Shibboleths & White Shoes: 5 Lessons for Editors

This post is a response to comments from readers about my use of “insure” in Editors insure content matches audience readiness for it. I’m using this as a teaching moment for my technical editing students so it might be too long for others. Skip ahead if you just want to get to shibboleths or white shoes or the 5 lessons.

Insure vs. Ensure

On Twitter, one of my blog readers wrote,

I wonder, based on today’s heading, whether you ever make a distinction between insure and ensure.

This comment is similar to an author query by an editor. It’s a good query, in this case, because it can be interpreted as a simple question, and it’s carefully indirect if meant as a suggestion. After all, I didn’t enlist the reader to serve as my blog editor. And, even if I had, a good editor knows that ownership belongs with the author.

My immediate reaction to the query was to reflect on my usage: I use these two terms as synonyms and, for me, “ensure” is more conservative. I would use it in a context more formal than my blog. Later, I checked a couple of dictionaries to make sure my use of “insure” in the heading was standard. (The habit of looking things up is one sign of a good editor.)

My preferred dictionary, Merriam-Webster, as well as the Oxford Dictionary, lists multiple definitions for “insure.” The following ones are relevant to my headline choice:

  1. to make certain especially by taking necessary measures and precautions (M-W)
  2. to secure or protect someone against (a possible contingency) (Oxford)
  3. as a synonym for “ensure” (Oxford)

Here’s what Oxford says about “insure” and “ensure.”

There is considerable overlap between the meaning and use of insure and ensure. In both British and US English the primary meaning of insure is the commercial sense of providing financial compensation in the event of damage to property; ensure is not used at all in this sense. For the more general senses, ensure is the more usual word, but insure is also sometimes used, particularly in US English, e.g. bail is posted to insure that the defendant appears for trial; the system is run to ensure that a good quality of service is maintained

I was surprised to read “ensure” is more common so I investigated a little more. The chart shows the ngram of usage for the two words in books over the past 200 years.

ngramThe use of “ensure” increased dramatically around 1950. I’m not sure how my own idiolect diverged from the norm except that I grew up surrounded by linguistically conservative speakers whose usage must have reflected the equivalency of the two terms. “Ensure” is definitely the more recent usage.

As a result of this investigation, I’ll be more discriminating in my use of “insure” in the future. More importantly, this reader’s comment gave me the chance to show my students that, even with almost 30 years of editing experience, I am still actively learning how to do my job better.

Shibboleths

Another reader’s comment on my use of “insure” was more like an edit than a query.

You may wish to change your headline to fix the misspelling: editors ENSURE content matches audience readiness

The phrasing “may wish” makes this an indirect suggestion. But the use of “fix” and “misspelling” clearly classify my word choice as an error, and that prompted me to revisit the topic of shibboleths.

As John Fought explained in the PBS series, Do You Speak American?,

Language has always helped to signify who we are in society, sometimes serving as a basis for exclusion. A Bible story tells how a password, shibboleth, was chosen because the enemy didn’t use the sh sound.“Shibboleth” has since come to signify an emblem of belief or membership, an identifiable sign of those who must stay outside the gate.

The second reader comment categorizes my use of “insure” instead of “ensure” as a shibboleth. My usage signals I’m an outsider. If I want to be an insider, I have to change my language. I’ve already said that, although two dictionaries support my choice of “insure,” my investigation will make me more discriminating in my use of that word in the future. This additional teaching moment concerns the presumption of my error–the judgment about my lack of proper etiquette.

This is where my beliefs probably diverge from those of the reader who made the comment. My training as a linguist means I don’t believe anyone’s language is wrong. Ever. But I know our language can be ineffective in meeting our goals. That belief underlies my career as a writer, editor, and a teacher or coach of writers and editors. Many, perhaps most, editors share the worldview of prescriptive grammar–that language choices can be wrong. For a more detailed discussion of prescriptive grammar within the context of professional writing/editing, see my earlier post about grammar rules. Here’s a summary.

Prescriptive grammar is the result of a movement in England between 1650 and 1800. Influenced by the chaotic political and social climate of the time, four literary giants (Dryden, Defoe, Swift & Johnson) tried to control the English language by forming a regulatory agency. Although the agency did not endure, Johnson’s authoritative dictionary did. So did the men’s haughty conviction that breaking the rules for proper English (as arbitrarily defined by them) constitutes a breach in etiquette. And such breaches are simply wrong. Like wearing white shoes after Labor Day.

White Shoes

A condescending attitude based on arbitrary rules of etiquette continues and is pervasive among editors. A notable exception, editor Stan Carey writes,

Editors are prescriptive by definition, and many would happily call themselves prescriptivist. Outside of work too, some are linguistically conservative by nature, or rather habit. But this is not a necessity for the job, nor, to my mind, does it automatically confer advantage.

I agree a prescriptive attitude is no advantage. In fact, I would say it’s a disadvantage to an editor.

You may wonder how editors can do their work without telling authors they are wrong. Let me make two points.

The first point is that I do recognize most shibboleths. As an editor, I suggest how authors can alter their language in order to pass through the gate if it leads them toward their final destination. If I’m working on behalf of the author, I do not dictate those changes. If I work on behalf of the publisher, I do. But my directives are based on compliance with the chosen style guide–not on judgments of proper etiquette. And I offer suggestions only to people who have invited me to.

