Sunday 15 December 2013

5 Essential MS Word Tools Every Student Should Know

Microsoft Word is a powerful word processing program. It can format books, magazines, and brochures. It can access databases to produce individualized printouts. It can do amazing things with page layout.

But most of us don't need these functions. We write term papers, reports, and essays using only the most basic of functions. Nonetheless, we still need to master some basic functions to make our writing lives easier.

In my editing work, I see thousands of student papers. And in many (if not most) I see people not knowing how to use these basic tools that would make formatting their essays a lot easier. If you learn to use these 5 Essential MS Word Tools, your essay writing will be easier, and you will have less work.

The reason I notice these problems is that they become most apparent in the editing process. When a page is set up properly, the editing process is simpler. But I'm not advocating for these tools for my own sake, or for the sake of other editors. The editing process is essential to good writing.

If you want to improve the grades on your papers from B to A, then the key is probably in the editing process. All of the best papers I have ever written have been carefully revised after the first draft. Polishing your ideas and thoughts is key to improving your writing. If you are not editing your papers carefully, or sending them to a professional editor, then you probably have a lot of room for improvement of your grades. If you use these tools, editing is easier, and you can focus on the important content of your paper, which is going to earn you top marks.

1. Page break

Probably 99% of the essays I edit use a series of page returns to force a new page.

Using the page break function means that a new page will stay a new page, whether you have one line or half of a page before it.

How to use the page break function in MS Word
Under the "Insert" menu, select "Break" and then "Page". Whatever follows this character in the document will start on a new page. Use this function after the cover page and before the References. There are better ways to manage page breaks within the document, and I will get to these.

2. Keep with next

The next two tools are found in the paragraph formatting dialog. ("Format"
--> "Paragraph...").

How to use the paragraph formatting tools in MS Word
The paragraph formatting dialog box has two divisions. One is labeled "Indents and Spacing" and the other is "Line and Page Breaks". You can also use this menu to tell Word that you want a page break, just like the tool above, but for reasons I won’t go into, the “Insert…page break” is a better way to go.

The function you need here is the "Keep with next" checkbox. Use this for headings. That way you won't have a header sitting at the bottom of a page when the paragraph it is supposed to head is at the top of the next page. And you won’t have to insert extra blank lines above the heading to force it onto the next page. The "Keep lines together" is also useful for things like bullet points so you don't have part of the bullet on one page and part of the bullet on the other.

3. Hanging Indent

This is an essential function for formatting references, whether in APA or MLA. A hanging indent is when the first line of the paragraph is not indented, but the following lines are indented. What people often do is use insert a return followed with a tab. This means Word will try to capitalize the first word of the new line. In addition, any correction of the lines will mean lots of juggling to create the right indent. And let's face it, APA and MLA styles for references are complicated, and often require a lot of editing. So setting them up right in the first place is going to save a lot of work later.

Under the "Format" menu again, choose "Paragraph..." In the "Indents and spacing" division, choose "Hanging Indent". A 0.5" indent is appropriate.

That's it! Now you can enter your references and simply start a new line for each reference and they will be formatted properly.

Other than the length of the indent for the indented lines, all other items should be set to 0. The correct format for both APA and MLA references is double spaced hanging indent with no additional space between entries. The difference between them is the specific way you enter the information.

4. Tab

The tab is a much abused function. Some people ignore it altogether and simply use lots of spaces to move words to the right on pages. Spaces are the worst choice, because different fonts have different spaces, and when you've forced a page number to the right using spaces, it can suddenly appear on the next line, or not as far right as you want. If you are trying to line up columns, then they will appear slightly out of whack, no matter how hard you try to line them up.

Tabs are usually pre-set at one half inch each. So you can hit the tab character a few times to move things across the page, but again, later editing might mean more work for you. It's better to set the tab correctly the first time, and then everything will stay in place.

The most common place you might use a tab is to set a page number in your running head (I will discuss how to set up running heads in a later post).

How to use the Tab function in MS Word
Using the "Format" menu, select "Tabs..."  Enter the location of the tab. To set a tab for a page number, look at the little ruler at the top of the page. The white portion is the available page width. Right now I can see up to 6 inches. If I wanted a page number at the right of the page, I'd set a tab for 6". But tabs can align the text to the right or left of the tab (or center). So for a page number at the right of the page, I'd set a 6" right align tab. That way the page numbers would end at the 6" location, not begin at the 6" location and run off the page to the right.

