Tuesday 11 August 2015

5 tips for your APA reference list

Creating an APA style reference list can be complex. Many students, even graduate students working on PhD dissertations still get it wrong. In this post, I'm going to give you the basic format.

If you can do these five things, you will get your references at least 90% right every time.

Here's what a citation should look like.
In this case, the organization is cited as the author. Read this post about citing webpages. It explains when to cite the organization as an author. The format is the same when you cite a human as an author.

1. Begin with the author(s). Most of the time you will have the last name of the author. In the example above, there would have been no individual connected with the article because it was a statement put out by an organization. Write the last name of the author followed by the first initial. Include the second and third initials if they are provided. Do not try to treat the name of an organization as a personal name. I've seen writers who would have written Association, A.S. as the author for this citation.

2. Get the date right. Use the date supplied by the document. If it's a webpage and it's "Copyright 2012-2015" then the last date is 2015. Use it. Do not use the date you accessed it. Once I found that every webpage cited by a writer was 2015, the year the paper was written. This seemed strange to me, so I looked up the actual documents. I found dates from 2005 to 2012. The writer was using the date they accessed the documents. What the APA cares about is when was the document written, so you know how recent the information is.

If, as in the example above, an exact date is provided, then use it. That's common for periodical publications that are monthly, or in this case, a public report that was released on a specific date. Most of the time you will only have the year.

3. Where to use italics. Use italics for the name of the publication. Generally this is only the journal name or a book name. Do not use italics for the name of an article. Notice the article above is very long. Write out the whole name of the article, but do not use italics.

4. Citing electronic sources. Electronic sources are one of the common sources of information. Journals are published on-line, and we often search for information while sitting at our desks. Notice that the citation above is from an on-line source. However, according the the APA style blog, you don't often need to cite the access date. You  only need to cite the date when it's something like a Wikipedia entry that could be constantly changing. However, you do need to include the source (Retrieved from http://www....)

5. Formatting. Create the reference list using 12 point Times (or the same font and size as your essay), center the word References at the top of the page (not bold), use a 1/2 inch hanging indent, and double space throughout with no extra space before or after each entry. (That's 5 extra tips in this blog post, absolutely free!) If you don't know how to set up MS Word to format a hanging indent using the paragraph tool, read this post.

Bonus! Notice that each individual part of the citation is separated by a period. Name (period) Date (period) Title (period) Source (period) Retrieval date (NO PERIOD). What?! There's no period at the end of the URL to avoid confusion. Makes you yearn for MLA, which encloses the URL in < > signs just for clarity.

Monday 10 August 2015

How to use transitional words effectively

Students are rightly taught that the use of transitional words and phrases will improve their writing. By and large, this is true. However, in my essay editing work I find that many people are not using transitional words and phrases correctly. Therefore, I am writing this blog post to help educate writers on how to use transitional words and phrases. This list is by no means exhaustive. Use the link at the bottom of the page to see more.

There are many different transitional words and phrases, and they should be used for different purposes. The key is to understand the logical connection between the phrases or sentences that these words link. "Transition" means "change" and there are many kinds of changes that can happen in an essay.

The first sense of change is to continue the present thought in a new sentence. We call these "additive" transitions. Additive transitions introduce an idea or example, continue a thought, show similarity, or provide reference or clarification. The following words are used as additive transition words:

  • moreover: Mountain climbing is physically challenging. Moreover, it is expensive and time-consuming.
  • indeed: Lamborghinis are expensive and rare cars. Indeed, I've never even ridden in one.
  • further: Michael Jackson was extremely popular in his day. Further, he sold millions of records.
  • furthermore: I will not tolerate disrespect from my students. Furthermore, lateness will be punished.
  • what is more: My education was very expensive. What is more, I had to borrow the money.
  • in addition: The prisoner was sentenced to 10 years for robbery. In addition, he received 5 years for escaping custody.
  • in fact: Donald Trump is very rich. In fact, his assets are estimated at between 3 and 10 billion dollars.

Another sense of change is to introduce an idea that is different from the previous idea. These are called "adversative" transition words. Use adversative transition words when the idea being introduced conflicts with ideas already introduced. This is useful in a persuasive essay, because you need to be providing a sense of two sides of an argument. Depending on how you handle the logic, these transition words can introduce an idea that supersedes the first idea or is negated by the first idea.

  • but: Smoking causes cancer, but many people continue to smoke.
  • still: Head injuries are very dangerous. Still helmets are not used in some sports.
  • however: Carbon dioxide is a proven greenhouse gas; however, many Americans remain in denial of climate change.
  • in contrast: Republicans deny climate change, in contrast to Democrats, who admit it.
  • while: Democrats are focused on income inequality, while Republicans are focused on conservative credentials.
  • whereas: The Senate voted to support the tax increase, whereas the House voted to repeal it.
  • on the other hand: Several major economists support the idea of universal daycare. On the other hand, the Treasury Department says it is unaffordable.

