10 December 2013

Thinking, research and writing (Session 6):
polishing your work: the importance of revising

Patrick Comerford,

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

10 November 2013

2 p.m., Thinking, Research and Writing Seminars

Learning Objectives:

By the end of these six sessions, students should be able:

● to write a précis of an assigned reading
● construct a clear and coherent thesis statement
● write a short constructive paper, with proper organisation that uses relevant
evidence to form an argument in support of a thesis statement
● employ proper habits of citation

Outline of previous seminar topics:

1: Reading, Writing and Critical Thinking as Theological Disciplines.

Task: Write a short précis which summarises, and names the main points of the author’s argument (could use something they have to read for one of their classes).

2: Arguing Academically.

Task: prepare a short critique paragraph of the article you did your précis on.

3: Crafting the Argumentative Essay.

Task: Develop a thesis statement and outline for a claim you would like to make in response to the article you wrote the précis of.

4: Seminar: How to Write a Theology Essay.

5: The Art of Citation.

Task: Incorporate one quotation into your paragraph from session 2 and create an appropriate footnote.

6: Polishing Your Masterpiece: The Importance of Revising.

● Grammar Matters
● Removing passive voice and other clunky constructions
● Making sure referents of pronouns are clear
● Breaking up long sentences
● Tasks of Revising – assessing logical flow, have you proven your point, reverse outlining
● Another set of eyes

Task: in a workshop, exchange the paragraph you have been working on with another student. Reverse outline each other’s paragraph, summarise it using your précis writing skills, and give feedback.

This afternoon’s content:

6: Polishing Your Masterpiece: The Importance of Revising.

1, Grammar Matters
2, Removing passive voice and other clunky constructions
3, Making sure referents of pronouns are clear
4, Breaking up long sentences
5, Tasks of Revising – assessing logical flow, have you proven your point, reverse outlining
6, Another set of eyes

Task: in a workshop, exchange the paragraph you have been working on with another student. Reverse outline each other’s paragraph, summarise it using your précis writing skills, and give feedback.

1, Grammar Matters:

Do you know the difference between “Good” and “Well”?

How are you?

Is the answer “good” or “well”?

Is anyone actually sure of the correct answer to one of the most oft-asked questions in our daily lives?

How good are you?

How are you good?

Some rules of punctuation

Be careful with punctuation

I hope you all know about the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynn Truss. She describes it as the “zero tolerance approach to punctuation.” The book takes its title from this joke on bad punctuation:

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.

“Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“Well, I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Do you all know about the grocer’s apostrophe?


Do you all know the difference between it’s and its?

There’s also a wonderful Facebook page called: ‘Let’s eat Grandma!’ or, ‘Let’s eat, Grandma!’

Punctuation saves lives!

Punctuation matters.

The general rule is to use as little punctuation as necessary while retaining the meaning of the sentence. However, the problem is that many people do not know when, where and how to use punctuation, including apostrophes, brackets, bullet points, commas, and quotation marks.

The Grocer’s Apostrophe … not confined to grocer’s

1, Apostrophes: Do you know about the Grocer’s Apostrophe? Have you ever wondered whether to say 1990’s or 1990s? Do you know the difference between it’s and its? Learn the rules for possession, contractions, and omissions so that you can avoid misusing an apostrophe.

2, Commas: “Let’s eat Grandma,” or “Let’s eat, Grandma.” Commas are often overlooked, but some of the smallest players can have the biggest impact on any game. The comma is so special; it is a unique little mark on a page yet it is so versatile. While commas can be used a multitude of ways, a missing one can drastically change the meaning of a sentence or piece of writing. Please acquire “comma sense.” Commas can help articulate meaning or make lists clearer, especially when, without one, people can get the wrong idea about what you are really trying to say.

3, Semicolons: You must know the difference between colons and semicolons, and know the different uses of semicolons. Semicolons and colons cause much confusion. Have you ever inaccurately used a comma just to avoid using a semi-colon?

On the other hand, if your sentences seem too long or too short, using a semicolon can be a great new way to punctuate your thoughts. From fixing run-on sentences to connecting items in a list, semicolons can be incredibly effective … if you know how to use them.

