Lecture: The MIT Guide, Ch. 5 & 9

Note: Unless I hear otherwise I will assume you understand the readings from The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication. Therefore, lectures on readings from the book will tend to be short, focusing on specifics I want to highlight. If you have any questions whatsoever about the readings, including material not covered in the lectures, please ask.

Chapter 5: Revising for Organization and Style

Revision as Re-seeing

As The MIT Guide tries to make clear at the start of Ch. 5, revision is a key but often undervalued part of the writing process. Good writing is almost always a product of good rewriting. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the chapter walks you through a series of questions and strategies, starting with general issues such as structure of a document and ending with a focus on specific issues such as style and word choice. This emphasis on moving from general to specific issues makes sense when you consider that time spent revising a phrase for the correct placement of an adverb in relation to its verb is time wasted if you decide to delete the example to which sentence belongs.

So, again, as Figure 5.1 suggests, first revise for organization, then revise for style, and then proofread and copyedit. Likewise, when when revising for organization and style, start with the global issues (overall structure, paragraph), and then focus on increasingly specific issues.

As far as revising for organization goes, this is an excellent time to make an outline of what you have written. In this way, an outline serves as a diagram of your text’s organization, and you can use this diagram to help you analyze the organization in light of your audience’s aims and purposes. For instance, are you writing for a peer expert who will want to know what you did and how you did it in a way that easily lets them replicate what you’ve done? Or are you writing a report for a manager who cares more about the results and cost-benefits of the project? Or are you writing for a proposal review committee whose primary concern is your ability to complete and deliver what you’ve promised in the time allotted? Analyzing the organization of your document in terms of your audience, your aims, and the conventions of your genre will help you decide if you need to restructure your text, add or delete passages, or include additional detail.

Finally, think of revision as re-vision, that is, as re-seeing your text. It is much more challenging to revise our own work than it is to peer-review and edit someone else’s work because we know what we intend to say. As you revise your work, try to see your writing not from the perspective of your aims, purposes, and background, but from those of your intended audience. Try to imagine what assumptions they’ll bring to their reading, what information they are likely to know and not know, and the questions they’re likely to want answered based on their own interests and purposes. Also think of revision as an act of re-seeing your own text, that is, seeing it from a fresh perspective brought about through the distance of time when the act of writing and the decisions you made aren’t so fresh in your mind. This, of course, requires you to leave yourself enough time to set aside your work for a while.

Usage and Style

Until issues of usage and style become second nature, it’s a good idea to actually start revising a piece of writing by reviewing Ch. 5, specifically the sequence of revision (Figure 5.1 on page 53), revision questions raised on pages 53-54, and the specific issues discussed on pages 56-60.

And while I’m not assigning this as a formal reading assignment, I want to draw your attention to the short style and usage guide in the back of the book on pages 287-314. Get to know the principles described here and put them into practice. As with Chapter 5, reviewing these issues as get ready to revise, and referring to this section as you do revise will help make these concerns second nature.

Ch. 9: Documenting Sources

Citation Systems

By now, each of you should be familiar with the generally accepted citation systems within your discipline, and rather than ask you to conform to any one style, I ask that you choose an appropriate citation system and follow it. Keep in mind that just as various instructors in various disciplines might have asked you to document sources using different citation systems, you will almost certainly be asked to write using different systems throughout your professional career. While as a biology or chemistry major you might have encountered MLA, APA, and/or Chicago and either CBE or ACS, if you intend to go on to pursue a career in research medicine you may find yourself using CSE or ICMJE. Citation system requirements will change depending upon the professional organization, discipline, journal, publishing house, grant agency, proposal reviewer, and corporation for whom you are writing.

The important thing to remember is that each system is designed around different organizational and informational principles, and learning a new system or working again within a system you use infrequently will mean that you will spend a good amount of time looking things up. While it can feel like drudgery and busy work — believe me, I have edited technical reports with hundreds of footnotes written by others — getting your citations right is important. It is an issue of ethos. As a writer within the fields of science and technology, you want your audience to believe that you are a careful, meticulous practitioner whose data and conclusions can be trusted. If you are sloppy in your citations, you are actively undermining your ethos as a careful, meticulous practitioner. You are, instead, broadcasting to your readers that you can’t be bothered to pay attention to details.

Using Sources Ethically

Just as accurately following your chosen citation system helps you establish your ethos as a careful and meticulous practitioner, properly paraphrasing and quoting sources also helps you develop your ethos a trustworthy and ethical scientist and writer. All knowledge is based upon prior knowledge. Even new knowledge is dependent upon prior knowledge if for no other reason that we can’t comprehend something unless we can relate it to what we already know. For this reason alone, when we are engaged in acts of knowledge-making and its supporting activities, we are almost certain to be relying upon or at least referencing the work and ideas of others.

Knowing how to do so — when to summarize, when to paraphrase, when to quote; how to introduce and document your use of sources correctly so that the boundaries between your ideas and their ideas is clear; and how to use sources accurately and fairly —is, once again, an issue of ethos. While fairly and accurately representing the ideas of others can be a way of building trust between you and your audience (we expect it, so don’t assume it will earn you huge brownie points), unfairly and inaccurately representing the ideas of others marks you as untrustworthy: at best you are sloppy and careless; at worst you’re unethical or even nefarious.

Managing Citations and References

As The MIT Guide suggests, it is important to record the complete bibliographic information of a source when you think you might use it. This is especially important when it comes to online sources, which should include the date you accessed the information as well. (By online here, I’m referring to what we might call the open web rather than a subscription-based electronic database such as ScienceDirect, JSTOR, AMC Digital Library, etc.)