The fourth class of transition words are those that relate to cause and effect. These are called causal transitions. (Please watch out for the common transposition of letters that changes causal into casual; your spellchecker might even make the change for you.) I often see errors here when I edit student essays. You need to be very careful with your logic when using these transitions. Nonetheless, they are very important in laying out the logic for your essay. Notice that there are five different causal conditions: Cause, Condition, Effect/Result, Purpose, and Consequence.

1. When an assertion is followed by its reason

  • because: I am bringing my umbrella because it is raining.
  • due to: I am upset with my brother due to his lying to me.
  • inasmuch as: I am not going to vote for that politician inasmuch as he's a scoundrel.
2. When an action is conditional upon another event.
  • granted that: I will buy a car tomorrow, granted that I receive my bank loan.
  • even if: I will not purchase a Ford, even if the salesperson throws in a free oil change.
  • unless: I will marry that girl, unless I meet someone I like better.
3. When a cause is followed by its consequence.
  • as a result: I won a lottery, as a result I quit my job.
  • consequently: I closed my company, consequently I will no longer need your services.
  • hence: I took up skydiving, hence my life insurance rates went up.
4. When an action if followed by its motivation.
  • in order to: I started bodybuilding in order to impress women.
  • so as to: I enrolled in law school so as to become a lawyer.
  • so that: I bought a lot of books so that I could fill my bookshelf.
5. When a condition is followed by an outcome.
  • then: If my father gives me permission, then I will set sail tomorrow.
  • otherwise: If I am allowed to be an explorer I will first go to Antarctica, otherwise I will return to law school.
Other transition words are sequential. That is, they help us to keep track of arguments. The types are numerical, continuation, conclusion, digression, resumption, and summation.

1. To provide the first of a number of related items.
  • initially: The plan had several components. Initially, the army was to build a bridge.
  • first of all: First of all, the French Revolution was set in motion by a series of crop failures.
2. To relate items in a time sequence.
  • subsequently: Subsequently, the middle class lost faith in the leadership of the King.
  • previously: Voltaire had visited liberal philosophers in England.
  • eventually: Eventually, the revolution was followed by the Reign of Terror.
3. To provide the final item in a series.
  • finally: Finally, the British gave up their claim to the Thirteen Colonies.
  • in the end: In the end, the Constitution became the source of law.
  • to conclude: To conclude, Washington was elected President.
4. To provide a related point that is not directly part of the argument being developed.
  • incidentally: Incidentally, sans cullottes means "without britches", meaning the working men who did not wear the same type of pants as the elite.
  • by the way: By the way, the guillotine was not invented by Guillotine; it was merely advocated for by him as a less cruel means of execution.
5. To return to the main argument after a digression (as in 4).
  • to resume: To resume, the development of political parties had several consequences for France.
  • anyhow: Anyhow, the chaos of the Reign of Terror led the way to Napoleon's rise.
  • anyway: Anyway, the Constitution was never seen to be a perfect document, being amended several times in its early years.
6. To provide a summation of an argument.
  • to summarize: To summarize, there are many reasons for wearing a hat.
  • therefore: Therefore, the urban sombrero is destined to become a fashion staple.
  • in brief: In brief, nothing could demonstrate a man's savoir faire than a hat echoing multiculturalism.

The list of words for this blog post have been partially sourced from  https://www.msu.edu/~jdowell/135/transw.html, which is licensed for re-use through Creative Commons license 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/>.

Saturday 8 August 2015

How to use MS Word's Track Changes Tools

When you receive your edited document back from our editing service, it will show the changes in a color like the picture at the right. (The color may be different, and if more than one editor has worked on your document, the color will be different for each editor.) This is the Track Changes function of MS Word. If you are using MS Word 2016, read this blog post for an update. The purpose of this function is for you to review the changes to see whether or not you agree with them. We also hope that you will learn something about writing, using references, and following the appropriate style guide, which is why we use this function. If your writing is good, then you may only see a few changes per paragraph as per the example. If you are having a lot of trouble expressing yourself, either because English is your second language, or because you have not mastered formal writing yet, then you may see an awful lot of changes. Certainly, this will make it harder to review each individual one. Whether you have many changes or just a few, it is quite easy to accept the changes so you can have a clean document.

At the top of your MS Word window are a number of Tabs. They are labelled Home, Document Elements, Tables, Charts, SmartArt, and Review. The Track Changes controls are found under the Review Tab.

