Writing Tasks - Writing the Bootstrapping Paper

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Writing Tasks - Writing the Bootstrapping Paper

Writing the BRACE Paper

    Each section of the draft will go through three revisions, and each revision will receive detailed comments from other BRACErs. Although everybody is welcome to contribute any constructive comments at any time, please also concentrate on the particular things asked for at each at each ―pass‖.

Each revision has its own separate purpose.

    1. Hammer the Grammar

    The purpose of the first revision is to boil down the language. Comments on the first draft are, therefore, focused primarily on the sentence level.

    ; Active verbs, active voice, nominalizations and verbizing

    ; Needless words

    ; Coherence

    2. Voice: finding the flow

    The purpose of the second revision is to start over again from scratch. The first revision has cleared away much of the underbrush and made it possible to study the second draft much more strategically.

     What’s the point? ;

    ; Who’s the audience?

    ; Let’s be careful out there!

    3. Clarity in complexity

    The purpose of the third revision is to fine-tune. Comments on the last draft should reassure the author that their paper is in a state to be released to the public.

    ; Basic copyediting

    ; Interruptions and sprawl

    he paper is poorly written. I was scared with the very first

    sentence, which was too long and confusing. T

    (comment from a reviewing panel I was on)

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    he standard advice about drafting is well intentioned, but largely

    T useless, because it consists mostly of truisms like ―Make a plan‖

    and ―Think of your audience‖, or trivia like ―Don’t begin a sentence

    with and or end it with up,‖ advice that most of us ignore in the act of

    wrestling our ideas out onto the page. As I first drafted this paragraph, I

    wasn’t thinking about you; I was struggling to get my own ideas

    straight; I had no plan for it, much less the next one; and the first time I

    drafted this sentence, I stopped to edit it several times before I finished


    Joseph M Williams

    Good writing is concrete; bad writing is excessively abstract. Concrete writing concerns itself with human beings, actions, and physical objects. Abstract writing concerns itself with concepts, static states of affairs, and things that cannot be visualized. Abstractions are not necessarily bad, of course, and we should not try to eradicate them. Instead, let us make our colleagues aware of the degree of abstraction in their writing, and then let us encourage our colleagues to move toward concrete language.


    In grammatical terms, the most important abstractions are the ones we call ―nominalizations‖. A nominalization is a noun that has been constructed by adding grammatical inflections to a verb. The word ―nominalization‖, in fact, is a good example of a nominalization. It is a noun. It is morphologically complexthat is, it is assembled from a series of simpler meaningful elements (nomin + al + ize + ation). The root word, ―nomin‖ is derived from a Latin word that means ―name‖; it is also found in words like ―nominate‖. Most particularly, ―nominalization‖ is a noun that has been created by adding

    various particles to a verb, namely ―nominalize‖.

    In general, then, a nominalization is a noun that has been created by inflecting a verb. Put in simpler terms, a nominalization is an abstract ―thing‖ that names an action. Some nominalizations include ―suggestion‖ (the underlying verb is ―suggest‖), ―developer‖ (―develop‖), ―statement‖ (―state‖), ―behaviour‖ (behave), ―waiter‖ (wait), and ―disappearance‖ (―disappear‖).

    The first task then, is to go through the draft and draw a circle around every one of the nominalizations.


    Next look at verbs. Verbs can be arrayed along a spectrum from weak to active. The weakest verbs include ―be‖ (and all of its forms, including ―am‖, ―is‖,

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    ―are‖, ―was‖, ―will have been‖, and so on), ―have‖ (as well as ―has‖, ―had‖, ―will have‖, etc), and ―do‖ (―does‖, ―did‖, ―had done‖, etc). Active verbs are verbs that name concrete actions: ―run‖, ―eat‖, ―warn‖, ―deliver‖, ―rescue‖, ―obtain‖, and so on. In the middle of the spectrum are verbs that name for

    abstract actions (―choose‖, ―become‖). You should, in general, use strong, active verbs. This advice can be taken overboard, of course, and we don’t want to outlaw weak verbs completely. But writing can often be improved by rewriting sentences with weak verbs so that they use active verbs instead. The second task, then, is to go through the draft and draw a box, (ideally in a different colour from the circles just mentioned) around the main verb of every sentence.

