On writing quickly and well

As an academic writer, I have the luxury of time to develop ideas, do research, draft an article or book chapter, and polish the prose before submitting my work to an editor. As a blogger and writer for online article sites, I must write and publish multiple articles every day.

Part of the business of online writing includes reading and commenting on other people’s blogs and articles, and I have seen a lot of clumsy writing and poor spelling. It’s hard to understand the poor spelling, since now even the most rudimentary word processors have spelling checkers. I hope I can offer some help in improving the writing with these two things I try to keep in mind as I write my first drafts:

Make sure “this” or “that” do not stand alone as the subject of a sentence

“This” and “that” are adjectives. Ask yourself “this what?” or “that what?” The answer to that question is probably the word you want for your subject (or object, for that matter). The strongest, clearest writing comes from the choice of strong nouns and verbs. At best, choosing a vague adjective instead of a noun makes the sentence dull and uninteresting. It can also add unwanted ambiguity.

Try to avoid forms of “to be”

Verbs convey action, most of them, anyway. “To be” means only some kind of existence. It also forms the passive voice. No one can avoid “to be” or passive voice entirely in either speech or writing, but many writers overuse them. Any other verb is stronger than “to be” and active voice is stronger than passive voice.

For writers who want to evade personal responsibility or cloud their meaning, nothing works better than passive voice. Bureaucrats and diplomats excel at using passive verbs to create ambiguity. Bloggers, writers for article sites, or for that matter, term papers or almost anything else, have no need to crawl under the desk like that, but too often and too easily fall into the trap of overusing passive voice.

I try to pay attention as I write, so that every time I start to type any form of “to be,” I ask myself if I can find some better verb; usually I can. (For example, I almost wrote,  I ask myself if there is a better verb; usually there is. See how flabby that makes the sentence? And in a paragraph devoted to rooting out “to be!”)

Even with the speed of writing and publication that online writing demands, I try to set everything aside till the next day, or at least for an hour or two, to see if I can improve the draft. Looking out for these two common traps and choosing good nouns and verbs the first time through makes revision easier. If for some reason I can’t take time to revise, thinking of these concepts from the beginning makes scanning the published article less embarrassing.

The family that sings together clings together

One family of my acquaintance never took vacations. They never did much of anything else together. The children never became involved in after-school activities. They did not develop common interests at home. Now that they’re grown, holidays are times of tension. It’s as if they gather together because families always gather together on holidays, but no one really seems to enjoy each other’s company and no one really seems to know what to talk about or  how to fill the time.

I know another family with two grown brothers living in the same suburb. Both were musicians, and one played in the same community orchestra I did. I didn’t see the other very often, but it was no use asking the one about the other. They could go for months at a time without seeing each other or calling each other on the  phone, although they said they got along just fine.

In an earlier post I mentioned that the tradition of candy making has helped make my family close. It’s our oldest shared tradition, but probably not the most important for family building.  http://www.allpurposeguru.com/2009/11/family-tradition-making-chocolates.html

When I was in high school, my father got a visiting professorship for one year across the country from where we lived. My parents decided that rather than staying in motels as we drove there, they’d buy a trailer, and we could camp out and do some good sightseeing. During the year we were there, we took the trailer out on alternate weekends, usually visiting national parks or other beautiful  places. Dad later said he though the shared experiences did more than anything else to mold our family into a unit.

I would like to focus on one aspect of  our shared experiences, which probably started some time before our cross-country trip. We sang. Our repertoire consisted largely of Broadway show tunes, and we particularly enjoyed some songs by Irving Berlin and others that ended up with two songs being sung together. Being an unusually musical family, we sang a lot in three or four part harmony–not easy considering there wasn’t a soprano among us.

We’ve since learned some new favorites and still set aside time for singing whenever we’re together. Since we’re scattered to four different states from coast to coast, that is not more than a couple of times a year. One of my nieces can actually sing soprano.

The point is not how well we sing, although it’s fun bragging about it. I remember driving for some miles on a winding two-lane highway behind a pickup truck with several children in the back, singing at the top of their lungs. They didn’t sound very good; several of us commented on it. I have no idea if they were all one family, but they were sure enjoying themselves together.

That’s the whole point.

Finding subjects in an online library catalog

There are two difficulties with subject headings in a library catalog. For one thing, you must know what the subject heading is before you can search on it. For another, not all libraries use the same subject list. At first, it seems worse than the old complaint that you can’t look up how to spell a word in the dictionary unless you know how to spell it.

In the days of card catalogs, patrons had little choice but to make their best guess and hope to find something. College and university libraries, which overwhelmingly use Library of Congress Subject Headings, used to keep the whole list–all four or five volumes of the so-called “Red Books”–out where patrons could use them.