You can use tabs to set up columns of figures or other types of data, but often it's easier to use a table. Don't worry about that right now.

5. Spell check

Use the spell check function as the very last thing you do. The spell check is found under “Tools” --> “Spelling and Grammar…” Even if there are no words underlined in red, the spell check will find extra spaces and other problems with the document. The spell check is your friend, but don't always trust the spell check. It can miss words that are correctly spelled, but are not the correct word, such as effect and affect. It will sometimes prompt you to use the wrong version of some words, such as turning a plural into a possessive, or incorrectly substituting “its” for “it’s” and vice versa. (Remember: it’s = it is; its is a possessive pronoun). Nothing replaces a careful proofreading.

Updated April 2, 2014.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

How to cite a webpage in APA style

There seems to be some controversy over how to cite a web page using APA style. When a student finds information on a website, he or she often uses the title of the article as the reference. For example, citing this page he or she would use ("How to cite a web page", 2013). This is wrong, because there is clearly an author for this blog post: Peter J. Francis. You should cite the name of the author, just like you would a journal article. Be thorough; look carefully in the fine print for an author.

Just today I edited an essay that cited three newspapers. I know that virtually every story in a newspaper has a byline. I used to write for newspapers and seeing my name in print was half the reward. There is absolutely no reason not to know the name of the author of a newspaper article. Normally, when I am editing, I correct these things, but this person had not provided the full url in the reference section (which I pointed out when I returned the paper).

However, often a webpage is written by the member of a staff of an organization. Let's say HyperGraphix was a big anonymous editing company and there was no author on the page. Would you cite it as ("How to cite a webpage in APA style", 2013) or (HyperGraphix, 2013)?

I've researched this a lot and the answer is contradictory. Sometimes you use the name of the organization, sometimes you use the title of the article. I will try to tease out what the difference is.

There are four elements necessary for a complete citation: author, date, title, and url. Format is added if the format is out of the ordinary, such as a blog post, or lecture notes. One or more of these may be missing. This link tells you to use the title when you have no author.

However, this link says to use the organization as author when you have no author named.

Normally I use the OWL (Purdue University Online Writing Lab) as my goto source for APA references. This easy to use resource has lots of examples for all APA questions. There is also an MLA section, and I recently discovered a Chicago section. Many universities have APA or other style references, but I find this one to be the most comprehensive. But the OWL is strangely silent on the web page with no author. Maybe they don't give a hoot!

The two links above are both from the APA, so which is right? I had a client marked down because she used a title where an organization should have been used. I think the question is whether the organization is a professional organization, or is it just a place that posts information. For example, my client was doing a Master's degree in Nursing and was citing a document from the Centers for Disease Control. So this is a document that has been prepared for and by an organziation (CDC, 2013). Cite the organization.

On the other hand, if you were citing Travelocity's tips for vaccination, then Travelocity is merely posting information it has obtained elsewhere. Cite the webpage title ("Get stuck for health", 2013). Notice the webpage title used double quotation marks. You can use an abbreviated version of the title.

This makes some kind of sense because you can trust a named author more than an organization and an organization more than some webpage. There's a hierarchy of trust.

Back to my original question. Would you cite it as ("How to cite a webpage in APA style", 2013) or (HyperGraphix, 2013)? I would like to think you would use the latter. HyperGraphix is my editing business, and I should have some expertise. In addition, this website is the sole property of my editing business, and it's not designed to let other people post. You can be certain that HyperGraphix is responsible for the content. So give me the credibility of using my business name.

The next problem is how to set up the reference in the reference section. Do not use quotation marks on the title in the reference section. The first part of the entry should be the same as the in-text reference. As I explain to my students, the system is designed so you give a brief in-text reference, and if the reader wants more information, he or she should be able to find the full information in the reference section. That's why the reference section is in alphabetical order, and each entry begins with the same words used in the citation.So for the reference entry to this web page, write it like this:

Francis, P.J. (2013). How to cite a webpage in APA style.  [weblog]. Retrieved from

If there was no author, then it would be:

How to cite a webpage in APA style. (2013). [weblog]. Retrieved from
Updated April 2, 2014.

Saturday 2 February 2013

Five Ways to Improve Your Use of Quotes in Essay Writing

1. The first rule of using quotes is "Don't use the word 'quote'!" Really! I'm not kidding! When you use the words of someone else, you are quoting. When they use their own words, they are not quoting. So it's absolutely wrong to write: "When Abraham Lincoln quoted 'Four score and seven years ago...'" Just write "When Lincoln said..."