4, Hyphens, Dashes and Parentheses: If you have read Emily Dickinson, then you may have a strange compulsion to-use-dashes-everywhere (coupled with a compulsion to parentheses). A semicolon should be used to separate two main clauses and to avoid complex structures.

Do you know the correct use of the hyphen and the dash? The presence or absence of a vowel can determine whether or not you should use a hyphen. The hyphen is a short, single-character line that connects words together, whereas a dash is double the length of a hyphen and indicates a break or interruption of a thought.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid parentheses except for Biblical citation (1 John 3: 18), and to put a dead theologian in historical context: Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626).

5, Quotations: In any discipline, quotations increase the strength of an argument through the incorporation of textual support or giving credit to other writers when you incorporate their ideas. Knowing how to format quotes only contributes to the lucidity of your writing but helps you to avoid accidental plagiarism.

6, Capitalising titles: It is important to capitalise titles correctly, and it is important to maintain consistency when it comes to the capitalisation of words.

The Archbishop of Armagh … but, the archbishop said …

Avoid cluttering up your assignment with too many unnecessary titles: so, say Karl Barth, rather than the Revd Professor Karl Barth.

7, Spelling: Spellcheck does not know when you have used the right word … but in the wrong place.

There is an apocryphal story that an obituary in The Irish Times once spoke of a “bottle-scarred colonel.”

The correction compounded the insult, saying The Irish Times should have referred to a “battle-scared colonel.”

2, Removing passive voice and other clunky constructions

Clarity and Conciseness

Clarity and conciseness often go hand in hand: writing that focuses directly on a point and maximises meaning with minimum wordiness tends to be both clear and concise.

Revising for clarity of meaning often makes prose more concise and vice versa. Express actions in verbs, and avoid nominalisation. Consider this sentence:


The cause of our schools’ failure at teaching basic skills is not understanding the influence of cultural background on learning.

The central verb in the sentence is is – a verb that does not pack much punch. The sentence abounds with actions much more interesting than being, but they are not expressed as verbs: the nouns cause, failure, influence, and learning imply the verbs to cause, to fail, to influence, and to learn.

Actions expressed in nouns rather than verbs are called nominalisations. (For example, the word nominalisation is the noun form of the verb to nominalise.) We cannot eliminate nominalisations altogether, nor would we want to. However, letting verbs express actions usually makes sentences more dynamic, direct, clear, and concise:


Our schools have failed to teach basic skills because educators do not understand how cultural backgrounds influence learning.

What makes the revision clearer than the original?

Avoid strings of prepositional phrases

Notice that this revision eliminates clunky strings of prepositional phrases (of the failure, of our schools, of cultural background, on learning).

Consider another example:


A revision of the programme will result in increases in our efficiency in the servicing of our customers.


If we revise the programme, we can serve our customers more efficiently.

Strings of prepositional phrases are often red flags for nominalisations.

Choose clear subjects.

Compare the subjects in the first two examples:

The cause of our schools’ failure at teaching basic skills…


Our schools…educators…cultural backgrounds…

Which subjects are more concrete?

Which are easier to understand?


Clear subjects typically include people, institutions, and events. Abstractions and processes often create unclear subjects.

Another example…

Here is an example that demonstrates the benefit of putting actions into verbs, avoiding strings of prepositional phrases, and choosing clear subjects:


Our more effective presentation of our study resulted in our success, despite an earlier start by others.


Although others started earlier, we succeeded because we presented our study more effectively.

The revision replaces the nominalisations presentation and success with the verbs presented and succeeded, simultaneously eliminating the awkward prepositional phrases of our study and in our success.

The original lengthy subject, our more effective presentation of our study, yields to the clearer subjects others and we.

The revision is both clearer and more concise.

Active Voice or Passive Voice

You must favour the active voice over the passive voice, using passive-voice constructions only with intent. Effective writing uses the active voice and avoids the passive voice.

However, some situations are awkward or incorrect when expressed in the active voice, and there are some instances when the passive voice can be appropriate, or even the best choice, and there are several myths about the passive voice. But you must be very clear about these before ever deciding to use it.

