An editorial pedant: one or two spaces after a full stop?

I took a seminar yesterday with my current crop of dissertation students working hard to submit their undergraduate dissertations next week.  You can imagine the eye-roll when in response to a formatting query I had a minor rant about the number of spaces after a full stop, or if we are being American after a period.  This devolved into banter between myself, an ardent two spaces type of guy, and one of my doctoral students present to assist with the seminar who is very much a one space girl.

I learnt to touch type back in the 1980’s on an upright typewriter the summer before leaving for university.  This was one of the best things my parents ever encouraged me to do.  Ever since those days I have stuck rigidly to the two space rule, despite quickly transitioning to a word processor.  The argument goes that modern fonts are designed with variable widths to aid reading and to make the two spaces redundant.  But like an editorial pedant I have stuck, to them although I have stopped correcting the error (at least in my opinion) in other people’s work.

So this morning while displacing from a real task (or conducting an exercise in strategic procrastination if you prefer) I had a quick Google and was pleased find this piece in The Independent from earlier in the year that suggested that scientists had answered this age old debate using eye tracking software.  The original research published in Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics showed some marginal improvement in reading speeds with the use of two spaces.  The gain was small and the results have been disputed, but it is good enough for this dinosaur to continue to claim that the world is better with two spaces!

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If you are a student, there is this little tool on Microsoft Word which shows the hidden formatting which I have turned on all the time so I can see the number of spaces and the hard paragraph returns.  It can be useful and this sort of pedantry should not concern you overly, just pick a side and be consistent.

Working with Audacity: Create that podcast today!

Creating a podcast or sound clip for that important presentation is easy using something called Audacity or so I learnt last week.  Previously I had always struggled to edit audio in video editing software such as Camtasia but never again.  Audacity is a powerful tool and is freeware to boot!  Just watch the download, it seems simple, but you need an extra file to make it work with MP3 files.

audacity logo

I discovered Audacity while creating an audio-book for my daughter.  Stories written and recorded by my mother, with music and sound effects added by me.  Audacity records well both using a microphone and internally while sampling YouTube sound effect files.  There are some good noise reduction tools as well and some other simple effects of which i have only just began to scratch the surface.  It is simple and intuitive to use.  There is also a healthy body of ‘how to’ videos on YouTube and a variety of websites all offering support and help.

So yes this must read like a sales pitch for Audacity and so it is; it is awesome for the occasional user like myself and has opened my mind to the idea of the podcast as part of my teaching portfolio.  I have previously done a few podcasts to sit alongside PowerPoint slides, but the idea of the podcast covering key topics is centre stage in my mind at the moment, so what this space!

Practice makes perfect in academic writing?

The relative importance of practice versus innate talent is a matter of extensive debate and there is some pretty cool research out there and lots of popular articles to read.  Malcolm Gladwell coined the term the ‘ten thousand hour rule’ in his book the Outliers and developed this further in a piece in the New Yorker.  Basically complex tasks like composing or playing chess at the highest levels require in excess of 10,000 hours of practice so the rule goes.  The question here off course is where does raw talent (genetics) feature?

This debate is explored in relation to new research by Maria Konnikova in another piece in the New Yorker.  On reading her piece I was struck by a number of things.  Firstly, that the average athlete benefits most from practice and training while the margins of gained are much smaller for elite ones. Secondly practice relative to raw talent operates differently in different areas having less impact on education and computer science for example when compared with music or sport.  Finally, if you take a group of highly talented individuals their career performance is ultimately determined amongst many factors by ‘work (practice) ethic’.  Now I believe in the importance of work ethic; the more you invest in yourself and your contribution the better the outcome.  Constructive and directed industry has always been a big indicator of success in my opinion, although it is often mitigated by the power of an extrovert who can tell a good story.  There is off course the irrational pique here of an introvert speaking.