2. The second rule is also not to use the word "quote." Don't introduce a quote and then go on to say "In this quote..." You should be able to integrate this into your writing without using the word quote. For example, I just assigned an essay to my students on the mood in the poem "I Sit and Look Out" by Walt Whitman. The poem uses the word "degradations." Instead of quoting the line and writing "In this quote misery is conveyed through the word "degradations," it's better to write "The mood of misery is created by the use of the word "degradations" in "...quote line here..."

3. The third rule is to avoid "it says". This is just a variation on the rule to avoid the word quote. For example, when quoting a research study, many students write: "In Smith & Smith (2004), it says..." Just tighten it up to: "Smith & Smith (2004) say..." Remember, when you quote a study, you are quoting the words of the authors of the study, so just use the attribution directly to the authors. But remember to match plural authors with plural verbs. Smith says... But Smith & Smith say... and Smith et al. say...

4. The fourth rule of using quotes effectively is to explain the relevance of the quote. Quotes should be interspersed with your analysis. You are only using the quote to show that your thinking is backed up by research. Each paragraph should have a big idea that you are discussing. Your introduction of a quote is only to show the depth of your knowledge. Alternating quotes and paraphrasing is good writing. You can introduce several big ideas by paraphrasing and then if there is a sentence that is really good, use it as a quote. In literary essays it is important to quote regularly to show the reader that your logic fits in with the original work being discussed. In social science essays, quote more sparingly, when the authors have made a point particularly well, but don't quote just to cite a fact. Never just throw a quote into a paragraph because you were told to use quotes. You might as well insert a note to the marker that says "I don't know what I am doing."

5. As always, ensure your citation forms are correct. Remember, the citation is part of the sentence, so the final punctuation comes after the citation. The Purdue University Writing Lab has the best on-line source for how to use MLA and APA formats. I turn to it regularly.

Updated April 2, 2014.

Tuesday 29 January 2013

One Essential Skill for Prospering in the New Economy

 Now that we're in 2013, I've been reading some prognostications about the future of technology. The idea of robots working on farms reminded me of the loss of jobs in manual labor. Not long ago I read the prediction that robots would be doing any repetitive manual work. However, since computers are becoming more and more sophisticated, it seems that many jobs that also require creativity will be done by robots.

This is significant on two fronts. The first one is that literacy itself is becoming a great divide like the technological divide that affects the generations, and the economic divide that separates the classes. Those who can read can learn the most; those with less reading skill will always be one step behind. I know you can learn almost anything from a YouTube video, but didn't someone have to read the instructions once? Or we just going to return to an oral culture?

The truth is that most people don't care which side of the cultural divide they fall on. Most don't care too much about the technological divide, and they certainly don't care about a literacy divide. But the economic divide affects our lives in deep and profound ways. Unfortunately, recent recessions have shown that one can move from comfortably affluent to practically homeless very easily.

Our culture tends to blame the victim for poverty with charges such as: They should have stayed in school. They should have chosen a more practical profession or they should have been able to see the writing on the wall and adapt. But the truth is that change is coming and few of us will not be affected.

I've been concerned about the future of literacy for a while. Like many teachers, I have noticed that students' writing skills are declining, but their reading skills are declining as well. In the US and Canada schools are challenged to try to reverse this decline.

Impossible, I say. And that's not because I'm a member of a teachers union. I believe teachers are doing the best they can to slow this trend. But the truth is that our culture does not value literacy. We simply don't encourage it. No matter what teachers do in school, when kids don't read at home, literacy declines. People don't value literacy. How many parents are reading themselves at home, providing role models for children?

Look at the decline in newspapers. People don't read for information as much as they used to. I know, like me, they read newspapers on line, but what I notice is that even newspapers provide video. Marshall McLuhan nailed this half a century ago: the medium is the message. We no longer train our children to pay attention enough to read. We give them Sesame Street when they are little because "young children have short attention spans." And it works. But when to we ask them to try something harder? Like sustained attention to printed text?

I don't think there is a place in the brain that is hard-wired to read. It's not like speech. If we don't work, as a culture, to get young people to read, they will not be able. They will not be reading philosophers in University; they will not be reading great literature; they will not be reading deep texts of various professions. In fact, the kid who can't read the Hobbit in grade 8 will never become a lawyer, or a doctor, or a CEO.
Updated April 2, 2014.