Click on the Review tab to reveal the Track Changes buttons. Each one controls a pop-up menu. Click on the down arrowhead at the side of the "Accept" button to access the menu. To review and accept individual changes, begin by clicking on the change in the document. Then access the pop-up menu. You can either click on the actual point in the document where the change has been made (indicated by an underline, or line from the indication in the margin) or click on the marginal note. If you select the second choice, "Accept Change", the change will remain, the indication will disappear, the pop-up menu will disappear, and you can go ahead and do something else. In fact, this is the action that will occur if you click on the "Accept" button instead of its arrow. Most people probably want to review the next change, so a better choice is to select the first option, "Accept and Move to Next." In this case, the change will be accepted and the indicators will disappear (along with the pop-up menu) but the cursor in the document will jump to the next change. That's helpful, as you can then simply repeat the process by accessing the pop-up menu and clicking on "Accept and Move to Next."

The final way to accept changes, is to simply click "Accept All Changes in Document." This will remove all the comments at the side, all the lines indicating where changes have been made, and you will have a clean document (I will talk about the comments further on in this post.)

My suggestion for clients is to read through the entire document before you accept all changes. There are different options for displaying changes. I like to leave a document that is easy to read, so when I delete a word or move it, you can see it at the side, but the sentence in the document reads with all the intended changes. Sometimes other editors show deletions with a strikethrough, moves can also be displayed, and other variations exist. With these options, you need to read more carefully to be sure of what your sentences will be after you accept the changes. With document that we have edited, additions are shown in color and deletions are only shown in the margin. The sentences you read are the final form.

In addition to changes, sometimes editors want to put comments in documents. These could be to alert the reader to potential errors of fact. They could be to indicate where a reference is needed. In addition when I'm really unsure about a writer's intention, I might make an edit that I really want to draw the writer's attention to in order to ensure that I haven't changed the meaning. Sometimes editors simply write "Can't understand this sentence. Please revise." Personally, I think that's weak. If I really can't understand what my client wants to say, I will send a quick email asking for an explanation while I'm still doing the editing. My intent when editing is to return a document that's ready to use. Comments are shown in the accompanying image as green. Like changes, they can appear in many different colors.

Comments are not removed along with the edits when you choose "Accept All Changes in Document." Comments must be removed one by one. Nonetheless, they are very easy to remove.

To remove a comment, simply click in the X at the right top corner of the comment. Even with dozens of comments in a document, you can scroll along and remove them all fairly quickly.

If you have a lot of changes in a document, or some very long comments, they might not all fit into the space at the right hand side of the document on your screen. MS Word will automatically collapse them into a small bubble. While this looks more tidy, it prevents you from being able to read the comments or see the changes in detail. There's a simple way to deal with that. You can have the comments and changes appear in a list on the left. However, because they all appear, they can take up a lot of space, so they might not appear close to the actual change in the document.

This view is called the Review Pane. You can make it appear/disappear with a button located in the Review Tab, to the right of the Track Changes buttons. If you want to see the details of the changes, use this button to make the Review Pane appear. You can also close the Review Pane with the close box in its top left corner.

The final thing you may be struggling with is that after your document has been returned and you have accepted all changes you might want to do a little more writing. Perhaps you are adding material to your reference list, or perhaps you are simply polishing. But every time you make a change, it appears on the right and you have to go through the whole process of accepting changes. You know you shouldn't have to do this because you don't have to review your own changes. So you want to turn off Track Changes. Here's how:

You might have noticed this button already, but it's part of the Track Changes suite of tools in the Review Tab. Simply click on it to stop recording changes. Now your document can be edited as much as you like just like before.

If you have more questions or comments about the use of Track Changes, please leave a comment below. Thanks for reading!

Friday 7 August 2015

How to write an abstract

Unlike abstract art, an abstract for an essay should be concise, clear, and easy to understand.

An abstract is neither an introduction nor a conclusion. Although it must introduce the reader to the topic, it must include information on what the gist of the subject is, the methodology used (in the case of a science or social science study) and the conclusions drawn.

APA style requires the heading to be "Abstract" centered on the page (with the running head.) This should be page 2 of your document.

Do not indent the first line. Begin with a summary of the key points of your research. The abstract must cover all elements of the study: research topic, research questions, participants, methods, results, data analysis and conclusion. Here's the hard part. You must accomplish this with fewer than 250 words.

This means you must be exceedingly concise. The abstract does not include references. The key points are contained in a single sentence. The research questions may be limited to the main questions, without subquestions. The results will only be one or two sentences. You probably want to have about half the abstract focused on data analysis and conclusion.