The second point is that editors whose attitude is descriptive distinguish between shibboleths that matter and zombie rules.  I know rules about ending a sentence with a preposition and using passive voice are the latter type. There has been considerable research in this area over the past 30 years (see further readings below).

John E. McIntyre, editor at the Baltimore Sun, makes the same points in this video.

Some of us choose not to carry on the tradition of looking down on those who wear white shoes after Labor Day.  As a teacher, I believe my job is to expand rather than restrict my students’ choices. I want them to understand what it means to choose white shoes on a whole range of occasions. There is no simple right vs. wrong. I want students to learn how to think about language, how it can be managed to achieve rhetorical aims. Then they will be educated enough to make their own informed choices about shoes or language.

As McIntyre says, we should be capable of “judgment rather than adherence to some set of shibboleths.”

5 Lessons for Editors

  1. Authors own their texts.
  2. No editor can ever stop looking things up.
  3. Editors must continue to improve their craft.
  4. Editing often requires choices among multiple, viable options.
  5. All good editorial suggestions are based on an understanding of a text’s rhetorical context.

Further Reading

For those of you who are interested in more thoughtful editing,  here are some of my favorite sources:

Here are the major studies establishing the degree of negative attention generated by breaking various prescriptive rules:

  1. Hairston. (1981). Not All Errors Are Created Equal: Nonacademic Readers in the Professions Respond to Lapses in Usage. College English, 43, 794-806.
  2. Connors & Lunsford. (1988). Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research. College Composition and Communication, 39, 395-409.
  3. Leonard & Gilsdorf. (1990). Language in Change: Academics’ and Executives’ Perceptions of Usage Errors. Journal of Business Communication, 27, 137-158.
  4. Seshadri & Theye. (2000). Professionals and Professors: Substance or Style? Business Communication Quarterly, 64, 9-23.
  5. Beason. (2001). Ethos and Error: How Business People React to Errors. College Composition and Communication, 53, 33-64.
  6. Lunsford & Lunsford. (2008). Mistakes Are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study.College Composition and Communication, 59, 781-806.

Does essay writing help you succeed as a writer at work?

Today’s post is in honor of the National Day on Writing. U.S. students spend years writing essays. They believe they know how to write. (And also often believe that writing is meaningless.) What they do not know is that different rhetorical contexts (different goals, audiences, content) give rise to different ways of organizing and presenting information in effective written messages. That’s called genre awareness.

The situation means you shouldn’t be surprised that workplace novices write workplace documents as if they were some version of a five-paragraph essay. Many non-academics complain. Loudly. Here’s a small selection of such complaints. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

There is definitely evidence that such complaints should be interpreted carefully. (See The myth of job readiness? Written communication, employability, and the ‘skills gap’ in higher education.) That doesn’t mean students gain genre awareness before they enter the work force.

Let me share a story that makes my point. [A version appeared on Pros Write a couple of years ago.] Through some odd luck, Pat was enrolled in a university writing course at the same time she was working as an intern at a food manufacturing company. As part of her internship experience, Pat shadowed her manager-mentor on a safety inspection of the company’s Atlanta manufacturing facility. (I have to thank Ron Dulek for part of this story.) The day before her trip to the plant, Pat’s writing teacher asked the class to write a narrative essay. At the end of the trip, Pat’s mentor asked her to write up the results of the inspection in a compliance memo.  Poor Pat!

Pat decided her plant visit could supply the content for her essay assignment. She wrote the essay first because she was more confident about her ability to please her teacher than her mentor. At this point in her life, Pat had written dozens of essays but not one compliance report or memo. In fact, she had never even seen such documents. She began her essay like this:

On June 3, 2012, I conducted an audit at the Atlanta branch of Allgood, Inc., in regards to safety handling and compliance rules. I was escorted on a tour of the facility by B. A. McCoy, who has served as the Assistant Plant Manager for 17 years.

Once Pat finished her essay, she used it as the first draft of her compliance report. While she revised some of the essay’s content, she left the first few sentences the same.

Pat’s writing teacher assigned her a “B” on her essay. However, Pat’s mentor told her she would have to rewrite the report because it was not acceptable–especially the beginning, which should have stated clearly whether or not the plant was in compliance. Pat’s head almost exploded!  Imagine putting the conclusion first. (If you recognize this story, it’s because I’ve told it in many lectures and wrote about it in my co-authored workbook, Revising Professional Writing.)

Imagine how different Pat’s experience would have been if she had been asked to read even one brief workplace report during her 14 years of formal schooling. And what if a teacher had not only assigned the report as reading but had guided Pat in analyzing the difference in rhetorical contexts among the report, a narrative essay, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? And what if a teacher pointed out that the differences in content, organization, style, and mechanics among those three documents were the result of differences in genre? If all of that happened, Pat would have developed genre awareness. She would have received a rhetorical education that would lead to better workplace success!

Of course, when teachers spend time on genre awareness, they are not aiding students in their quest to ace the essay writing required for academic purposes. I mean the high stakes writing “tests” used to determine college or grad school admissions or scholarship offers. Shame on higher ed!

