Here we are another week closer to heat death of the universe. I
didn’t really know how to start this piece so I just wrote down the
first thing that came to my head that wasn’t complete blogger
I have spent a lot of time this morning reading blogs about statistics and furiously making notes. You know you’re a geek when you like star-wars, even though 90% of it is garbage, but the true nerd spends their weekends learning the intricacies of some obscure realm of mathematics.
motivation for pre-occupation with statistics this weekend is because
of a course I attended on Thursday. At my university, students on the
PhD program have to attended a certain amount of ‘development
courses’. In the 1st year I had to attend five courses –
I actually attended ten because who doesn’t like free education. In
the second year, which I am now in, you have to attend four. I tend
to gravitate to anything technical when it comes to these courses,
rather than courses such as ‘improve your communication skills.
course I was on was about using the R-language to produce graphics;
it was a full-day course, which is unusual. It was one of those times
where the passion for the subject from the statistician running the
course forced itself upon you. I was certainly inspired; hence my
morning, and most of Friday, learning more about the subject.
at least for me, is one of those topics where the information does
not stick around in the brain very easily, so each time I come to
analyse some data I have to spend a decent amount of time re-learning
some of the concepts. I have produced a large document for myself of
the main principles, so that I don’t have to start from square one
each time. I imagine that this document will be close to my final
I had a
bit of a transport related drama this week. My bike broke. I was
given the bike so I did not have much concern for the bike itself; my
bigger concern was how I was going to get to the university. I got a
quote of £75 pounds to repair the bike, and they said that they
couldn’t do it for two weeks – this would be very inconvenient. I
decided to buy a new bike rather than fixing up, what I can only
describe as the, worst bike I have ever owned.
days of looking at reviews of bikes online I could not decide how
much I should spend for what is essentially my commuting vehicle.
Ideally I would find something dirt cheap online, but to my surprise
I couldn’t find anything. “Where is a stolen bike when you need
one” is what I thought to myself.
Luckily, after a long and sweaty walk to campus a serendipitous moment occurred. A cycling charity happened to be on campus offering free services of peoples bikes. They also had bikes for sale that they had refurbished. After £45 had been handed over I now am in possession of an equally terrible, but functional new bike. The utilitarian wins again!
Back after the Easter break with a new low in motivation.
A few weeks ago I booked a machine for this week without paying any attention to the fact that I would not be able to come in and use it on Monday as it is a holiday. Because of this lack of foresight, I have had to extend my booking over the weekend so that I can fit all my samples in.
I am analysing sugars derived from Iceberg-lettuce over a time period of one month. In theory, as the leaves continue to metabolise, the sugars will decrease. From a scientific point of view, this might be a potential marker for senescence and degradation which is why I am monitoring it. For the number of samples I have I am expecting it to take around four days to run them all. To clean the machine and various components a day either side is required. Providing the machine doesn’t breakdown, which is relatively common with expensive scientific equipment in my experience; I should be done by Sunday.
This is how a PhD differs from a conventional job. There is no consistency in the hours of which you will work. It is one of those “when it’s done kind of an occupation”. It is a positive or negative depending on your perspective, and it is lifestyle factors such as this as to why many people drop-out. All the people I know who have dropped out of their studies have done it for reasons related to the lifestyle of the studentship rather than the difficulty of the subject matter. When I started, I had wrongly presumed that the complexity of the study would be the main reason for someone to stop their studies.
One task that I have thrown myself at this week is clearing out my “to read” folder. It is a folder full of papers that I think might be useful, but not helpful enough to read at the time of discovery. In the past, I would only read papers when I needed them for a reference, or if I did read them for general knowledge, I would not make notes. About six months ago I got my act together on this and started taking and saving notes from papers I have read while archiving them in a reference generator.
I assume writers also have this problem when you’re gathering research for your piece.
How do you collect and organise your notes?
I use Zotero which is a free reference / archiving software. I chose this program because it runs on Linux, but I know many programs fulfil the same function, such as Mendeley, EndNote (which is the one my University recommends) and citethisforme.
