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Steps to Effective Writing (2)

Step 1. Write in Specifics – part 2

The following selection from Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon is full of sharp, clearly defined terms. After explaining that the ship Nan-shan, on her way to Fu-chau, had two hundred Chinese coolies on board, Conrad goes on with:

The foredeck, packed with Chinamen, was full of somber clothing, yellow faces, and pigtails, sprinkled over with a good many naked shoulders, for there was no wind, and the heat was close. The coolies lounged, talked, smoked, or stared over the rail; some, drawing water over the side, sluiced each other; a few slept on hatches, while several small parties of six sat on their heels surrounding iron trays with plates of rice and tiny tea-cups; and every single Celestial of them was carrying with him all he had in the world — a wooden chest with a ringing lock and brass on the corners, containing the savings of his labors; some clothes of ceremony, sticks of incense, a little opium, maybe, bits of nameless rubbish of conventional value, and a small hoard of silver dollars, toiled for in coal mines, won in gambling houses or in petty trading, grubbed out of the earth, sweated out in mines, on railway lines, in deadly jungles, under heavy burdens — amassed patiently, guarded with care, cherished fiercely.

(From Typhoon by Joseph Conrad. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd.)


Conrad does not give us all the details; that task would be impossible. He does, however, give us in specific, definite, concrete terms all the significant details. His vivid words place us on the bridge of the Nan-shan, overlooking the foredeck. From that point, we can see for ourselves what was on the deck during the eventful voyage.

Long ago, somebody said that elaboration of the obvious is pointless. Nevertheless, in looking at some of the specifics in Conrad’s paragraph, this writer intends to risk such elaboration. The coolies did not merely occupy the foredeck; they lounged, smoked, or did other specific things. They did not gather in groups; they gathered in small parties of six. They did not merely sit; they sat on their heels. They did not sit around trays of food; they sat around iron trays with plates of rice and tiny tea-cups. And so on, and so on.

This sort of writing is basic to the effective use of language, because effectiveness of language is proportional in large degree to the number of specifics used. Of course, this kind of writing has its roots in thinking in specifics, and most of us do not want to think in specific, definite terms. We dislike intensely being pinned down to a concrete statement. We believe that when we have said a man is tall we have said all there is to say about his height. But how tall is he? Must he duck his head to pass through the ordinary doorway? Is he a foot taller than any other man in the room?



from: 12 Steps to Effective Writing

Berton Robinson

Steps to Effective Writing (1)

Step 1. Write in Specifics – part 1

Writing in specific, concrete, definite terms is the most important single principle the student of effective writing can learn.

General, abstract, and vague terms are deadly foes of effective writing. They rob writing of all its vitality; they give the reader the unpleasant sensation of having entered a schizoid world in which nothing is exactly what he thinks it is.

Compare the vague:
   Because of inclement weather, our trip to Montreal was delayed.
with the definite:
   Because it rained, we postponed for a week our trip to Montreal.

Or look at these two sentences:
   The path was bordered with flowers.
   Salvias thrust up crimson spikes from the edge of the circular walk.

Or  again:
   The boy’s jacket was torn in many places.
   Pete’s jacket hung in rags.

Good, effective writing always consists of specifics, terms that convey sharp, clearly defined meanings to the reader, who has every right to expect a writer to say what he means in words as exact as possible. Only specifics can tell the reader precisely what the writer means.



from: 12 Steps to Effective Writing

Berton Robinson

Reducing bias in writing-5

Age should be reported as part of the description of participants in the Method section. Be specific in providing age ranges; avoid open-ended definitions such as “under 18 years” or “over 65 years.” Girl and boy are correct terms for referring to individuals under the age of 12 years. Young man and young woman and female adolescent and male adolescent may be used for individuals aged 13 to 17 years. For persons 18 years and older, use women and men. The terms elderly and senior are not acceptable as nouns; some may consider their use as adjectives pejorative. Generational descriptors such as boomer or baby boomer should not be used unless they are related to a study on this topic. The term older adults is preferred. Age groups may also be described with adjectives. Gerontologists may prefer to use combination terms for older age groups (youngold, old-old, very old, oldest old, and centenarians); provide the specific ages of these groups and use them only as adjectives. Use dementia instead of senility; specify the type of dementia when known (e.g., dementia of the Alzheimer’s type).


from Reducing Bias by Topic, (3.16) Age
APA website


Reducing bias in writing-4

Write about the people in your study in a way that acknowledges their participation but is also consistent with the traditions of the field in which you are working. Thus, although descriptive terms such as college students, children, or respondents provide precise information about the individuals taking part in a research project, the more general terms participants and subjects are also in common usage.

Indeed, for more than 100 years the term subjects has been used within experimental psychology as a general or starting point for describing a sample, and its use is appropriate. Subjects and sample are customary when discussing certain established statistical terms (e.g., within-subject and between-subjects design).