Are you writing your paper or is your paper being written by you?

That last sentence contained both the active and passive voice (respectively).

Do you want your paper to be active? Passive? Both?

Which sentence is more concise:

It was decided by the Director to expand the programme.
The Director decided to expand the programme.

Which sentence is clearest?

● The Christmas sermon was preached effectively. [By whom?]
● The Christmas sermon was preached effectively by the curate. [Still passive]
● The curate preached the Christmas sermon effectively. [Active]

Note that passive voice is more prevalent and accepted in some disciplines (e.g. some sciences, public policy) than others.

Expletive constructions:

Avoid beginning sentences with expletive constructions.

Expletive constructions (there is/are…, it is…) take up space but add little meaning to sentences.

Compare the following:


It is vital that we delete the word “absolutely.”


We must delete the word “absolutely.”


There are five students that are taking notes in this room.


Five students are taking notes in this room.


It is possible that the student did not carry out adequate research after all.


The student might not have carried out adequate research after all.

Eliminate unnecessary words

Writers sometimes feel the urge to add emphasis to their prose by using extra words or phrases that do not contribute much to the meaning (and indeed, sometimes bscure it). Consider the following:

It is absolutely vital that… [What does vital mean? Can something be half vital?]
His thinking is quite unique. [What does unique mean? Are there degrees of uniqueness?]
The rector’s wife is kind of pregnant. [The woman is either pregnant or not]. ● He prefers wine due to the fact that … [Substitute because...]
I need some sort of response by this afternoon. [Replace some sort of with a.]

Revise your work

The rules of thumb we have discussed are useful not only when you draft an essay, but also when you revise. Try the following steps in your own writing, especially in passages you find inelegant or unnecessarily wordy:

1, Underline the actions (including nominalisations – implied actions in non-verb forms);
2, Put boxes around the verbs;
3, Circle the prepositions.
● Now check: Do the prepositions point to unnecessary nominalisations? Can you replace forms of “to be” with action verbs?
● If a sentence still sounds wordy after revision, check the distance between the subject and the verb. Do you have clear subjects followed directly by verbs?
4, Scan your passage for passive voice. Does the text benefit from the passive construction, or would it sound more direct using active voice?
5, Scan your passage for redundant words and expletive constructions. Do they add necessary stress, or can they be eliminated?

Dangling modifiers and how to correct them:

When a word or a phrase describes a non-existent subject, it forms a dangerously “dangling” modifier. Note the first part of the sentence:

“Having finished his homework, the TV was turned on by Jack.”

Now this sentence literally means that the TV, not Jack, has finished the homework. Such a mistake is dangerous because writers are often insensitive to it.

Non sequiturs:

Non sequitur is Latin for “it does not follow.” This phrase is most often used as a noun to describe illogical or irrelevant statements.

A non sequitur is something said without apparent meaning relative to what has preceded it. We all know of irrelevant and irritating interruptions to a flow of conversation by someone who is on the margins or not paying attention to the flow of conversation – someone who is unaware of the undeclared agenda in social conversation.

Of course, a non sequitur can be used as a conversational and literary device for comedic purposes when it seems absurd to the point of being humorous or confusing: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”

But you are not seeking to write comedy or to be humorous, and each and every point you make must be relevant to your essay or dissertation.

Punctuation matters

Think of this letter from Gloria to John:

Dear John,

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, and thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy – will you let me be yours?



Dear John,

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, and thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we are apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?



Watch your sentences

And even if you are good at punctuation, don’t use too many dashes and brackets.

3, Making sure referents of pronouns are clear

Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement can be a little tricky, especially since many people are not quite sure what the word “antecedent” means. Antecedents are nouns to which a pronoun refers.

Do you know the difference between “Who” and “Whom”? The pronoun “who” refers to the subject, while the pronoun “whom” refers to the object.

Subject Verb Agreement is also difficult. S[port journalists always seem to get it wrong. Aston Villa are … That has become conventional, but you are not writing for the sports pages.