At the end of the abstract, you can provide a list of keywords. These will be the words that will be used to find the document when it is listed in a database. This is somewhat anachronistic, and dates back to when things were filed in hard copy. Since today, search engines can see every word in a document and make intelligent decisions about what the keywords are, providing a separate list is not critical for researchers to find the document. However, the practice continues.

Indent the keyword line. The first word should be Keywords (in italics). It's followed by a colon and then a list of keywords, separated by commas.
       Keywords: abstract, APA, essay writing, executive summary

The purpose of the abstract is to summarize everything of interest in the paper so someone researching similar topics will know whether or not to read your whole paper as a source of ideas for theirs. Details are not as important as the precision about what you have written.

In a business document, a similar opening page is called the Executive Summary. An executive summary should also be short, but there is no defined limit as in APA. I'd suggest that 300 words should be enough. It's important to define the topic being discussed, identify the important factors, and provide a brief summary of the important discussions and conclusions. In no case should the executive summary be longer than one page. The point is that someone should be able to read this brief page in a few minutes to understand the whole of what the document will lay out.

Image courtesy of athiwat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Saturday 1 August 2015

On-line education: buyer beware

The on-going scandal in predatory student loans has now led the University of Phoenix to suffer a 54% decline in enrolment and a plunge in the stock price of its parent company. This is a positive sign for students and long overdue.

However, the University of Phoenix is not the worst of the offenders and certainly does not deserve to be singled out. I've worked with numerous clients in graduate programs at the University of Phoenix and I can attest to the quality of education that they receive.

Nonetheless, the University of Phoenix is clearly admitting students that are not successful. That's not unusual. All universities have graduation rates less than 100%. Most notice a big dropout rate after the first semester. University is harder than high school, and students who are away from home for the first time, struggling to maintain passing grades and unsure of their motivation often leave to get a new perspective on what they want to do in life.

But the success rate for the University of Phoenix is only 4%! That means that 96% of students who enrol in undergraduate courses do not graduate with diplomas. Essentially, they have paid money for courses that will do little to help them move forward in their careers. And much of that money is borrowed. That's the problem.

I think they are admitting students that are not prepared for the academic work that they are going to face.

Students know that higher qualifications will help them get better paying jobs. They know that investing in themselves is a good strategy. But they often don't have a clear idea of their skills and abilities. The schools advertise about opportunities. They even might truthfully advertise that 90% of graduates are earning some nice salary. But they don't say that 96% of students will walk away with nothing but debt.

There are two parts to the university. The recruiting and enrolment office are sales people. Their job is to sell you on the program. The teachers are an entirely different thing. They are skilled  educators who want to do a good job. That's not to say that there's no connection between the two.

A friend of mine was teaching at the University of Phoenix in a classroom program. He is a highly ethical teacher, and dedicated to his students. I met him as an undergraduate many years ago, and we became and remained friends. He told me he was pressured by the administration to give better grades, but he insisted that he would not lower his standards. His contract was not renewed. He now has a PhD and teaches at a public university.

In the United States, the quality of the university is an important component of the value of a degree. Some of the top universities in the country, such as Harvard, are private universities. But many public universities offer high quality education programs. There's no doubt that students can greatly advance their life prospects through public education. President Obama made this easier by his proposal to make community college free. Community colleges, leading to state colleges and degree programs are a great way for public education to be extended to all worthy students.

The key is "worthy students." When colleges admit students that are not qualified, the chances of successful outcomes are low. Some students are able to pull up their socks, utilize academic assistance services, and develop good academic skills. Others cheat their way through, using paper writing mills, and other nefarious means to pass. Many use private tutoring and editing services, such as mine, and I'm happy to assist student who what to learn to write better. I can see improvements over time with many of my long-term clients.

But I also see students who fail to grasp the some of the fundamental concepts in academic writing. Some, even at the graduate level, do not understand the basics of APA or MLA style. Some do not understand the difference between research and plagiarism. I believe universities who admit these students are failing in the screening process. But private universities have an incentive to admit, not to screen. Their bottom line is profit.

The worst offenders are private universities at the bottom of the tier. They get less publicity than the University of Phoenix because they are small. But the costs for students is no less dire. One client, studying healthcare management sent me an essay to edit. I happened to look up the name of the professor. It turned out the professor was trained in restaurant management, not healthcare management. And it wasn't easy to find the professor, because when I Googled his name, most of the hits that came up were people re-selling essays that had been written for the course in the past. So what quality of scholarship is coming out of that course? Do you want your grandmother cared for in a facility run by one of these healthcare management grads?

I encourage students to seek higher education, no matter what your skill level; however, be prepared to work hard to improve your skills. Do your homework on the school before you take on student debt. And, as always: buyer beware!

Image courtesy of pakorn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net