I salute all of those teachers who promote genre awareness just because it’s best for their students in the long run. Keep fighting the good fight. I’ll be standing beside you.

Check out the 4th Edition of Revising Professional Writing

rpw4_coverThe 4th edition of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences is now available It’s an affordable workbook at $39.95 USD, with over 400 revision and editing problems. Instructors get an answer key plus supplements here on Pros Write (e.g., sample documents, videos, etc.) supporting the principles in the book.

Each of the 21 chapters explains research-backed principles for revising or editing a single element (e.g., informative graphics, bottom line placement, conciseness, pronoun reference, etc.). The succinct explanatory text is followed by revision and editing problems that require increasing levels of expertise within each chapter.

Details:

  • Over 400 revision and editing problems covering rhetorical context, development, organization, style and tone, and mechanics.
  • Problems range from sentences and paragraphs to 11 full-length texts.
  • Examples from a variety of texts: memos, letters, résumés, proposals, instructions, definitions, and reports.
  • All revising and editing problems drawn from the actual writing of college students.
  • Self-contained chapters, allowing flexible use with other textbooks.
  • ISBN 978-0-9767180-6-2

Parlay Press provides exam copies:

Email: mail(at)parlaypress(dot)com
Toll-free fax: 888.301.3116

Your feedback is valued!

Thinking and Interacting Like a Leader ebook released today

e978-0-9767180-7-9The 2nd edition of Thinking and Interacting Like a Leader: The TILL System for Leadership Communication is now available as an ebook on Google Play. The book is a concise guide to help current and future managers become better leaders by building their personal power.

In a nutshell, the TILL system teaches you to manage tone when you manage people. Its focus is deliberately not media specific. But I plan to create a few relevant posts about writing here on Pros Write this fall while using the TILL ebook in my course on leadership communication. (Yes, I do have a day job.) There have been a few guest posts here by terrific former students in that course. In fact, the material in the ebook grew out of my experiences teaching them about the role of language in leadership.

Details for instructors/coaches:

  • 12 chapters with two in-depth application exercises per chapter––one analyzed for students, the other for practice, homework, or quizzes
  • extensive analysis of memos, emails, letters, performance evaluations, and leader-member conversations
  • answers to selected exercises
  • annotated bibliography and suggested readings at the end of each chapter
  • equivalent to ~200 pages
  • $29.99 list price (currently $16.19 USD at Google Play)
  • ISBN 978-0-9767180-7-9

One of the great things about ebooks is that you can read a sample without buying. The 1st two chapters of TILL are available free on Google Play. Thanks to Frank and Kathy at Parlay Press for making it happen.

Comments welcomed!

 

Choose active vs. passive voice strategically

schoolmarmNo grammatical construction raises the ire of writing “experts” like the passive. Geoff Pullum (a regular contributor to Lingua Franca at the Chronicle of Higher Education) provided two marvelous examples in a research paper titled “Fear and loathing of the English passive.”

The passive voice liquidates and buries the active individual, along with most of the awful truth. Our massed, scientific, and bureaucratic society is so addicted to it that you must constantly alert yourself against its drowsy, impersonal pomp.

and

A sentence written in passive voice is the shifty desperado who tries to win the gunfight by shooting the sheriff in the back, stealing his horse, and sneaking out of town.

Take a second to let those sink in. We are talking about sentence structure, aren’t we?

Pullum’s research article concluded by noting that advice to avoid passives is “bogus” and often provided by people who are “commonly hopeless at distinguishing passives from actives.” As I’ve written here before, any “expert” who focuses on limiting your stylistic choices should be ignored.  Real experts have many tools to accomplish their goals. It’s the same with expert writers. Language allows us multiple ways of saying the same thing for a reason. Every style is appropriate in some context–otherwise it wouldn’t exist.

Now that I’ve acknowledged the vitriol surrounding passive voice, let’s move on to some guidance backed by research. Here are two versions of the same fictional news story from the Stroppy Editor:

  1. Scientists at the University of Birmingham have discovered a drug that cures AIDS. Clinical trials involving 900 people with AIDS have shown it to work. Just three injections completely cured all 900 of them. The healthcare regulator is likely to approve the drug for clinical use within months.
  2. A drug that cures AIDS has been discovered by scientists at the University of Birmingham. It has been shown to work by clinical trials involving 900 people with AIDS. All 900 of them were completely cured by just three injections. The drug is likely to be approved by the healthcare regulator for clinical use within months.

Version 2 is superior if the writer’s goal is to convey a message to readers clearly and efficiently. Yet each of its four sentences is constructed in passive voice (i.e., …been discovered…been shown…were…cured…be approved…). Readers of Version 2 can’t miss the focus of the passage: a new drug.  Not so in Version 1, where all four sentences use active voice but focus on different things.

It turns out that passive voice is useful in some situations–like maintaining thematic flow. Active voice is useful in others–like establishing a personal style or tone. Your choice should be strategic. That means based on the rhetorical context: your purpose, your reader’s needs, and the content of your message.