So why am I writing about practice?  Well I run sessions for the Doctoral College here at Bournemouth on academic writing.  As a severely dyslexic individual writing has always been difficult, but over the years I have done a lot of it, and while I would never say that I am particularly good at it, I am continually learning and improving.  I advocate in these sessions the importance of practice, off investing in one’s own development.

Now writing is a skill that is on the decline in most science graduates.  Can I evidence this?  Well not really, but it is apparent every semester in the papers I grade.  The point is that students don’t get the chance to practice in the mercenary academic world in which we live.  In this world only the thing that seems to count to most student’s is work that contributes to a final grade.  Summative assessment is king and we are increasingly limited as tutors by what we can set.  As tutors we do not help this because with the growth in class sizes we usually strive to reduce grading at all costs.  Yet what science students really need is formative assessment and coaching in writing.  As a student I had to write four tutorial essays a semester in addition to coursework, these essays didn’t count for any unit grades but they did in hindsight help me along the way.  Over thirty years later you would not get a modern student doing this unless there was a grade it in.  As I say education has become very mercenary.  So when a student graduates and ends up needing to write academic papers in Graduate School they struggle.  It is why they come to classes on academic writing!

My answer is the same however; you need to practice.  Write something every day, it doesn’t really matter what as along as it is coherent prose.  I advocate the use of blogs, after all they don’t have to be public and there are so many of them these days that most remain obscure even if they available online.  A blog post of 500 to 600 words is an ideal length to practice, and writing prose free of references and academic baggage allows you to focus on the writing itself.  In class I am asked: write about what?  My answer is always, anything that holds your interest.  Who will give us feedback?  No one is the answer, learning to be your own critic is one of the keys to good writing.  How many take this advice?  To be honest I am not sure, but I hope they do, because in the case of writing reading good prose and emulating this through practice and self-critique will always be king in my view.

I have one other tip to pass on.  I once had a management coach when on the academic leadership track and he told me a story which I can’t now remember to whom it was attributed, but basically it went like this.  Instead of sitting down at your computer each morning and writing emails, posting on Facebook or Twitter write a piece of coherent prose for half an hour and you will have a more productive writing day.   Not sure what the evidence for this was or is, but try it because it works for me.

If you are an undergraduate reading this.  Well my message to you is simple, practice and invests in yourself and in a good work ethic and in my experience you will win the day.

The use of the word poo, or a matter of tone?

A brief note in the journal Nature caught my attention the other day.  It took issue with the use of the word ‘poo’ in a research highlight; in fact it called it juvenile.

The highlight was a news piece not a research article and was reporting on an article published in the Proceeding of the National Academy for Science entitled: Responses to pup vocalizations in subordinate naked mole-rats are induced by estradiol ingested through coprophagy of queen’s feces. 

So is this an example of poor use of tone in academic writing, or a simply pomposity on the part of the author of the comment?

Finding the right academic voice or tone is difficult for many students.  Over the years I have marked many assignments in which the author writes as if they are talking to their mates in the pub.  Equally I have read more than one Masters Dissertations (and PhD thesis and papers to boot!) in which the author seems to believe that route to scientific veracity is to write in the most convoluted and pompous prose possible.  In fact there is a bit of a pendulum at work here; students start out too informal and end up at the other extreme, before hopefully finding a mid-ground as they develop their practice.

I am an advocate of direct and active prose where ever possible and to me pomposity, convolution and pretension is like a spark to a gas ring.  The KISS acronym holds well in my view: Keep it Short and Simple.  Simple does not however mean informal.  As writers we should aim to communicate clearly using appropriate language for the audience and above all else make sure that we write in direct and clear prose which is also wherever possible engaging! Practice is the key. Find academic authors and science journalists we like to read and reflecting on and dissecting their style to adapt and form in to our own style through practice is the key.  I don’t hold myself up as a good writer, simply one doing his best and learning through practice.  I like to reflect occasionally on the six rules on good writing proposed by Orwell and modified slightly here:

  1. Never use a metaphor or other figure of speech which has become hackneyed.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. Write for your audience and never forget that it is they that count.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

Would Orwell have used the word ‘poo’, perhaps?  Do I agree with the comment about the use of the word poo, no!  It is a headline, designed to draw the reader in which in my view is acceptable.  The term ‘feces’ is the correct term for the title of the paper sure, but a journalist even in Nature should be able to have some latitude with a headline.  We drink our own pomposity, at our peril and the more pompous we become the more distance we place between ourselves and the general public.

