Fix My English

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Let me show you how it's done
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This week, I thought I’d give you insight into how I go about the editing process and what’s involved. I hope this week’s blog will also show you how much better an editor can make your manuscript. I’m using (with permission from the author) an example from some work I performed recently on a book about the uses of 3D printing. 

The sentences began the editing process looking like this:

The 3D printed attachment was used for a microsphere fluorescence immunoassay of anti-recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) antibodies in milk extract. It consisted of (1) a cellphone holder, (2) a sample tray, (3) twelve UV LEDs (wavelength = 380 nm), (4) two white light LEDs, (5) a battery compartment, (6) a mechanical lid, (7) an optical filter, and (8) an aspherical lens, as shown in Figure 3.1. 

As you read through the second sentence, the flow of reading gets stopped every time you get to a number in brackets. If the second sentence was a caption for a figure, and the figure had the parts labelled with numbers, then this list would work well. But as this sentence was in the middle of a paragraph, the numbers were not appropriate.  So, as the editor, I took the numbers out.

The difficult sentence then looked like this:

It consisted of a cellphone holder, a sample tray, twelve UV LEDs (wavelength = 380 nm), two white light LEDs, a battery compartment, a mechanical lid, an optical filter, and an aspherical lens, as shown in Figure 3.1. 

After my initial edit, the manuscript went back to the author for his input. When he got to the sentence he was worried by it. He thought that without the numbering, the list of parts looked too long. He wrote his concerns in a comment and sent the manuscript back.

I really appreciated his feedback and could see what he was saying. His comment made me look back at the sentence again and see if we could make it both clear and easy to read. I had a look at the figure (Figure 3.1) to see if all the parts were labelled, and it turned out that some of the parts were labelled but some were not mentioned. 

That led me to change the sentence again. This time it looked like this:

The 3D printed attachment (shown in Figure 3.1) was used for a microsphere fluorescence immunoassay of anti-recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) antibodies in milk extract. As well as the components shown in Figure 3.1, the attachment contained an optical filter, and an aspherical lens.

But there was a loss of information in changing the sentence this way. The white and UV LEDs were labelled in the figure, but the figure did not state how many of each LED there were. So I also adjusted a sentence further down in the manuscript:

The two white LEDs were used to perform dark-field imaging of all the microspheres, and the twelve UV LEDs were used to excite fluorescent QD-labeled antibodies.

Now all the information was present in the manuscript and the paragraph was easy to read.

I hope you can see from this little story how an editor and author can work together to make something of beauty from a rough manuscript. If you would like your manuscripts to be polished to make it beautiful, upload your manuscript to fixmyenglish.com.au or write me an email at Ruth@fixmyenglish.com.au 

I am happy to help you out.

Ruth Amos
Which tense should you use in your manuscript?
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Which tense do I use?

The past, present, and future walked into a bar. It was tense.

When we are writing about our research there are some rules to follow as to which tense we use. And they can be a little complicated. I came across a note I had made way back in my honours year and I thought I might share it with you.

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Let’s put these ideas into examples:

Amos et al. reported that the sky was blue.

In this case you need to use the past tense because you used the word reported, and Amos and co-workers reported this fact in the past. 

 

Amos found that the blue sky was not pink.

Again, using the word found means that you use the past tense – the word was.

 

The sky is characterised as being blue with white clouds.

Now, because the writer used is characterised you need to write in the present tense.

 

We find that blue sky with white clouds means a sunny day.

In this case, the use of the word find means that you use the present tense – means. If this was written in the past tense you would use the word meant. We found that blue sky with white clouds meant a sunny day. But using find instead of found means it needs to be in the present tense.

 

When vinegar is added to bicarbonate, carbon dioxide forms.

This is written in the present tense because this statement is always true. Whenever you add vinegar to bicarbonate, carbon dioxide forms. It always happens, so we always write it in the present tense. Whenever you are describing something in your research that will always be true, write it in the present tense.

 

The ethanoic acid in vinegar reacts with the bicarbonate to give bubbles of carbon dioxide.

Again, because this is always true, and because you’ve used the word give, write in the present tense.

 

Colder weather has been observed when clouds formed in the blue sky.

Finally, we are using has been observed to talk about something that happened in the past. 

 

I hope that these examples are helpful. Which words have you found tricky in your writing? Write me an example sentence in the comments and I’ll see if I can set you right.

Oops I made a mistake
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You might have picked up the error in one of last week’s blog posts:

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I corrected it as soon as it was brought to my attention but it brings me to an important point: it is very difficult to edit or proofread your own work.

