation should be previewed by a naïve reader (or viewer) to ensure message clarity. When you’re in need of a fresh pair of eyes, look to Science Refinery.

Two simple mnemonics for capital vs. capitol

I came across a deep confession while browsing Facebook this morning.

I still don’t know the difference between Capitol and Capital. Dead serious, and I’m almost 29 years old and by all accounts, marginally intelligent.

Don’t worry, friend-of-a-friend–you’re not alone and there’s an easy fix.

Capital has many meanings as both a noun and an adjective. (See this post on Grammarist.) Capitol is much narrower. It’s about the buildings in capital cities. There’s the U.S. Capitol, which is capitalized, and there are state capitols, which are not.

So how do you keep straight which is which? Capitols almost all have domes. Alternatively, what do you say when looking at the Capitol in awe? Oooooo!

Here are some pictures of mine from vacations to see the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. and the old Illinois capitol in Springfield (where Lincoln was a lawmaker):

CapitolIL capitol

When calling the dentist is more meaningful than just calling the dentist

I feel awesome.

Sometimes I procrastinate on tasks I’m opposed to in some way but nonetheless have to do. For example, I had to call my new dentist to sort out an insurance matter. It’s something that shouldn’t have been an issue at all, so it just ticked me off. So I kept avoiding it. So I felt stressed when I got another bogus bill for it.

Today I finally called and dealt with it. Of course, it was trivial and easy. I spent WAY more time and energy stewing about how I shouldn’t have to do it and worrying about what would happen than it took to actually just call. This is the case 99% of the time for me.

I am learning and getting better. With help from kicks in the butt from my mom and husband, I don’t fall into this trap nearly as often as I used to. I just need to remember how good it feels to finally get over myself and do it. When the weight is lifted off my shoulders, I feel like this:

olbrich

So what are you putting off these days? Is there anything you’re building up in your head that’s actually simple? Could you tackle it right now to join me in feeling free and accomplished today?

PS– The above picture was taken at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, WI. I just found out it was voted one of the Top 10 Most Inspiring Gardens in North America by Horticulture Magazine!

My fair college on the hill

Yesterday was a very Denison day for me. It’s really a testament to my undergrad alma mater that I’m still so connected to it 3.5 years later. If you know anyone deciding about colleges to apply to, I could easily bend their ear for an hour singing Denison’s praises. Including that it rightfully made the top of Buzzfeed’s list of “college campus pics that will make you never want fall to end.”

First I got an email about planning After Work with Denison…Everywhere! I previously volunteered to host the event since there are other Denisonians in Missoula but no gathering in our area. I had a fun time schmoozing with alumni at the previous Madison events, so I didn’t want to miss out on that opportunity this year. Now I have to find a good place to reserve a small room for us. I’m thinking maybe Jaker’s? If you have any other ideas, let me know.

Then I conducted a Denison Alumni Recruitment Team interview. It’s a great way for Denison and its prospective students to get to know one another when an on-campus interview is unfeasible. I’ve done a few of these now, and it’s always a pleasure to meet with bright, engaged, passionate young people. It also just feels cool to be a part of shaping the next Denison class.

Of course I did it all while wearing my Denison sweatshirt. Like I said, it was a very Denison day.

PS: The post title is a reference to a line from the school song, “To Denison.”