    For example, in the sentence ―Marian threw the ball‖, the main (and only) verb

    is ―threw‖. In the sentence ―Raymond caught the ball that Marian had thrown‖, the main verb is ―caught‖; ―had thrown‖ is also a verb, but it is not the main verb of the sentence. In the sentence, ―Marian had regretted hitting Raymond

    with the ball‖, the main verb is ―had regretted‖; the word ―hitting‖ is part of a subordinate clause the forms the object of ―had regretted‖. So just draw a box around the main verb of the sentence.

    Suggested Revisions

    Now let us bring the two tasks together. Troublesome sentences often have two features: a weak main verb and a nominalization whose constituent verb really ought to be the main verb of the sentence. For example, the sentence ―Sally gave the BRACErs an assignment‖ could be rewritten as ―Sally

    assigned the BRACErs ...‖ where the ―...‖ provides some missing information, namely what the assignment was. Having come that far, you might decide that another verb would be more active, not to mention more precise: ―Sally told

    the BRACErs to write comments on their colleagues’ drafts‖.

    The third task, therefore, is to identify several sentences in the draft

    assuming, of course, that any such sentences existthat include both

    nominalization and weak main verbs. Then rewrite a couple of them to give the idea.

    Some cautions.

    (1) Not every nominalization should be unpacked. We’re not talking about a rigid formal rule here, but a rule of thumb. Not all sentences are improved by rewriting, and sometimes the nominalization is employed as a term of art whose technical meaning would be lost if its constituent verb were unpacked. (2) The concept of ―weak versus active verbs‖ is completely unrelated to the similarly-named concept of ―passive versus active voice‖ in constructing sentences. For example, ―Marian threw the ball to Raymond‖ is written in the active voice, and ―The ball was thrown by Marian to Raymond‖ is written in the passive voice. Many writing instructors advise eliminating the passive voice. They are usually right.

    (3) Some phenomena are similar to nominalizations but slightly different. Complex nouns can be constructed by inflecting adjectives rather than verbs; examples include ―sweetness‖—the underlying adjective is ―sweet‖—and

    ―depth‖ (―deep‖). Sentences can often be improved by unpacking such words

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    to liberate the adjectives they contain. Other words can be used as both verbs and nouns (and often, indeed, as adjectives too); examples include ―stand‖ and ―view‖. These words are no more abstract as nouns than they are as verbs, and

    so we shouldn’t be prejudiced against them.

    (4) Verbs can also be made out of nouns—―finalize‖, for example. This is

    horrid. Make sure that every sentence that employs these verb-ed nouns is rewritten.

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    f you require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this:

    I Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally

    fine writing, obey it wholeheartedlyand delete it before sending

    you manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

    Arthur Quiller-Couch

    Strunk and White’s favourite aphorism is, ―Omit needless words‖. Observe that ―Omit needless words‖ is an example of itself: it could hardly be written more compactly. As with any rule, one could go overboard with this aphorism, cutting and cutting until the whole purpose of writing is lost. Nonetheless, experience suggests that bad writing can often be improved by cutting. What is more, reducing the word count will frequently clarify other problems: when you use fewer words, you are compelled to choose your words more accurately, and this will require you to decide what you really wanted to say. Needless words

    Some words can simply be cut without any further changes. Ask yourself: ―if I simply omitted this word, would the meaning remain effectively the same?‖

    Most adverbs fall in this category. The words ―essentially‖, ―basically‖, ―very‖, and ―really‖ are usually superfluous. Authors use these words because they seem to intensify the meaning. And they do. But they also take up space, so that their net effect is negative. Complicated sentences are not bad, but needlessly complicated sentences are.