Active/passive voice is explained in Chapter 13 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using that book in an academic setting, you’ll find many exercises in that chapter, requiring you to distinguish between active and passive voice and then choose between them for strategic reasons. Here are some additional resources to help you master the choice:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Enter feedback in the comments below if I can provide you with other resources.

Sample Document

Review the document below. It is based on one from Susan M. Heathfield for About.com on Human Resources, but it has been adapted specifically to show how pros use active and passive voice in workplace documents.

  • Writer: a hiring manager at a publishing company
  • Readers: an applicant for a sales manager position
  • Bottom line message: while the applicant was rejected for the management position, the company would like to interview her for a different position

Here’s a revised version of the letter, with strategically chosen active/passive voice.

Video Tutorial

The letter is included in this ~13-minute video about voice in workplace documents.

Related Readings

There are several posts here at Pros Write that deal with passive vs. active voice. Just enter “passive” in the search field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, you might begin with the following sources.

Kies, D. (1985). Some stylistic features of business and technical writing: The functions of passive voice, nominalization, and agency. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 15, 299-308.

Millar, N., Budgell, B. & Fuller, K. (2013) ‘Use the active voice whenever possible’: The impact of style guidelines in medical journals. Applied Linguistics, 34(4), 393–414.

Pullum, G.K. (2014). Fear and loathing of the English passive. Language and Communication, 37, 60-74.

Riley, K. (1991). Passive voice and the rhetorical role in scientific writing. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 21, 239-257.

Shibboleths for National Grammar Day

For National Grammar Day, I’m posting a slightly edited version of “Shibboleths and entering the professions,” which appeared on Pros Write back in 2012. I wrote the original in response to the raised eyebrows after I posted  “Language choices can be unsuccessful — but never wrong.” For some readers, my belief that language can never be wrong contradicts with my belief that I can prepare students for writing successfully in the workplace. The apparent contradiction deserved an explanation. So this post is about grammar rules. (I’ll get to “shibboleths” in a minute.)

According to Parker and Riley (two contemporary linguists) in Grammar for Grammarians:

“grammar” is not a simple, unified subject. Rather, it is a cover term for at least four different, and sometimes mutually exclusive, conceptions of grammar: prescriptive, descriptive, generative, and contextual.

My university training as a linguist means I studied the latter three types of grammar rules. (I learned the prescriptive type in elementary school.) My role as a writing teacher means I often interact with people who assume I share the worldview of prescriptive grammar — that language can be wrong.  I don’t. Let me explain why not, borrowing from Parker and Riley’s chapter 2 on the prescriptive period.

Prescriptive grammar is the result of a movement in England between 1650 and 1800. Influenced by the chaotic political and social climate of the time, four literary giants (Dryden, Defoe, Swift & Johnson) tried to control the English language by forming a regulatory agency. Although the agency did not endure, Johnson’s authoritative dictionary did. And so did the men’s haughty conviction that breaking the rules for proper English (as arbitrarily defined by them) constitutes a breach in etiquette and is therefore wrong. (You know, like wearing white shoes after Labor Day.) Sadly, even highly educated people don’t know the history behind these vapid rules.

I’ll give you an example. Robert Lowth, who wrote the highly influential A Short Introduction to English Grammar in 1762, is the subject of the portrait in today’s post. He believed there had been a decline in writing standards and that his job was to remedy the decline by formulating a set of rules for proper behavior. One of his rules is called preposition-stranding:

Keep a preposition with its object.

For Lowth and his followers, this means “the party you went to” is wrong, while “the party to which you went” is right. Parker and Riley explain:

The rule apparently is based on the fact that in Latin (as in all Romance languages), prepositions always precede a noun phrase and thus never appear in sentence-final position.

So, you should ask, what is the relevance of Latin as a model for English? Well . . . there is no direct line of development from Latin to English. Rather English evolved from Germanic roots. (I’ve added red circles to the diagram from the 4th edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.) Also, English is structurally different from Latin, using few inflections and a basic verb-object order. Too, by Lowth’s time, Latin had been a dead language for more than a milleneum. (No one outside of a monastery spoke it after ~700 AD.)  The fact that a dead language doesn’t change, while a living one cannot stop changing was apparently lost on Lowth and his prescriptivist pals.

You should also definitely ask: what were Lowth’s credentials for creating rules for English usage? He served as Bishop of Oxford and was a professor of Hebrew poetry (in other words, The Old Testament). I willingly recognize Lowth’s expertise in reading Hebrew and Latin. He might also have been a good writer. (I can’t judge the performance of 18th century British scholars.) But I won’t grant him expertise over the language I use today. His rule about preposition placement convinces me he had little enough understanding of the language used during his own lifetime.

Because of my studies in English language, I know prescriptive rules like preposition-stranding are shibboleths. As John Fought explained in the PBS series, Do You Speak American?,

Language has always helped to signify who we are in society, sometimes serving as a basis for exclusion. A Bible story tells how a password, shibboleth, was chosen because the enemy didn’t use the sh sound.“Shibboleth” has since come to signify an emblem of belief or membership, an identifiable sign of those who must stay outside the gate.