Subject-verb agreement may seem easy, but conflicts can sometimes emerge. This can happen, for example, when a phrase squeezes between the subject and verb.
Or it can arise when using term like “the royal family” or “the married pair.”

4, Breaking up long sentences:

Now, let us look at working with sentences and how to improve the clarity of our sentence.

A clear sentence allows me as the reader to comprehend your meaning easily. To write a compact paper with a graceful flow of ideas, find specific techniques to improve the clarity of your sentences.


● avoid noun strings: This report explains our investment growth stimulation projects multiple negatives,

● the overuse of “be” words, all of which are common stylistic gaffes that obscure meaning.

Watch for sentence fragments and run-ons.

Vary your sentence structures. When writing an essay, it is easy to feel as if your writing is droning on without variation or intrigue. You can take simple steps to interest the reader and improve your writing style.

Avoid lazy mistakes such as using clichés, idioms, stereotypical characters, and clunky prose.

Seek to build up your vocabulary: a better vocabulary adds depth to your narrative.

Read what others write

Read what others write, see how they do it, and learn from them.

Share your writing skills with others, learn from how they map out assignments, deal with difficult phrases, clauses and sentences, and notice how they express themselves. And don’t be afraid to ask why they wrote things that way.

And read for pleasure.

Read for pleasure and fun … including poetry and novels

Read newspapers … Karl Barth said the preacher should have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. If I don’t know how the world thinks, how can I address its needs in the light of the Gospel?

Read poetry … John Donne and TS Eliot teach me a lot about how to use theological categories in crisp, sharp writing.

Read novels … Susan Howatch and Catherine Fox are theologians who write as novelists; they are academically sound when it comes to theology and church history, pastorally they are so insightful, as writers they truly know how to tell a story.

Read theology – for fun … Janet Soskice is Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of Cambridge, but her recent book, Sisters of Sinai (Vintage, 2010), has all the fun and pace of a novel.

I read it with fun and for knowledge by the pool on a holiday in Turkey. It is theology, church history and biblical studies all in one. And if reading theology can be fun, then writing it should be fun too. And it should be. You’ll be writing theology for the test of your life, for sermons, for parish notes, for book reviews, for communicating the Good News.

Take care of your style, diction, tone and voice. Word usage is vital when trying to convey a specific meaning to your readers. Do you know who your reader is, or who your readers are? Should you use a formal or informal voice?

Your word choice affects your tone and, ultimately, your style.

But be aware of co-opting your readers in a way that seems to force them to agree with you.

You may think something is obvious, and that all rational people agree with you. But if you start telling me it’s obvious, I may demand evidence, and if you tell me all Christians believe something, I may not only disagree with you, but start looking for points throughout your essay that allow me to delight in disagreeing with you.

It is difficult to read back your essay and find it is a string of sentences that almost reads like a sequence of non sequiturs. Transitional words and phrases, like “however,” “nevertheless” or “in a separate development help to connect sentences or paragraphs that may otherwise seem unconnected, yet need to follow each other. Transitional words show the relationships between sentences and ideas and help to improve the flow of your writing.

On the other hand, cut out unnecessary words and phrases. They may make me think you are padding out your essay to reach the required number of words. But you may find that all those extra, unnecessary words are taking away space in your paper for more great ideas.

Don’t write everything

There are two dangers to avoid, particularly when you have a limit on the number of words in an assignment. So: don’t pad it out; and don’t squeeze it all in.

You know what it’s like when a writer has entertained herself with her own recollections and her own ability to be clever. How often have you found yourself skipping parts of a book?

The American novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard says: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

Sometimes I just write too much because I’m not focussed and disciplined enough. More focus, more discipline would allow me to say all the things I want to say. Sometimes less actually means more. Less verbiage on my part allows the reader to grasp more of my ideas.

Sometimes we just pack too much in, trying to show that we have paid attention, trying to show what we have learned.

And then we become thieves, stealing more space surreptitiously, by cramming more detail into the footnotes.

Sometimes we pad things out because we’re not focussed enough, not directed, because we allow ourselves to ramble all over the place. As a journalist I found it was more difficult to write a story in 300 words than in 1,000 words.