I used them from time to time and never had to stand in line. In fact, most patrons probably did not use them or even know what they were for. The nice thing was that I could make my guess, look in the “Red Books,” and if I was wrong, would very likely find a cross-reference. Unfortunately, the abbreviations for the various kinds of cross-references were devised by librarians for other librarians. They were hard for non-librarians to understand  or interpret.

Subject searching is actually better in an online library catalog. All those confusing cross-references in the “Red Books” work  invisibly under the hood. When a patron needs them, they appear written in intelligible English. But there is a better way to approach subject searching than just guessing at what a real heading might be.

First, though, some background is necessary. Most academic libraries use Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). Most public libraries use Sears List of Subject Headings. Most medical libraries use Medical Subject Headings (MeSH). The Library of Congress issues a separate list of headings for children.

All of these classification systems operate on the same basic principles: For every subject, there is one and only one term used to describe it in the catalog (controlled vocabulary). Terms exist in some kind of hierarchy from the most general to the most specific; the cataloging record for each title will have only the most specific headings. The cross references to a given subject heading may show broader or narrower terms, but there is no way to trace an entire hierarchy.

Although they operate on the same principles, the different systems do not use the same terms. What is the preferred term in one will be invalid in another. For example, “cancer” is a subject heading in both Sears and LCSH, but not in MeSH; the valid heading there is “neoplasms.” If, for example, a university includes a medical school, and if the medical library and other libraries share a single catalog, that catalog must have separate indexes for searching LSCH and MeSH to avoid confusion.

The easiest way to find subject headings is to start with a keyword search, using the most specific terms you can think of. Under the influence of search engines, many online library catalogs display only a single search box. That works much less well for a catalog or other database than for a search engine, but it’s a place to start.

If you see a link to “advanced search,” use it. In almost any database, the advanced search is more useful and actually easier to use than the simple search. For subject searching, it may have separate search boxes for subject headings, subject keywords, and general keywords. Enter your terms in subject keywords if available; otherwise choose general keywords.

Your search will return a list of records that contain that term (or, if you have chosen a non-preferred term, records that contain the subject heading). Choose any title that looks promising and click on it to open the record. There, under subjects, you will find the subject heading associated with the keyword you searched, along with any other subject headings in that record. Click on a subject heading and you will get a list of everything in the library with that heading.

In a well designed catalog, a complex subject heading, that is a string of more than one term like “Dogs–United States–Biography–Humor,” will present each term as a separate link. Click on “Dogs” and you should get back a list of subject headings that begin with “Dogs,” followed by screen after screen of all of the subheadings. Click on “United States” and you should get a list of headings that begin with “Dogs–United States,” etc. The farther to the right you click on one of those strings, the more specific search results will return. Unfortunately, not all online library catalogs are well designed.

If you are planning to look up a lot of resources about your subject, write down every useful subject heading you find. You will be able to enter it directly in the search box for subject headings when you return to the catalog and skip the guessing stage.

A Family Tradition: Making Chocolates

Nothing draws families together like shared experiences. When I was growing up, among other things, we made candy every Thanksgiving. Now that we’re adults and all of my siblings have children of their own, we still do. Not just any candy, either–hand dipped chocolate candy.

My father cannot remember a time before his  mother started making candy, but he does remember when she tried chocolates for the first time, in 1932. It was a disaster. She melted some chocolate, made some fondant, dipped the fondant in the chocolate with a fork, and set it aside. When it cooled off, it had all turned an ugly shade of gray, and tasted no better than it looked.

Some time after that, she saw an ad for a chocolate dipper. She applied and got the job at a place called Morrow’s Nut House. Dad says it was well named, as it had a wide assortment of nuts both for sale and behind the counters! One of them, the chief candy maker, terrorized the entire staff except the manager and Grandma, who on one occasion just calmly told him to put down his butcher knife. He was fired eventually and opened his own store. He hired Grandma to to sit in the window and dip chocolates.

Shortly after that, she showed Grandpa how to make candy, and she dipped it after work. They’d make about 300 pounds (with Dad rolling it into balls) and sell it at Christmas time. After all that work, by the time Christmas rolled around, they were too tired to enjoy what they kept for themselves. After two or three Christmases, they decided it was too much trouble for a business and too good to quit entirely, so after that, they made smaller amounts and gave it to friends.

Dad’s graduation from high school might have been the end of the story. He went into the army, then to college and graduate school, but after he got his first job, he and Mom decided to get the recipes and give it a try. The first time didn’t work very well, but they got the  hang of it. I must have been about five at the time. I cannot remember a time before they started making chocolates. They’re still at it. Those of my sibs who live close enough go to their house to make it.