If my students’ language signals they may not pass inside the gate where professionals reside, I never tell them they’re wrong. I do sometimes tell them their language will elicit negative attention from some workplace readers.  But only when they break prescriptive “rules” that count as shibboleths for professional membership. It’s my responsibility to know which rules matter. Because of my studies in writing and business communication, I know ending a sentence with a preposition isn’t one of them. There has been considerable research in this area over the past 30 years (see further readings below).

In a professional writing course, I always explain levels of formality (see my video on word choice) to everyone. I explain grammatical shibboleths to individual students whose usage signals they belong outside the gate: double negatives and subject-verb agreement are two prime examples. As needed, I explain a few other mechanical issues that serve as shibboleths: misspellings, sentence fragments, and comma splices (see my video on punctuation).

What is most sad to me is that so-called language experts (that means most English teachers, who study little, if anything, about language) perpetuate the worldview of your-language-is-wrong with a total lack of awareness. Almost every person I know believes language can be wrong. Many of them are highly educated. But they were denied any real language education. They did not learn that English does not belong to those long-dead, reactionary, literary men of the 18th century who acted as the judges of etiquette based on their own tastes.

I choose not to continue the tradition of looking down on those who wear white shoes after Labor Day. And I choose not to promote the use of shibboleths to teach students how to enter their chosen professions.  To me, there is a critical difference between telling students their language is wrong and telling them their language is likely to be unsuccessful in certain situations because it will distract some readers and undermine their credibility. As an educator, I believe my job is to expand rather than restrict my students’ choices.

Further Reading

For those of you who want to see the evidence for yourself,  here are the major studies establishing the degree of negative attention generated by breaking various prescriptive rules:

  1. Hairston. (1981). Not All Errors Are Created Equal: Nonacademic Readers in the Professions Respond to Lapses in Usage. College English, 43, 794-806.
  2. Connors & Lunsford. (1988). Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research. College Composition and Communication, 39, 395-409.
  3. Leonard & Gilsdorf. (1990). Language in Change: Academics’ and Executives’ Perceptions of Usage Errors. Journal of Business Communication, 27, 137-158.
  4. Seshadri & Theye. (2000). Professionals and Professors: Substance or Style? Business Communication Quarterly, 64, 9-23.
  5. Beason. (2001). Ethos and Error: How Business People React to Errors. College Composition and Communication, 53, 33-64.
  6. Lunsford & Lunsford. (2008). Mistakes Are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study.College Composition and Communication, 59, 781-806.

Create logical flow between sentences to promote accurate and efficient reading

I have argued that sentence variety is the enemy of efficiency. People read more accurately and efficiently when all the elements of a document are tightly connected. This includes the connection between consecutive sentences. I refer to this as cohesion (sometimes referred to as Functional Sentence Perspective by linguists).

My experience is that most adults are able to create cohesive prose at the sentence level without explicit instruction. But, for those without this skill, the problem is truly critical. Their readers struggle to read their prose and make comments about awkwardness, lack of logical “flow,” or–the most damning–the quality of the writer’s education. The kicker is that few writing teachers I’ve known understand how to help. Responding as a reader or editor is not the same as teaching.

Cohesion is briefly explained in Chapter 8 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using that book in an academic setting, you’ll find many exercises in that chapter, requiring you to identify and fix problems with the logical flow of information. But here are some additional resources to help anyone master this critical skill:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Enter feedback in the comments below if there’s something else you’d like to see.

Sample Document

Review a copy of the letter to a supplier. It was adapted by me based on a sample from ForestEthics (forestethics.org). The document was written within the following context:

  • Writer: the owner of an office supply store
  • Readers: representatives of the store’s suppliers of wood-based products
  • Bottom line message: the suppliers need to provide information about the sources of their products

Here’s a revised version of the letter, with more effective cohesion.

Video Tutorial

The letter to a supplier is included in this <12-minute video about cohesion in workplace documents.

For more on flow, check out this video from the writing center at the University of North Carolina.

Related Readings

There are not many posts here at Pros Write that deal with cohesion because it is relatively rare problem for adult native English speakers.  If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, check out the following sources.

Campbell (1995). Coherence, continuity, and cohesion: Theoretical foundations for document design. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Clark, H. H., & Haviland, S. E. (1977). Comprehension and the given-new contract. Discourse Production and Comprehension. Discourse Processes: Advances in Research and Theory1, 1-40.

Crossley, S. A., Allen, D., & McNamara, D. S. (2012). Text simplification and comprehensible input: A case for an intuitive approach. Language Teaching Research, 16(1), 89-108.

Kopple, W. J. V. (1982). Functional sentence perspective, composition, and reading. College composition and communication, 50-63.

The genre of responses to research article reviews

fighting criticsThis post continues my series on research articles (RAs). This time I’m addressing the all-important response to RA reviews. Mastering this genre is critical for anyone whose job includes publication in peer-reviewed journals. (If you want a little background, see this post.) When resubmitting a revised RA for potential publication, the authors must include a response to the reviews received on their initial submission, along with the revised RA.

One key to developing a document in this genre is for authors to get past their emotional reaction. Anger and frustration are normal emotional responses to RA reviews. But, like all professionals, researchers have to move past those emotions to be successful. Although it’s a challenge for all researchers to learn how to create this genre, non-native English speakers have even greater challenges. They are the target of much of the research on writing RAs and related genres as well as a host of author support services (like Editage.).