Anyway, I have gone through and read about half of this folder, and feel quite good about it. I have finally got around to a chore I have been putting off all year, like throwing out all those clothes I no longer wear.
This advancement in the management of my notes and references is an example of advice I got at the start, which I then ignored and ended up enacting myself months later to my detriment. This happens a lot and is one of the main problems with advice. I remember someone who had just completed their PhD telling me to “write up papers as you go along, you won’t, but I recommend you do”. They were correct: I haven’t.
Advice is difficult to take and very easy to give. This is the main problem with advice as I see it. What other people should do is always crystal clear; it seems to be very easy to analyse anything other than your situation.
Perhaps this is the basis for Richard Feynman quote ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool’.
I have a lot to talk about this week! It is one of those occasions where the thoughts about what I am going to write about have been whirring around my mind for the last few hours. The majority of the time this is not the case, and I don’t know what I am going to write about until I sit down. Does anyone else write like this?
The reason I have something to talk about this week is that I have been on holiday! I have spent a week in a cabin in the woods in Snowdonia national park with my family and partners. We were very fortunate with our break in that the tourist season had not started yet and the weather was perfect – for me, not too hot, but sunny. Also, we had a hot-tub; which is a vital piece of equipment after a long day hiking.
I want to continue on last weeks idea of holidays/vacations and their importance in preventing burn-out. There was one important idea that I overlooked when I wrote that piece; I overlooked the possibility of me not wanting to return!
Motivationally speaking, not wanting to return from holiday is probably a sign that the thing you’re going back to isn’t at the top of the list of things you want to do. I would much rather be climbing mountains and exploring the beautiful landscape in Snowdonia than doing lab-work in a repetitively dull, but convenient, minor-metropolis.
Given what I have just said, I pose the following question: Can a holiday/vacation be a bad thing?
Before this week I would have thought that the positives vastly outweigh the negatives; however, if you’re unconsciously taking a break to get away from the toil of your daily life, then there may be an argument to be made that a break is not what you need. ‘Papering over the cracks’ is a phrase that comes to mind.
I remember that last week I was talking about how I had organised things so that when I come back, I can hit the ground running. I had filled my diary so that I would jump straight back into my work as if nothing had happened. This seemed, at the time, like the optimal thing to do; however, on reflection, it just made feel as if I wanted to return even less as I had a mountain of work to return to. Maybe it would have been better to have a much gentler return to work. I could have given myself a nice light workload to return to, but I have set things up so that I am jumping in mid-flow.
What we have here folks is the classic illustration of the yin and yang, the up and down, positive and negative, swings and roundabouts etcetera.
Upon arriving home, I have spent a considerable amount of time on ‘general blog maintenance’. I have been updating broken links and correcting any errors that have been pointed out by you lovely people. I have also spent some time seeking out new blogs that I can take inspiration from. It has been a relatively long time since I gave my blog some TLC, so I am going to dedicate this weekend to improve my blog.
I want to improve my site from a visual perspective, so if you have any tips, please comment below!
I am going for a minimalist look with a site that is as easy to navigate as possible.
How much time do you spend on improving your product blog?
Finally, a form of activism that works for me! From running this blog, the largest benefit for me by far is getting to interact with experienced writers. It is one thing to read a book, and it is another to have tailored lessons!One of the core concepts I am yet to wrap my head around is the active and passive voice. I get flagged for writing in the passive quite a lot, so I decided it was time to do something about it! Grammatic Irony takes some time out from analysing fantasy worlds (LoTR next?) and offers us me a lesson in writing. – Louis
If, like me, you learnt to type in the 1990s or early 2000s, you probably have memories of this bastard tapping on your screen and underlining all your sentences with red and green squiggles.
For those of you spared this terrible knowledge, this is Clippy, one of the virtual assistants who came with Microsoft Office as a way to encourage perplexed users to ask for help when they needed it. Once a question was asked, the assistant would search millions of lines of code searching for an answer, and then return a negative or useless result, before getting back to making unhelpful commentary on sentence length or fragments.