Writing a Literature Review

Call me old and cranky if you like, but I have read a lot of bad literature reviews in my time.  I know I am in for a challenging read when the chapter or section is actually entitled ‘literature review’!  I was asked to provide guidance to a group of student recently, so after a quick Google which yielded loads of information but also a lot of conflicting advice I decided to reach for my keyboard.

A literature review is a description, explanation and above all else a synthesis of existing literature on a topic.  I place emphasis on the synthesis part; this is where the marks are to be found if you are a student.  So what does synthesis actually mean?  Well a synthesis is a combination of components that form a connected whole.  A pile of bricks is not a synthesis, but a house is.  Equally a chronological description of the literature is nothing more than an annotated reference list.  By contrast a useful literature review is a document which: synthesises common themes; synthesises literature either side of a debate; or scopes the unresolved issues or research gaps.

It is generally agreed that there are two type of context in which you would need to review the literature.  You may be set an assignment in which you are asked to review the literature on a subject.  Essentially this is an essay (usually with sub-headings) which demonstrates that you have found, read and understood the scientific writings on a subject.  The emphasis here is on peer-reviewed journal articles and edited chapters, not web-sources or text books, although this can vary between disciplines.  In a student context is just another assignment to be conducted within the rules set out in the assignment brief or to be clarified by your tutor.  In a professional context there are scientific review papers which aim to promote a discipline and define future research agenda within it, or simply to bring together a dispersed and obscure literature.  There is an important sub-set here which is the systematic review.  This is common in medical disciplines.  For example there may have been several different medical trials of a particular treatment over a number of years.  A systematic review finds all this data, reviews its quality, provides analysis of this data and draws out a conclusion about future practice from that data. They are designed to provide a complete, exhaustive summary of current evidence relevant to a research question.  The emphasis is on using and synthesising published data on a subject.  We are going to set them aside here because they have their own rules and methodologies.

Apart from a student assignment or a dedicated review paper the other context in which one must review the literature is at the start of a dissertation, thesis or academic paper.  This is a key part of the introduction and does not need to be sign-posted with the words ‘literature review’.  In my view it is crass to do so.  In a PhD thesis where the scope is much greater it might form a standalone ‘state of the art’ chapter, but in almost every other context it is simply part of the introduction.  The aim here is to demonstrate:

  • The rationale and context for your research question demonstrating that others think it is important and timely to study as well.  The work of offers is used to support your claim that it is interesting, important or timely.
  • That you are not simply replicating published work but contributing to a knowledge gap or refining a question that you understand. That by contributing new data, or taking a different approach, to an unresolved issue you are advancing knowledge or practice.
  • That you know what you are talking about! That you are using common methods, definitions, terms and approaches.  That your reader identifies with these terms and understands any variance you have adopted from the established norms.

So let’s look at a literature review in the context of it being simply an extended introduction.  There are two key statements or paragraphs.  The one you start with and the one you end with!  You need to start with a broad focus or ‘hook’ that attracts your reader.  It is not quite a newspaper headline like the Sun’s distasteful ‘Gotcha!’ headline of 1982, but its aims are similar to draw the reader in and make an initial point.  Why is the study important?  Why is this paper or dissertation worth reading?  What will the output be and how will it advance knowledge or practice in the area of study, or at least hopes to?

The final paragraph should loop back to the ‘hook’ and define the question, scope or aims/objectives.