As usual, my approach to describing a genre builds on the ESP (English for Specific Purposes) practice of describing a set of rhetorical moves, each of which can often be broken down into more detailed steps.

Rhetorical Moves (Structure + Content) in Responses to RA Reviews

A document people recognize as a typical response to reviewers includes at least five rhetorical moves: (1) expressing gratitude, (2) signaling attention to the review comments, (3) claiming positive results, (4) previewing content, and (5) responding to specific comments. One additional move appears to be optional: (6) claiming solidarity. The table below breaks down those rhetorical moves into more detailed steps and provides examples from four actual samples. (Identifying information has been removed; I’ve used pseudonyms rather than titles of actual publications.)

 

A Comparison of Textual Elements

Details for the pattern of textual elements found within the four responses to reviews are summarized below.

    Overall Usage Examples
Style Elements Tense Past (simple & perfect) = high 1.     We condensed the literature review . . .
2.     While avoidance was a key aspect . . .
3.     We have revised our paper . . .
4.     . . . we have gone to great lengths . . .
Present = mid to high 1.     This is an important point . . .
2.     We find the opposite result . . .
3.     There is adequate evidence to . . .
4.     We absolutely agree with . . .
5.     We provide more detail below . . .
Future = low No examples identified
  Passive Usage = mid 1.     This view is reinforced by B&S (2005) . . .
2.     . . . it should be mentioned . . .
3.     . . . participants were informed . . .1.     Below, we describe the changes . . .
2.     . . . we present cross-sectional regressions . . .
3.     . . . we actually had some data . . .
  Pronouns 1st person = high 1.     Below we have provided direct responses to the issues you raise . . .
2.     We thank Reviewer A for the constructive comments . . .
3.     We agree and have removed most of this discussion . . .
2nd person = mid 1.     Below we have provided direct responses to the issues you raise . . .
2.     While your prior comments are focused on . . .
3.     As you say . . .
3rd person = low 1.     Participants were informed . . . they would receive . . .
2.     Discussions with managers . . . reveal that they typically ask . . .
3.     . . . outlined by you and the reviewers . . .
4.     As suggested by Reviewer B . . .
  Hedging Usage = high 1.     We feel the literature provides a clear . . .
2.     We hope that we were more clear . . .
3.     If we attempted to . . . it would have taken away from . . .
4.     . . . we have tried to better explain . . .
5.     For now, we have not delved deeply . . .
Organization Elements Headings Usage = high 1.     Editor Response Memo . . . Description of New Data . . . Responses to Reviewer A . . .
2.     RC1-1 [Reviewer 1, Comment 1] . . . AR1-1 [Author Response to Reviewer 1, Comment 1] . . . RC1-2 . . . AR1-2 . . .
Number or bullet lists Usage = low 1.     Responses to Reviewer A: (1) . . . (2) . . . (3) . . .
Page numbers or pointers Usage = high 1.     See new development on pp. 9-12 . . .
2.     . . . they are stated in the 1st full paragraph on p.5.
3.     We added such a table . . . (Table 2) . . .
4.     We have rewritten Section 2.5 . . .

Usage of some style elements seems obvious for the rhetorical purposes within this genre. For instance, the relative importance of past tense and first person pronouns means that authors spent considerable time reporting what they had done: Move 2 (signaling attention to review comments) and Move 5, Step 5c (describing specific revisions). As another example, use of hedges was high because authors qualified their claims–in typical academic style. Authors in this genre also have to be careful to achieve a polite tone when disagreeing with referee comments.

Other aspects of style are less obvious. For example, note that, despite the frequent use of first person, passive voice was fairly common. This is true not because authors are unwilling to refer directly to themselves but because passive is a key tool in creating cohesion.

The four samples of this genre used lots of headings but few lists to organize their content. (I’ve sometimes used tables to organize the steps in Move 5.) The samples also used a multitude of page numbers or other pointers to link their response to RA reviews clearly to their revised manuscript. This is a key feature of successful documents in this genre. Authors are more likely to succeed when they make it easy for editors and referees to find what they’re looking for.

Research Resources

I haven’t located any research directly related to this genre. If I’ve missed something, please let me know!

 

The genre of research article reviews

In order to respond to reviews of research articles (RAs) submitted for publication, researchers have to be astute readers of those reviews.  Plus, novice researchers are usually asked to write their own reviews of research during their doctoral studies–often beginning with papers (or abstracts) submitted to conferences. We developed a rhetorical move structure (see definition #2 of the about.com link) for describing the content+structure of journal submission reviews last spring in my doctoral seminar. I thought it was worth sharing as I get ready to lead that seminar for a new group of students.

I’ve written several posts about the genre of RAs. (If you need a brief introduction to what I mean by genre, read Pros have contextualized knowledge.) My approach to describing a genre builds on the ESP (English for Specific Purposes) body of work. Basically, a document people recognize as a particular genre will include a set of rhetorical moves, each of which can often be broken down into more detailed steps. You’ll see an example below. Or you can check out any of my posts filed under Crafting a Genre.