Even if you are writing in your native language.

Let’s think about this from the point of view of you writing a paper.

You see, the thing is, you’ve slaved over this paper. You’ve put content in, and taken it out, and then put it back in, but in a different place. You’ve spent weeks writing the paper, and rewriting it, and rewriting it again. You get to the point where you start seeing the words parading in front of your eyes as you try to sleep.

And that’s the problem.

When you’ve finished your paper and you start to proofread or edit it you don’t actually read the words you wrote. You start to read the words that you think are there instead. You add in extra words or, as I did, you don’t see words that are there and shouldn’t be. 

One way to help with this problem is to read the work aloud. Reading aloud also helps you see where sentences or phrases are clunky and you can rephrase them. You may feel a little stupid doing it, and if you’re sharing an office then I suggest you wait to read aloud until you are at home. Or go outside and read your paper aloud while holding a mobile phone to your ear, and pretend you’re talking on the phone. This can make you look a little less silly, and will stop you from annoying your office mates by muttering to yourself in the corner.

When you read aloud you are using different parts of your brain and it helps you to pick up mistakes.

But it is possible, even after that, that there will still be spelling issues or grammar mistakes in the manuscript.

The best thing you can do is hire an editor or proofreader (like me) to give your work a final polish. You may see articles online telling you ‘how to proofread your own work effectively’ or ‘ways to edit your own document’ and they probably have some good tips. But I’m telling you, nothing beats a second pair of eyes on the manuscript. A fresh pair who haven’t already read it through a thousand times.

An editor or proofreader can help pick up those annoying spelling mistakes (like writing the wrong there, they’re, or their) and can also make sure that your sentences make sense to someone who is coming fresh to your manuscript and doesn’t have all the background knowledge that you have.

You want your work to be the best it can be, and the best way to do that is to let an editor have a final check before you send it off for publication.

 

Send your manuscripts to me at fixmyenglish.com.au for all your editing and proofreading needs.

Ruth AmosComment
A difficult language

I came across this poem on social media this morning. I had to share it.

I realise that English is so difficult to learn because so much of it doesn't make sense. It looks like we're breaking language rules all the time, and don't get me started on pronunciation!

This poem shows a few things that on the surface make no sense at all, and pokes fun at the English language.

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Now that you've had a read of it, I'll show the correct words for you, just in case! Sometimes the reasons for these differences are because the roots of the words come from other languages. English speakers over the ages have tended to take the words from other languages and have added them to our vocabulary, which can lead to some confusion. However, this is not always the reason for the difference as you can see below.

We have one box, two boxes (from old English, Latin, and Greek roots)

One ox, two oxen (from old German)

One goose, two geese (old English)

One moose, two moose (Algonquian)

One mouse, two mice (old English)

One house, two houses (old English)

One man, two men (old English)

One pan, two pans (old English)

One foot, two feet (old English)

One book, two books (old English)

One tooth, two teeth (old English)

One booth, two booths (old Danish)

One like this, but two like these (middle English)

One kiss, two kisses (old English)

One brother, two brothers and also two brethren (but we hardly ever use that one) (old English)

One mother, two mothers (old English)

He, his, him (old English)

She, hers, her (old English)

Very confusing!

So if you want to make sure your plurals are correct, drop me a line here at fixmyenglish.com.au and I'll happily edit your paper.

Ruth AmosComment
Writing your introduction
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We all need to start somewhere...

We know that every paper starts with an introduction. In fact, every paper starts with an abstract and then an introduction. But when you are in the process of writing a paper, starting with the introduction is probably the worst thing you can do.

In Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland the King gives this advice to the White Rabbit:

“Begin at the beginning, … and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

That’s great advice for when you’re reading, but horrible advice for writing.

The best place to start when writing is with the results. Write up what you you did, what you want people to know about your work. Results and discussion are often treated together but if they are not, write the results first, then the discussion about the results. Then head back to the methods section and put into the paper what you actually did in the lab. Then the conclusion – what do you want people to remember most about your work? What is the take home message?

Then, after all that, it is time for the introduction.

The introduction gives the background for the story you want to tell. It tells people what has already been done in the field. It tells people why your work is important – what gap you will fill, what you will add to the body of knowledge.

To write this you will need some understanding of what other people have done in the area before you. But you probably have that understanding, at least a little, already. I hope that on your way through your research you read a few papers that other people had written on the subject. 

So go ahead and write a few ideas down. Don’t worry about finding references at this point. Don’t even worry about whether your memory of what others have done is 100% correct. Just write something.