“In light of the work by Tilman (2015) and Bird (2018) who collectively re-define this question and showed how it could be re-evaluated by contributing new data, it is timely to ask . . . . .  As a consequence this study aims to contribute new data to this debate by . . . . . . This aim will be realised through four objectives which are: . . . . . . .”

So we open the introduction with something broad that draws the reader in and then narrows the focus down to the research question in hand.  Now between these two points – the start and the finish – we need to place the work in context.  We need to define key terms, provide relevant background as appropriate, scope previous work in the field to help reader understand context of your approach and how your work will contribute.   This is the literature review.  The overall form of the text should be triangular; you start broad and progressively sharpen and focus the argument (or point) until you hit the reader with your aim.  And that aim should be sharp and make the reader sit up and say: “yes that makes sense, yes that will add something, wow that is well argued and justified.”  Reviewing the literature is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

So how do I go about it?

Let’s break it down into a series of steps:

Step One: Find your literature, download and/or print the papers.  Any academic search engine will do, my preference is Google Scholar.  Work hard to build up the literature you can find and use the reference lists in the papers you do find to ‘snowball’ other literature.

Step Two: Read critically.  By this I mean read in an engaged fashion, not just being critical of what you read.  Interrogate the article for information relevant to your question and focus only on what is relevant to your question.  Use what you read to guide and prioritise your reading.  For example if one paper keeps being cited then it is clearly important; find it and read it.  Writing one page summaries of papers can really help here (Fig. 1).


Figure 1: The one page summary of papers can really help.  You can keep them in an online note book or hard copy doesn’t matter but the idea is that you shuffle them in any order or set them out to find patterns.

Step Three: Looking for patterns.  How do the papers you read link together?  Can you group some of them as saying the same sort of thing?  What are the big themes?  There are lots of ways of doing this, but think of detectives working a case in a TV crime drama.  They usually have a wall or a board full of images, maps and items, may be with ribbons or lines drawn between key elements.  They are visualising their data looking for connections and patterns.  You can do the same.  Use a white board to jot down some key themes and list the papers under each.  Or use the floor or a large table and create piles.  Basically any way of trying to see your literature not in date order (or in the order you read it) but in terms of a new pattern.  This pattern provides the structure for review and the individual paragraphs within it.  You may find some gaps in your reading at this stage and need to go back to the earlier steps.  In facts steps One to Three often occur in parallel.

Step Four: Drafting.  Set the papers aside and turn to your keyboard.  Start by jotting down they key themes and then elaborate these into sentences and paragraphs.  Cite references from memory where you can, but don’t write from the papers themselves.  Write freely.  It is all too easy to slip into copying sentences or paragraphs consciously or unconsciously – don’t!  The reader wants to see your perspective on the literature not someone else’s.  Remember the triangle as you write – start broad and end up with a sharply phrased point at the end.  With your draft finished review it carefully looking for gaps and inconsistencies and remember that any given paper may appear several times under different themes.

Step Five: Refine and polish.  This is all about the fine detail.  Are you citing the right papers in the right places?  Have you spelt the author’s names correctly?  Are the dates correct and in the right order?  Do all the text citations correspond to a full reference in the reference list and vice versa?  Do the sentences make sense?  Does your argument or succession of paragraphs build one upon another and sharpen the focus broad to point?  Does you aim follow clearly from the succession of paragraphs?  Success is all in the detail once you have found the big themes and pulled them out.

Frequently asked questions

So what is enough?  Well if it’s an assignment then look to the brief or your tutor for clarification.  Typically they may use words like ‘review the main or key sources’ or ‘review the significant literature and developments.’  They are clearly asking you to be selective in what you include.  Alternatively if words like ‘comprehensive’ appear you have your answer.  For a dissertation you need to be pretty comprehensive is my personal view, but remember you are not describing each paper but finding the themes and citing the relevant literature to that theme.

Can I cite material cited in other papers?  The simple answer is no.  Only cite and discuss what you have read yourself.  How do you know that another person has read and interpreted it correctly?  So if I can’t get a key source?  You should try to get it or leave it out; it’s that simple.