Brief Background on Journal Submission Review (for novices)

Peer review has been the cornerstone of research dissemination for at least a couple of hundred years. Here’s the reasoning. Research quality should be judged by experts (that is, peers) before it is published. The practice of peer review has been much criticized because of some truly abominable behavior by a small number of individuals. And there are ways to “publish” research without having it reviewed by peers. But there’s little to suggest traditional peer review will end any time in the near future. Publication of quality research is a core job requirement for university professors across the globe in every academic discipline (from accounting to zoology).

So how does peer review work? For anyone outside a university setting who is still reading, it’s important to understand that much of the journal publication process is completed by volunteers. Reviewers (also called “referees”) earn no money from their work on behalf of journals. Often editors of those journal also earn little to nothing. (They do sometimes get a small stipend from a professional organization that sponsors the journal or some release time from other duties from their employer.) And authors are not paid for work that is published; in some disciplines, they must actually pay a fee. So all of this labor is actually paid for by the employers of experts: mostly universities, with some stand-alone research labs or organizations. Once an RA is accepted for publication, there are paid staff in a publishing company who handle production and delivery of the journal in several issues per year.

Here’s how the peer review process happens. An author submits an RA to a journal. The journal’s editor reads the RA to determine whether it is appropriate to send it to referees. If the editor believes the RA is inappropriate, he or she sends a “desk rejection” letter to the author, and that’s the end of the process. If the editor believes the RA is potentially publishable, he or she chooses referees and invites two or more of them to review the submission. In many disciplines, the standard practice is called “double blind” review so that the identities of both author and referee are unknown to everyone except the editor. (In practice, the blindness isn’t always complete.)

Once referees return their reviews, the editor makes a publication decision and communicates it to the author. The editor’s letter will include the referees’ comments–either to help the author revise the RA for publication in the editor’s journal (that’s a revise & resubmit–R&R–decision) or in another journal (that’s a rejection decision). The likelihood of the editor sending a letter accepting an RA for publication as it was submitted is just about zero. The editor of the Quarterly Journal of Economics provided an interesting explanation of their specific process.

The review process involves occluded genres. That is, editor letters and referee reports are private rather than public artifacts. That makes it challenging to learn about them. Editors are the lynchpin. If you’re interested, the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) produces ethical standards for journal editors.

Rhetorical Moves (Structure + Content) in Editor R&R Letters

Although journal editors write several types of letters, my interest here is in the R&R letter because authors must use it as the basis for revising their RA before it can be resubmitted to the journal for potential publication. Basically, a document people recognize as an editor’s R&R letter includes five rhetorical moves: (1) expressing gratitude, (2) stating the publication decision, (3) justifying the decision, (4) providing directions for revision, and (5) maintaining goodwill. The table below breaks down those rhetorical moves into more detailed steps and provides examples from two actual editor letters. (Identifying information has been removed. Accounting Journal and Marketing Journal are pseudonyms rather than titles of actual publications.)

Rhetorical Moves (Structure + Content) in Referee Comments

Step 2b of the editor letter refers to the referees’ comments. Wise authors read these as carefully as the editor letter. Referee reports include at least three moves: (1) summarizing the submitted RA, (2) providing positive feedback, and (3) commenting on negative quality issues. Two previous studies of referee comments support a similar move structure. An optional fourth move involves maintaining goodwill. See the examples below, which were sent along with the editor letters above.

 

A Comparison of Textual Elements

The inclusion of organizational signals (headings and numbering or bullet lists) is more common in referee reports than in editor letters. Tone elements demonstrate that sensitivity to author feelings is different for editors than for reviewers, but some reviewers’ tone is more sensitive than others. Details are described below.

  Tone Elements Organizational Elements
Sub-genres Pronouns Hedging Directness
(requests)
Presuppositions (reader truths) Headings Numbering or Bullets
Editor Letter 1st person (editor) = high
2nd person (author) = high
3rd person (reviewers) = mid
Moderate Moderate Minimal conflict Low Low
Referee Reports 1st person (reviewer) = high
2nd person (author) = low
3rd person (author) = high
Low to moderate Moderate to High Minimal to Some conflict Mid Mid

One tone comparison can be made with hedging the meaning of a claim. (Red text represents less sensitive and green more sensitive tone choices.) (1a) an Accounting Journal reviewer writes less sensitively, “I feel that the paper has been reasonably well-written.” (2a) the Marketing Journal editor writes more sensitively, “Considering her/his comments may enhance the insights . . .” (2b) a Marketing Journal reviewer writes less sensitively, “Isn’t the finding then a mere confirmation?”, while another Marketing Journal reviewer writes more sensitively, “Some of the covariates that you use could be better used as grouping factors.”