Further, the passive voice suggests individuals are acted on instead of being actors (“the students completed the survey” is preferable to “the students were given the survey” or “the survey was administered to the students”). “The subjects completed the trial” or “we collected data from the participants” is preferable to “the participants were run.”


from Reducing Bias in Language (3.11)
Guideline 3: Acknowledge Participation
APA website

Thanking you in advance

This sounds as if the writer meant, “It will not be worth my while to write to you again.” Simply write, “Thanking you,” and if the favor which you have requested is granted, write a letter of acknowledgment.


Strunk, William, Jr. (1999). The Elements of Style, New York
Section V. Words and Expressions Commonly Misused

Dangerous Chemical!

A student at Eagle Rock Junior High won first prize at the Greater Idaho Falls Science Fair, April 26. He was attempting to show how conditioned we have become to alarmists practicing junk science and spreading fear of everything in our environment. In his project he urged people to sign a petition demanding strict control or total elimination of the chemical “dihydrogen monoxide.”

And for plenty of good reasons, since:

  1. it can cause excessive sweating and vomiting
  2. it is a major component in acid rain
  3. it can cause severe burns in its gaseous state
  4. accidental inhalation can kill you
  5. it contributes to erosion
  6. it decreases effectiveness of automobile brakes
  7. it has been found in tumors of terminal cancer patients

He asked 50 people if they supported a ban of the chemical.

  • Forty-three said yes,
  • Six were undecided,
  • and only one knew that the chemical was water.

The student felt that the conclusion is obvious.


Found on the newsgroup: rec.humor.funny

Reducing bias in writing-3

From the APA Publication Manual (6th ed) (2010):

Bias may be promoted when the writer uses one group (often the writer’s own group) as the standard against which others are judged, for example, citizens of the United States. In some contexts, the term culturally deprived may imply that one culture is the universally accepted standard.

The unparallel nouns in the phrase man and wife may inappropriately prompt the reader to evaluate the roles of the individuals (i.e., the woman is defined only in terms of her relationship to the man) and the motives of the author. By contrast, the phrases husband and wife and man and woman are parallel.

Usage of normal may prompt the reader to make the comparison with abnormal, thus stigmatizing individuals with differences. For example, contrasting lesbians with “the general public” or with “normal women” portrays lesbians as marginal to society. More appropriate comparison groups might be heterosexual women, heterosexual women and men, or gay men.

from Reducing Bias in Language (3.11)
Guideline 2: Be Sensitive to Labels
APA website

Order of pages in a thesis

For traditional theses/dissertations, a suggested format for the order of appearance of pages would be:

Prefatory Pages

  • Title page
  • Approval page
  • Dedication (optional)
  • Acknowledgements (optional)
  • Abstract
  • Preface (optional)
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Tables
  • List of Figures and Illustrations
  • List of Symbols or Abbreviations (if any)


Body of Text

  • Chapter 1. Significance of the Problem
  • Chapter 2. Literature Review
  • Chapter 3. Theoretical Framework
  • Chapter 4. Methods (includes design, sample recruitment, sample characteristics, data collection method (tools, their reliability and validity), details on analytical methods, ethical/access considerations)
  • Chapter 5. Results (or Findings)
  • Chapter 6. Discussion (can also include implications for further research,
    education, practice, …)
  • Chapter 7. Conclusion


Final Sections

  • References
  • Appendices (may include ethics approval; permissions from publishers; details of methodology, tabulated data and other information not provided in detail in the previous chapters)
  • Index (optional)


Athabasca University: Formats for theses and dissertations

How to reference personal communications

Personal communications may be private letters, memos, some electronic communications (e.g., email or messages from nonarchived discussion groups or electronic bulletin boards), personal interviews, telephone conversations, etc. Because they do not provide recoverable data, personnel communications are NOT included in the List of References at the end of your research paper. Cite any personal communications as an in-text citation only. Give the initials as well as the surname of the communicator, and provide as exact a date as possible.


M. E. Daniels (personal communication, March 2, 2014) explained in an email that…
The interviewee (M.E. Daniels, personal communication, March 2, 2014) explained during our interview that…


If you are citing a recording or archived copy of a personal communication (e.g., email message, interview, etc.), these forms are recoverable and should be referenced in your List of References as a online forum post, tape recording, video etc.



From: Citing References in Text, Section 6.20, Personal Communications
APA Publication Manual (6th ed) (2010)
APA website

Reynold’s Community College Library



Reducing bias in writing-2

From the APA Publication Manual (6th ed) (2010):

Recognize the difference between “case,” which is an occurrence of a disorder or illness, and “patient,” which is a person affected by the disorder or illness and receiving a doctor’s care. “Manic-depressive cases were treated” is problematic; revise to “The patients with bipolar disorders were treated.”

(from Reducing Bias in Language (3.11). Guideline 2: Be Sensitive to Labels)


Avoid terms such as “patient management” and “patient placement” when appropriate. Usually, the treatment, not patients, is being managed; some alternatives are coordination of care, supportive services, and assistance. Also avoid the term “failed,” as in “eight participants failed to complete the Rorschach and the MMPI,” because it can imply a personal shortcoming instead of a research result; did not is a more neutral choice (Knatterud, 1991).

(from Reducing Bias in Language (3.11). Guideline 3)
APA website