Make sure what you are putting in the paper is relevant to what you have in the results and discussion. This is why it is better to write the results first. You know a whole lot about many things related to your research but people only want to know (in this paper) the background that helps your particular research for this paper make sense. Some information is just not necessary.

If you are worried that you’ve gone off track, head to your conclusion and see if the information you have written relates to the information in the conclusion. If it does, you’re good. If it doesn’t, then it probably doesn’t need to be in the introduction.

And then, once you’ve written the rough draft of the introduction, find all those papers that contain the information that you have written about. Make sure every statement of fact is backed up with a paper from someone else, or you can cite your own published work. That’s perfectly acceptable too.

And after all that, it will be time to write the abstract.

Then you will have a solid paper to give to your supervisor, or to sent to me at fixmyenglish.com.au for editing.

Ruth Amos
Brainstorming a first draft
 This part of the process works best with paper and pencil

This part of the process works best with paper and pencil

One way to start writing your article is by brainstorming an outline of the paper.

What is the story you want to tell? I’m going to use a recent paper I co-wrote (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chroma.2018.01.053) to help you understand what I mean.

The brainstorming for this paper went something like this:

  • We only need to use the hydrophobic part of the hydrophobic subtraction model
  • We tried different clustering methods and compared them to a global model
  • LTS was good but we could only do a few compounds
  • The other good methods were LLD, LCT, and LSDI.
  • We checked whether it was just the chosen descriptors
  • We can computationally predict retention times - big idea to wow them at the end

You can see here that I haven’t used special academic language, and I haven’t added a lot of information. I’ve just given myself something to work with.

This sort of brainstorm allows you to know where you’re going with the paper, and gives you ideas of what you need to include. I think it’s a good idea to write the results and discussion parts of the paper first and then later write the introduction (I’ll write another blog post about how to write the introduction soon). The abstract should be written last.

Remember that your paper is a story. Even though it is written in more stilted academic language than your everyday children’s story, it still needs to engage its readers and be interesting. You need to think about what message you want your readers to receive. 

Ask yourself some questions:

  • What is the main point of the paper? 
  • What do you want the reader to take away from reading the paper?
  • What information do they need in order to understand the significance of what you have done?

The other thing you can add to your brainstorming is pictures. Which graphs or tables will you use to make your story clearer?

Once you have completed your brainstorming you will be able to lay out a plan of paragraphs, and after that you will be able to fill in each paragraph, just like colouring in.

You can always adjust things later, but I find that a brief outline like this really helps me get started.

Ruth Amos Comments
A Horror Story
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Your stomach clenches, your pulse quickens, and a fine sweat beads your brow. You are facing your greatest fear.

The blank page.

You have completed your experiments. You’ve got the outcome you want. You have a story to tell the world. It just needs to be written up, and you don’t know where to start.

The really important thing is just to start. 

I have often started writing my papers by writing all sorts of gibberish on the page. I might begin to write a paper like this, 

“You see, the thing we did was to brilliantly make a way to predict the retention times of target compounds.”

Now, the beginning of that line is rubbish. But the end of the line is becoming something like what I would want in the final paper.

Sometimes once I start writing, beautiful sentences form in my brain and I can write them down. Sometimes the rubbish lasts a lot longer. 

But I can always go back and fix the rubbish later.

There is a saying in writing circles, “You can’t edit a blank page.”

If we turn it around we can say that you can edit any writing that you do. The important thing is to do the writing.

Write what you did in a way that makes sense to you.

Then after you’ve written what you did in your research, you can change the sentences so that they sound more professional and you can make sure that they make sense to a stranger reading the text.

The first thing is to fill up that blank page. And only you can do that. But once there are words on the page – any words at all – I promise that the work will become less intimidating and you are well on your way to an excellent professional paper.

And remember you can always submit your paper here at fixmyenglish.com.au for editing to make sure that it's the best it can be.

 

Ruth AmosComment
A bit of fun

I think it’s time for a bit of fun. 

I came across these grammar jokes on social media this morning. The person who posted didn’t know where they came from and neither do I. But they are worth a look and a laugh.

And I might even take the post apart sometime and give some explanations of the grammar involved.

For now, enjoy:

 

A dangling participle walks into a bar. Enjoying a cocktail and chatting with the bartender, the evening passes pleasantly.

A bar was walked into by the passive voice.

An oxymoron walked into a bar, and the silence was deafening.

Two quotation marks walk into a “bar.”

A malapropism walks into a bar, looking for all intensive purposes like a wolf in cheap clothing, muttering epitaphs and casting dispersions on his magnificent other, who takes him for granite.