    Draw red lines through all of the words that can be deleted from the author’s draft without changing its meaning.

    Simplifying sentences

    Now let’s move to the sentence level. Grammatically complicated sentences can usually be simplified. A complicated sentence such as ―The key went into the lock where it was put by Anthony‖ has a low ratio of meaning to words. Most of the words (―the‖, ―the‖, ―where‖, ―it‖, ―was‖, ―by‖, and perhaps ―into‖) are simply functional words that hold the sentence together without providing much information. And two of the words (―went‖ and ―put‖) provide effectively the same information: they report that the same event took place. Which words do convey information? ―Key‖, ―lock‖, and ―Anthony‖, to be sure, and then one or another of the words that describe the action. Having identified which words are necessary to express the thought, we can construct a straightforward sentence: ―Anthony put the key into the lock‖. This sentence still includes some function words (―the‖, ―the‖, and maybe ―into‖), but many fewer than before.

    Go through the author’s draft with a green pen and underline all of the words that provide information that the reader needs to comprehend the section.

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    These will typically be nouns and verbs. If the same information is provided redundantly by two or more words, either in the same sentence or in adjacent sentences, then draw a line to connect them. Then identify a few sentences (if any exist) that contain large numbers of words that convey no information. Rewrite those sentences more simply.

    Murdering darlings

    Next, let us consider sentences as a whole. Does the author’s draft include two or more sentences that express a similar or overlapping idea, perhaps in different words? The similarity may not be obvious, and you may even feel an emotional attachment to both formulations. The redundant sentences may be located in the same paragraph, or in different paragraphs. Sentences can also be redundant because they don’t say anything. For example, first drafts frequently commence with a couple of sentences (or even a couple of pages) of throat-clearing platitudes such as ―Computers are having a powerful impact

    on the world in which we live‖, and such sentences can simply be deleted.

    Cross out all of the redundant sentences in the author’s draft.

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    he two capital secrets in the art of prose composition are these:

    T first, the philosophy of transition and connection; or the art by

    which one step in an evolution of thought is made to arise out of

    another; all fluent and effective composition depends on the

    connections; secondly, the way in which sentences are made to modify

    each other; for the most powerful effects in written eloquence arise out

    of this reverberation, as it were, from each other in a rapid succession

    of sentences

    Thomas de Quincey

    In every sequence of sentences you have to strike a balance between making each individual sentence clear and the principles that make a sequence of sentences a cohesive whole. If thoughts follow one another without sufficient connection, the paper will make no sense.

    Connectives: coherence within sentences.

    First let us consider connectives. You will recall that these are words and phrases like ―thus‖, ―however‖, ―after all‖, ―therefore‖, ―even so‖, ―what is more‖, ―to the contrary‖, ―then‖, ―yet‖, ―also‖, ―moreover‖, ―for example‖, and ―in particular‖ that express a logical connection between sentences.

    Take a red pen, and circle all of the connectives in the author’s draft.

    Next, observe how broad a repertoire of connectives the author used. Then ask yourself if different connectives would have been more precise. Perhaps some of the connectives were redundant? Perhaps the author uses the same few connectives over and over? If the author uses few connectives, then ask yourself why. Is the logical connection between successive sentences clear enough? Possible connections include:

    general assertion;particular instance

    event in a narrative;the next event in the same narrative

    information;logical consequence of that information

    item of evidence;another item of evidence


    Not all of these relationships should be marked with a connectivethe

    relationship between a general assertion and a particular instance of that assertion, for example, need not be marked (as here) with ―for example‖. The succession of events in a narrative need not be marked with ―then‖; logical

    consequences need not be marked with ―therefore‖; and so on. The point is that the author should connect sentences in diverse ways, and connectives help with this.

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Transitions: coherence between paragraphs.