Can I cite web sites and textbooks?  It depends a bit on the subject and level but basically not often.  There may be a defining manual or textbook for a subject especially in an area of practice and off course this may feature heavily in your review, but where ever possible go back to the primary sources.

Should I cite old papers?  Yes just because its old does not mean it is not key to a debate or seminal in the development of a subject area.  It is often harder to get older material however, many of the big publishing houses have back catalogues that stop in the mid-1990’s this does not mean it not worth pursuing.  Material that is not accessible electronically is not by default rubbish.  If a debate has lots of recent discussion then your focus will be there, but that is not always the case.

If a whole paragraph is based on one source where does the reference go?  Again there is no perfect answer but generally not at the end.  Start by saying something like:  “The work of Smith (1988) is key here.  They studied the question closely by conducting the following experiments . . . .  The key conclusion in Smith (1988) is that . . . . . The work of Smith (1988) was developed by Thompson et al. (2005) who modelled the system using . . . .”   Basically make sure the reader knows that it is Smith’s work that you are talking about by reminding them regularly.  If you only have a few sources, either because that’s all that was written or because you have not found more, then the same names will be used a lot and it is what it is.

When I have multiple citations against a sentence what order should they go in?  Date order and if they were published in the same year alphabetically, so:  “The idea that the literature view was key to the development of academia has been widely discussed (e.g., Bogs, 1967; Simons, 1988, 1989; Briggs et al., 2002; Smyth, 2002).”

Non-Linear narratives Or Why PowerPoint is bad!

Help this research by taking this anonymous quiz.

Non-linear narratives are fun, because the audience and presenter don’t know where you will end up, or if they do they don’t know by what route (Fig.1).  I used to read to my children stories that required them to make a choice of story direction and we would weave our way through a book flipping between pages as directed.  A good story tellers sitting around a camp fire never tells a story the same way twice and are always a pleasure to listen to even if you know the stories punchline.  Long live the art of storytelling.  Just because we are scientists doesn’t mean we don’t tell stories; off course we do ‘evidence-based’ stories mind, but they are still stories.


Figure 1: A good storyteller can end up in the same place but will get there in a different way each time.

Microsoft PowerPoint and similar presentation tools forces linearity and once you post a set of slides students or your listeners expect you to follow that structure and to cover all the material.  PowerPoint sets a way of thinking which is not always very helpful.  In my experience it hinders lateral thinking and positive digression.  I am not the first person to think this and there is a body of work critical of PowerPoint and also defending it.

My first serious foray into ‘non-linearity’ came in 2017 when the research team, of which I am part, was awarded the chance to present at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition.  This is the premier research engagement session in the UK, with a footfall of over 11,000 ranging from dignitaries attending black tie evening sessions, to the general public and to school groups during the day.  We designed an educational experience around our theme ‘Dinosaurs to Forensics’.  I had last exhibited in 2005.  On that stand we had a large plasma screen with a linear PowerPoint running on a loop.  It was limiting when talking to a visitor, since you would often have to wait for the right slide to appear to prompt a conversation.  In 2017 we needed a teaching innovation that was non-linear.  The solution we came up with was a series of large icons on the display board each with a bar-code.  The presenter had a wireless bar-code reader with which they could zap an icon and an appropriate item or video clip would appear on the plasma screen.  In this way the presenters were able to use the icons to support different conversations or educational messages tailored to the needs of different visitors.  It was huge success.