Hyperbole totally rips into this insane bar and absolutely destroys everything.

A question mark walks into a bar?

A non sequitur walks into a bar. In a strong wind, even turkeys can fly.

Papyrus and Comic Sans walk into a bar. The bartender says, "Get out -- we don't serve your type."

A mixed metaphor walks into a bar, seeing the handwriting on the wall but hoping to nip it in the bud.

A comma splice walks into a bar, it has a drink and then leaves.

Three intransitive verbs walk into a bar. They sit. They converse. They depart.

A synonym strolls into a tavern.

At the end of the day, a cliché walks into a bar -- fresh as a daisy, cute as a button, and sharp as a tack.

A run-on sentence walks into a bar it starts flirting. With a cute little sentence fragment.

Falling slowly, softly falling, the chiasmus collapses to the bar floor.

A figure of speech literally walks into a bar and ends up getting figuratively hammered.

An allusion walks into a bar, despite the fact that alcohol is its Achilles heel.

The subjunctive would have walked into a bar, had it only known.

A misplaced modifier walks into a bar owned a man with a glass eye named Ralph.

The past, present, and future walked into a bar. It was tense.

A dyslexic walks into a bra.

A verb walks into a bar, sees a beautiful noun, and suggests they conjugate. The noun declines.

An Oxford comma walks into a bar, where it spends the evening watching the television getting drunk and smoking cigars.

A simile walks into a bar, as parched as a desert.

A gerund and an infinitive walk into a bar, drinking to forget.

A hyphenated word and a non-hyphenated word walk into a bar and the bartender nearly chokes on the irony.

If you want to ask me about any of the grammar issues raised in this post feel free to use the contact form at fixmyenglish.com.au and remember that I'm happy to make the English in your manuscript clear and free of errors.

Ruth AmosComment
Hyphen and en dash and em dash oh my!
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The smallest things can make a big difference.

When I started a new postdoc at Sydney University in 2010, I gave my first paper to my supervisor asking for input about the science. I hadn’t polished the paper at all, I just wanted some direction, really.

When I met with my supervisor to hear his wise comments the first thing he said to me was,

‘Your hyphens are all wrong.’

Hyphens! Nothing about the scientific direction or the experimental work. Just the little hyphens. I was annoyed and angry for sure, but the thing is, once you are trained in seeing the correct hyphens, n-dashes, and m-dashes, the sight of the wrong ones drives you crazy. You can’t really read the content for the mistakes.

So what is the difference between a hyphen, an en dash, and an em dash?

Briefly, a hyphen joins words together. For example, long-term or Quantitative Structure-Retention Relationship. A hyphen is the shortest form of dash.

An en dash is slightly longer (the Mac shortcut is to hit option and hyphen together) and is used when expressing a span of number or time, such as pages 2–3 or 2015–2018.

The longest dash is the em dash. This dash is used in places where parentheses are almost right but something less formal is needed. The em dash — the Mac shortcut is option, shift, and hyphen — is used to separate parts of the sentence.

For more information, head to Grammarly or Writers Write. And for PC shortcuts head here to Tech Tools for Writers.

Good luck with your hyphens and dashes! I'm ready to look at your paper to make sure that small mistakes never get in the way of the science. Just submit your paper and I'll fix your English.

 

 

Ruth AmosComment
Sharing your research story

When I first started writing papers for chemistry I had a slight problem. You see, I wanted to tell the story of my research – that was obviously the important thing – and in my head the research had a story.

I knew that I had turned up in the lab on day one knowing nothing, that I had learned a lot, that I had tried a lot of experiments that didn’t work, and through completing experiments that didn’t work and eventually experiments that did I had got to the place where my supervisors said that I had something worth publishing.

That is all good, but I thought that all my readers would want to know that story too. 

I wanted to tell the story of my research in chronological order, in the order that it happened.

But the readers of your research don’t want to know the story in chronological order. Other researchers are reading your work to find out how what you did can help them with what they are doing now. They want to know what works, and why.

So, when you are planning the Results and Discussion section of your paper, start with the big news first. Tell us what worked. 

After that you might want to explain why and how you got to that, or what didn’t work on the way through. 

The main thing is to keep in mind what the readers want from the paper. They don’t actually care what blood, sweat, and tears happened on the way through. They just want to know the outcome and the research that you have to back up your amazing result.

 

If you want to report your amazing results in wonderfully clear English, submit your paper to Fix My English and we will work with you to present your excellent work so that it is easily read and perfectly understood.

Ruth AmosComment