I remember one prima donna demanding more words to write a report, claiming: “I can’t explain it in less.”

“If you can’t explain it in less,” the page editor retorted, “how can I believe you really understand it?”

Writing within the limit you are given is an important discipline in writing. Blaise Pascal once wrote to a friend: “I have made this letter longer only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

It takes discipline to confine yourself to what you ought to say.

But padding it out to reach the required length is also an indication of a lack of discipline, and poor research.

Try to remember how many times you have listened to a sermon, and found yourself wondering why some of those boring, personal asides were dropped in while the sermon was being written?

Was it because he had to speak for 10 or 12 minutes, and didn’t have enough good, relevant ideas?

Don’t pad it out

John Ruskin once gave the advice: “Say all you have to say in the fewest possible words, or your reader will be sure to skip them; and in the plainest possible words, or he will certainly misunderstand them.”

On the other hand, your first rector, hopefully, is going to advise you: “Don’t pack all your good sermons into one.”

If you have good ideas that you don’t want to lose, open a file where you can hold and keep them … for the future.

At an extreme level, journalists in the Sun were advised by their news editors: “Make it short. Make it snappy. Make it up.”

But there is a germ of truth in that. Say it simply, say it sweetly, and say it quickly. Use space for your ideas. Don’t use unnecessary adjectives and superlatives as a way of reaching a required length.

Mark Twain dealt with this problem by advising: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’. Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

Do you know the difference between “e.g.” and “i.e.”?

5, The tasks of revising:

Write simply, write clearly, write with your own voice.

Assess whether there is a logical flow.

Ask whether you have proven your point.

Once again, set out to break up long sentences.

Is there a flow between sentences, between paragraphs, and from one chapter to the next?

Be structured

The Red Queen advises Alice: ‘Start at the beginning, go through to the end and then stop’

The Red Queen advises Alice in Alice in Wonderland: “Start at the beginning, go through to the end and then stop.”

The secret of good story-telling remains paying attention to three details: a good story needs a beginning, a middle and an end.

As Maria advised the children in The Sound of Music:

Let’s start at the very beginning
A very good place to start
When you read you begin with A-B-C
When you sing you begin with do-re-mi

Well, we’re all good at the beginning. We can set out the task we have to do. It’s like school exams: we were all good at writing our names down at the top of the exam paper.

But then we find ourselves all over the place in the middle, and run out of time at the end. Plan how much space you need for each part of your essay. Don’t leave it to chance and find you have only 50 or 100, or even 200 words for your summaries and conclusions. They tell me what you have not only learned, but assimilated and can apply. Don’t tell me you’ve learned little or nothing.

6, Another set of eyes

A good idea, when you have written something, is to read it out loud, to yourself or, preferably, to someone else. That way, you share ideas, you learn collaboration, but your colleague actually hears what you wrote, not what you think you have written.

If it’s difficult for you to read out loud, then it’s difficult for me to read when it lands on my desk.

And if you lose your train of thought as you wrestle with dashes and brackets – and you know what you intended to write, how much more difficult is it going to be for me?

Watch your words

Anglo-Saxon words are always better that French or Latin words. You are more likely to understand them, and to tell me precisely what you mean, and they are easier to spell.

To repeat Ruskin’s advice: “Say all you have to say … in the plainest possible words, or he will certainly misunderstand them.”

Don’t rely on spell-check. Spell-check can’t tell the difference between their, there, they’re, and, if you speak like the Kerry politician Jackie Healy Rae, th(e) hair, t(he) heir, the air, and dare. Here, hear, ’ere …

It’s worth remembering: Spell-check may not understand you.

7, Workshop task:

In our workshop, exchange the paragraph you’ve been working on with another student. Reverse outline each other’s work, summarise it using your précis writing skills, and give feedback.

Useful links:

Duke University Writing Studio.

The Capital Community College Guide to Grammar includes clear and helpful advice on writing concisely. (See the index for information on all things grammar-related.)

Purdue’s Online Writing Lab explains strategies for writing more concisely.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. These notes were prepared for a seminar with Year I and Year II MTh students on 10 December 2013.

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