Now I have an interest in the visual presentation of data and I was hooked on the idea of creating an alternative to PowerPoint that was non-linear, essentially bringing the Royal Society exhibit learning into the classroom.  The concept I had was like an image board similar to something you might see on Pin Interest.  That would be the hub of your lecture.  Behind each picture would be a link to YouTube, to a block of slides or to some other resource.  Essentially it would be like a window into a bank of slides or resources that you could call upon in any order; in a non-linear order.  You would not necessarily use all the slides just those that you needed on that day.  I talked at length to my collaborator in Computer Science (Professor Marcin Budka): could we create a rival to PowerPoint?  Well one day with funding we might just do that – freeware for the non-linear narratives.  However we quickly released that we could create a PowerPoint template that would actually work in a non-linear fashion.  Essentially the home slide is a grid of boxes (a bit like the grid of icon boxes you get in Windows 10), different sizes, shapes and colours.  By clicking on a box you get a slide or slides that relate to that box including any embedded media.  There is a large back arrow on the slide(s) that takes you back to the home screen.  Basically there is no forced linear narrative.

Feeling brave and keen to co-create some educational research with my students I am trying this out on my Physical Geography students in the autumn of 2018.  Wish me and them luck!

I am interested in your thoughts on presentation software and if you would like to contribute anonymously then you can do by taking the following quiz.

Time management and the eye of the storm

Now this is definitely one of those things in which the phrase ‘do as I suggest, not as I do’ applies!  We are talking about time management.  My problem is that I have too much on at any one time, rarely say no to requests to do more and get sucked in to the current project to the exclusion of the others.

There are countless websites YouTube videos with advice and self-help suggestions.  They distil in various ways to working out what the tasks are both urgent and give the greatest reward.  You are meant to prioritise them and there are various matrices to help you do this which all stem from Eisenhower Power Box.

Use it if it helps.  The other method of prioritising and tracking tasks is something being a geographer I call the ‘eye of the storm’ (Fig. 1).  A colleague told me about this a while ago but called it ‘the pit’.  It is a series of concentric rings which you put on a big piece of paper.  At the centre is the stuff you should do now and is urgent, the stuff on the outside is less urgent.  When you get a task put it on a ‘post-it note’ and place it on your poster depending on its urgency.  Every few days review the live tasks and move them accordingly as they change priority.  It is the trajectory that matters tasks that are for ever circling the pit, or in my case the eye of the storm, are less important than ones that are careering with speed towards the centre.  You work calmly in the centre of the pit and keep an eye on the surrounding walls for falling rocks especially those propelled towards the centre by others!  The concept also holds for a hurricane.  Think of the eye in the centre as the calm spot where you work keeping a weather eye on the flying debris heading towards you.


Figure 1:  Closer to the eye the more urgent a task is.  The key is to watch the trajectory of your tasks.  The idea stresses that your work load planning is dynamic and you should review on a daily, weekly basis and move the ships!  To use practically draw some concentric circles on a piece of paper and use post-its instead of ships!

The final bit of advice I have is to think backwards.  We tend when faced with a task to always look forward to the deadline and when it seems far off we are comforted and when it looms panic.  The alternative is to always think backwards from the deadline.  So you have an assignment due in on Monday the 26 November 2018 [and if you are a 2018 Physical Geography student you really do!].  So that is the deadline.  Thinking back from this you can work out a plan:

  • You are going to need if you can to keep clear the weekend before in case there is a last minute panic.
  • The week before the deadline you will need to write and polish the assignment. This might be the week to bring a draft to one of the drop-in sessions, although lots of people may be doing this!
  • In order to do this you will need to have worked out what to say during the week before that to give you a chance to organise the material you need and do the necessary reading.
  • The week before that you need to perhaps attend one of the drop-in help sessions to check your understanding of the task, seek guidance and test our your initial ideas.
  • How does this three week timeline fit with your other tasks and assignments? Perhaps you will need to build in an extra week or a pause while something else takes centre stage?

The idea is that by working backwards you visualise the end point and can plan more effectively.  In a crude way it’s a bit like an Olympic athlete visualising victory and working back from there.  Working forward you often end up with a greater sense of impending doom!  As the Fraser of Dad’s Army fame would say ‘we all doomed! Doomed I say!’  Better to think of the pleasure of a calm and controlled submission and work back from there and you will never be doomed!