My own efforts parallel Grandma’s and Dad’s. That is, the early ones were disasters. I had always rolled creams and fudge into balls, but never learned to make the centers or dip. My first efforts at dipping looked like Grandma’s, except I had no one nearby to show me how to do it right. (It’s all in the temperature.) Nor did I have all the right equipment or anyplace to put it. I was in graduate school, clear across the country. I hate to admit how many years I ruined most of what I touched before I began to get the hang of it.

The point of this post, however, is the importance of traditions in building a family. I know so many people who have distant or strained relationships with adult siblings. They have little in common besides growing up in the same house or apartment. They did nothing together as a family with any regularity, and so as they grew to adulthood and spread out across the country, they had little reason to keep in touch. Obligatory family gatherings like  holidays became meetings of strangers.

I do not claim that this one tradition explains why we’re all so close to this day and why most of our spouses get along so well. I  could describe others. But we all make candy. We all enjoy taste-testing each other’s candy. And we all enjoy hunting for new kinds of candy Grandma never made and sharing the recipes. A couple of the younger generation have already graduated from college. One’s married. All but one are at least in high school. And I think all but the youngest are proficient candy makers. I know they all like each other and look forward to our time together.

Finding names in an online library catalog

The strength of a library catalog is something called “controlled vocabulary.” That is, there is one and only one way to express a subject or the name of a person, organized group, or legal jurisdiction in a catalog. You don’t have to know what it is; there is something called an authority file running in the background to  help you.

This article is about names, not just authors. For one thing, it includes not only personal names, but names of groups, companies, government jurisdictions, etc. For another, any of these kinds of names can be not only the author of something, but some other relationship (such as illustrator or editor) to something, or a subject of something.

In an earlier post, I mentioned the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The official way to express  his name in a catalog used to be “Ratzinger, Joseph, 1927-,” but as soon as he became Pope, the official way changed to “Benedict XVI, Pope, 1927-.”  No one would ever guess either form, although everyone is used to the convention of last name first from the phone book.

I had no idea what the correct form was until I just looked up “Ratzinger” in a catalog. My search told me both the old and new forms. That is very helpful, because all of the books by or about him that were published before he became pope have “Joseph Ratzinger” on them, and not “Pope Benedict XVI.” Sooner or later, most people forget a Pope’s former name. Fifty years from now, anyone who reads one of those books and wants to find more by or about Cardinal Ratzinger will be able to search for Ratzinger and find him, along with all later material by or about him, under his  papal name.

The rules for determining the one and only way to formulate the official form of a name are complicated, but that’s actually good for the patrons. It used to be that catalogers had to find and use the fullest form of a person’s real name. People looking for the writings of Mark Twain had to search under Samuel Langhorne Clemens. People looking for the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart found it only under Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Well, that’s what was in his baptismal records.

Even so, it’s not as bad as it sounds. The idea of an authority file is much older than computers. Before online catalogs, there were card catalogs. If anyone went to “Twain, Mark,” there was a card that told them to look under Clemens. But now, the rules call for using the best known form of a name, such as using initials (H. G. Wells instead of Herman George Wells), nicknames (Jimmy Carter instead of James Earl Carter), and shortened forms of a full name (such as Mozart’s).

A related problem is what to do about names in languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet. You might find the name Chekov, Chehov, Tchekhov, or any number of other variants on a book. Looking up any of them in the catalog will take you to “Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich, 1860-1904.

Unlike personal names, corporate names are given in direct order. That is, “W.K. Kellogg Foundation” instead of “Kellogg, W.K., Foundation;” or “University of Chicago” instead of “Chicago, University of.” Some corporate bodies are part of larger ones. If the name of the smaller group is not distinctive (such as “Music Department”), it is entered after the name of the larger one: “University of Chicago, Dept. of Music.”

The name of a corporate body may not convey the idea of what it is. Marilyn Manson, for example, looks like a woman’s name. There may in fact be several women with that name, but it is also the name of a rock group. In this case, not only is it given in direct order, but there is a parenthetical expression that tells what it is: “Marilyn Manson (Musical group).

There are also geographical names in the name authority file, specifically, countries, states, provinces, counties, cities, villages, or anything else that is capable of authorship. So there are entries for Brazil, Ohio, Lima (Ohio), Lima (Peru), Chicago (Ill.), Grand Canyon National Park (Agency : U.S.), etc., but not for Grand Canyon National Park itself. The park agency can and does produce literature. The canyon itself cannot. It is not in the name authority file, but it is in the subject authority file.

If some of the punctuation and abbreviations for corporate and geographical names looks strange, well, there are lots of rules. People who work in libraries must either get a masters degree in library science in order to begin to learn them or else work in a library cataloging department for a very long time. There are good reasons why the rules are so complicated, but patrons don’t have to worry about them. If they guess wrong, the authority structure is there to help them find what they need. Or they can do a simple keyword search, find whatever names are hotlinks in the records that come up, and click on them.