    Although paragraphs are self-contained, they must interlock effectively to produce a strong overall argument. Transitions both between and within paragraphs are essential because they signal changes in direction and help the reader follow those changes. If a reader cannot see how your paragraphs ―hang

    together‖ then they will not feel that they add up to a cumulatively coherent passage. There are many ways to accomplish this (including using simple connectives). Here are three:


    Readers get familiar information from two sources: they see it in the sentence or two just before the one they are reading, and they bring it with them in the form of their general knowledge of the topic. For example in these paragraphs:

    Some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe have been

    raised by scientists studying black holes in space.

    A black hole is created by the collapse of a dead star into a point

    perhaps no larger than a marble. So much matter compressed into so

    little volume changes the fabric of space around it in puzzling ways.

    Astrophysicists have recently reported that …

    The words ―black holes in space‖ in the first paragraph set up familiarity for the concepts ―a point perhaps no larger than a marble‖ and ―so much matter compressed into so little volume‖ in the second. ―Astrophysicists‖ did not

    appear, but as we are talking about black holes we should not be surprised by the reference: it fits the context.


    The echo of a key phrase or word can also be effective:

     . . . Whatever Lear's faults, it cannot be denied that he loves his


    Unfortunately, love counts for little in the realm of Regan and

    Goneril. . . .

    Transitional sentence

    The transition may require more than just a word; a transitional sentence may be called for:

    The evidence thus suggests that there is no other option.

    And yet there may still be a solution. If you disregard . . .

    The transitional sentence does not indicate what will come next in the paragraph, but it establishes that this paragraph is a negation of the last.

    Go through the draft and identify the cohesion between paragraphs. Underline the points where a subject is introduced with no familiarity. If you find any, re-write them to give a better old-to-new sequence, or suggest an echo phrase or a transitional sentence.

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Finally, the writing should cohere as a whole.

    Write down one sentence, either your own paraphrase or a sentence drawn from the draft itself that sums up the conclusion that a reader could draw from it. Then ask yourself; does every word contribute toward developing that single point? What elements do not contribute?

    If you cannot formulate a summarizing sentence for the author’s draft, say so. Does it simply report a batch of facts without building to any particular conclusion? Does it head in several directions that do not hang together? Is it formless? Is it opaque? Explain the problem as best you can.

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    xperienced writers know that they have to get something down on

    E paper (or up on the screen) as fast as they can, just to have a draft

    that they can revise into a better one, and if they are lucky, to discover

    in the process something new.

    Joseph M. Williams

    Some people make detailed outlines and then fill them in with sentences and paragraphs. Some people make many rough drafts and distil them, some people dive in and craft a central paragraph or section and loosely hang other ideas off it. It doesn’t really matter how you do it; you have to get started. And when we do that, we just shove words, phrases and ideas in without considering anything much other than ―getting it down‖.

    What happens in practice, therefore, is that you write a first draft, and only then do you discover what point you were trying to make. Let us assume that your colleague, the one whose draft your are reading, is in that position. What is the point that the draft makes? Does there exist one single bottom line, one thesis, one singular conclusion that a reader can draw from the piece? If so, your first task is to tell the author what that point is. Is the point actually stated anywhere? Where? Circle the sentence and say, ―this is the point‖.

    If it is not stated anywhere, and it is probably not, then write down the point, as you perceive it, in your own words: ―I think your point is ...‖. This can take

    real work. You may have to go through several drafts before you can formulate the author’s point persuasively.

    Here are some things that cannot be the point:

    ; Anything that the reader already knew before reading the draft.

    ; An assertion that something is ―interesting‖ or ―important‖.

    ; The conjunction of several different sub-points that cannot be gathered

    under a single, unifying proposition.

    ; An assertion that is too vague, too platitudinous, or too tendentious for

    anybody to disagree with.

    Having identified the point, the next question is whether the point serves as an organizing principle for the piece. That doesn’t mean that a paper must be argumentative, or polemical, or that it must assault the reader with torrents of evidence and gales of persuasive force. It just means that the piece has a single, clean organizing principle, and that this organizing principle must be tied in a clearly evident way to the paper’s overall point. The second task therefore, is

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