Another comparison can be made with directness of a heavily weighted request: (1a) the Accounting Journal editor writes sensitively, “One way to address this latter issue, as Reviewer A notes, is to perform the test using only those…”; (1b) an Accounting Journal reviewer writes sensitively, “your discussion may address this line of thinking by discussing …” or “It would have been useful to have a dependent variable the explored the nature of the evidence sought…” but less sensitively, “The authors need to provide convincing arguments as to why this alternative explanation is not feasible.” (2a) the Marketing Journal editor writes sensitively, “please concentrate on the following in the Revision …” (2b) a Marketing Journal reviewer writes less sensitively, “I therefore strongly suggest that the authors specify …” while another Marketing Journal reviewer writes sensitively, “you may wish to suggest …” and “you can compare O&A and J&C more directly …”

A final comparison can be made with presupposition that involves conflict with the author: (1a) an Accounting Journal reviewer writes sensitively, “The only effect on the hypotheses would be to add …” but less sensitively, “The authors claim that all four criteria listed in the footnote can be found…” or “ The theoretical development … ignoring all the prior research demonstrating the unique nature of auditing” and “there is a valid counterargument.” (2a) the Marketing Journal editor writes sensitively, “If you decide to accept my invitation to revise and resubmit, …” (2b) a Marketing Journal reviewer writes less sensitively, “The manuscript claims to present three intriguing findings:” and “The authors should always report both measures of internal consistency reliability …”

It seems obvious that the anonymity of reviewers may influence their desire to manage author feelings.  Looks like an area ripe for research.

Research Sources

Disclaimer: The information in this post is based on limited data and does not offer conclusions based on published research.  (I just need to find time!)

Fortanet (2008). Evaluative language in peer review referee reports. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 7, pp. 27-37.

Gosden (2003). ‘Why not give us the full story?’: Functions of referees’ comments in peer reviews of scientific research papers. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 2, pp. 87-101.

Swales & Feak (1994). Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Six guidelines for responding to hostile challenges to change

Credit: Vasko Miokovic
Credit: Vasko Miokovic

I’m breaking my silence here at Pros Write with these guidelines. They’re the result of a study made available today in Business and Professional Communication Quarterly. With my co-authors (Pierson Carmichael and Jefrey Naidoo), I offer six practical lessons to help change agents manage communication and maintain credibility with stakeholders who have made a hostile challenge like “Why are we changing a successful system?”

Lesson #1: Diagnose the source of the stakeholder’s hostility in order to determine the component of readiness you need to address.

Once you are familiar with the five components of change messages, you will become adept at diagnosing which of these you must address to neutralize the stakeholder’s hostility toward your change initiative. Does your response need to focus on the discrepancy between where your organization is and where it needs to be? the appropriateness of the planned change for dealing with the discrepancy? the likely efficacy of the planned change? the support of leadership? or the benefits of the planned change to individuals?

Lesson #2: Claim dealing with the challenge isn’t timely as your default response strategy.

Our recommendation is backed by the consistency of findings in studies about strategies for responding to hostility. It may well be most preferred because it implies that the change agents are already addressing the concerns the stakeholder has raised.

Lesson #3: With an efficacy challenge, either deny something about the challenge exists or explain why answering the challenge isn’t desirable.

Because the timing strategy was not preferred with challenges focused on the potential efficacy of the planned change, you need alternatives in this situation. Our recommendation to use the existence strategy is based on our own findings, with nothing in an earlier study to warn against its use. Similarly, our recommendation to use the desirability strategy is based on earlier findings, with nothing in our own to warn against its use.

Lesson #4: Deny something about the challenge exists to deal with challenges to discrepancy and appropriateness, as well as efficacy.

Because the timing strategy may not always be applicable with challenges focused on the the need for or appropriateness of your planned change, you need an alternative in these situations. Our recommendation to use the existence strategy is based on its consistently high preference rankings in our own and earlier studies.

Lesson #5: Claim you aren’t able to handle the challenge with caution and only when dealing with principal support or personal valence challenges.

Preferences for the ability strategy were highly inconsistent. It ranked 2nd overall in our study because of its effectiveness dealing with principal support and personal valence challenges. In contrast, it ranked among least preferred strategies for dealing with other types of challenges in our study and for dealing with all challenges in an earlier study.

Lesson #6: Don’t deny you are the right person for handling the challenge.

Although our results for the agency strategy were inconsistent with an earlier study, we feel justified in cautioning change agents not to use it because it “passes the buck.” Benoit notes that “denial and shifting the blame are not considered by those who are injured by the actions to be as appropriate or effective as other potential image restoration strategies”. Earlier research found the agency strategy least preferred when responding to hostility about environmental concerns, and in interviews with experienced organizational spokespersons, some noted they had been explicitly taught not to use it in public affairs training.

After using these lessons to deal with the hostile challenge in a way that maintains your credibility, you can continue your on-going dialogue about components of the change which your stakeholder finds troubling. My single-minded focus on research has been inevitable during my sabbatical this fall. But I intend to share more often here when 2015 arrives. At least that’s the plan.

Further Reading

Armenakis, A. A. (1993). Creating readiness for organizational change. Human Relations, 46(6), 681–703.

Benoit, W. L. (1995). Accounts, excuses, and apologies: A theory of image restoration strategies. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Campbell, K. S., Follender, S. I., & Shane, G. (1998). Preferred strategies for responding to hostile questions in environmental public meetings. Management Communication Quarterly, 11(3), 401–421. 

Campbell, K. S., Parker, F., & Follender, S. I. (1996). Responding to hostile questions: More insights from speech act theory. Technical Communication Quarterly, 5(2), 151–167.

Gore, M. S. (2003). Strategies leaders should use to respond to hostile questions regarding organizational changes: An empirical investigation. Thesis. Air Force Institute of Technology.