Nowadays, if one’s cookies contain so much as a smidgeon of
grammatical enquiry, the unfortunate browser is likely to be
bombarded by adverts for proofreading services or Grammarly, the
reincarnation of Clippy, proving that no idea is so bad that human
beings can be dissuaded from trying it again and charging extra.
Now, I know some
people (like the owner of this blog!) rely on Grammarly and, as one
who has never used it, I cannot honestly claim to know whether it is
worth what it claims to be worth. I can, however, remember one advert
which, just like Clippy, underlined a sentence in the passive voice
to show how very clever it was and forced the poor soul, who was just
trying to send an e-mail, to rearrange the entire passage so that it
was in the active voice. Why does everyone hate the passive voice?
Well, firstly, it is not, in fact, everyone. This is a particular bugbear for speakers of American English who have been told that the passive voice is bad and wrong and makes people go blind, or something. The attentive reader may have noticed that I am the slightest bit unconvinced by this assertion and, moreover, that same reader may have noticed that I have used the passive voice multiple times in this post and I am only just getting started.
American audiences have been trained to fear the passive in much the same way that some people claim to have an aversion to words like moist. There is no testable reason behind this aversion, it is simply a peculiar, modern social reality. After all, the words hoist and oyster still seem to be acceptable in general conversation. Moreover, the passive is a valuable linguistic tool, useful not only for academic but also narrative prose. Perversely, so extreme is the rejection of the passive that some people see the passive voice in completely different grammatical constructions, such as the subjunctive.
At this stage, some may be asking themselves, ‘When is he going to
get around to telling us what these ambiguous constructions actually
are?’ and to them I say, ‘You had your chance to do this your
way, now strap yourself in and prepare to be thoroughly
sentence, as a general and therefore frequently broken rule, has
three core components: the subject, the verb, and the
object, and they generally occur in that order. This pattern
is called SVO by linguists.
In the sentence,
‘I ate the jam’, I is the subject, ate is the verb,
and the jam is the object. See this pattern in the three
Jane makes jam.
John has hidden
I will eat the
In the second and third examples, the verb is comprised of two parts (an auxiliary and a participle) but they still occupy the single verb slot in the sentence. Even more complicated sentences, with adverbs and relative clauses lying around, will generally follow this pattern. For example, here are the three parts of speech in the main clause underlined, and in SVO order.
Even more complicated sentences, […] will generally followthis pattern.
The subject is
generally the most important part of a sentence because everything
within the sentence relates to the subject somehow. Objects can
sometimes be omitted, and when they are omitted or change, although
they change the meaning of the sentence, they only do so in relation
to the subject.
I feed myself.
I feed the dog.
I feed myself to
All of these sentences are examples of active sentences. They show a subject doing something, often to an object, and sometimes to a direct and indirect object. Most sentences are active sentences, and in them, the subject is said to be the agent, the one doing or eating or stealing or generally being involved with verbs.
A passive sentence, on the other hand, allows the author to
relegate the agent to the object’s position or omit an agent
entirely, thus focusing on the effect of an action rather than the
perpetrator of an action.
The dog is being
The jam was made.
The dog had been
The jam has been
stolen by someone.
The dog will be fed by you.
Now, instead of being the objects, jam and dog are the
subjects, but not the agents. The agents are less important. Consider
sentences like the following:
He is known to
It is said that
no-one ever returns from Deep Drop Mine.
Minister’s motion has been defeated.
The suspects were
detained and questioned.
people were killed in the Second World War.
perfectly natural, passive sentences and not all would benefit from
being rendered in the active voice.
defeated the Prime Minister’s motion.
and questioned the suspects.
millions of people in the Second World War.
This last example
is particularly egregious: in the Second World War, death came from
many quarters, not least the concentration camps. To make soldiers
the subject and agent implies that there were no, or few, deaths
caused by other factors. A writer who wishes to draw out the tragic
waste of life therefore has two immediate options:
people died in the Second World War.
people were killed in the Second World War.
sentence is active, the second sentence is passive. The first
sentence is potentially misleading; the second sentence is not.
Forming the passive voice is complicated but, in brief, requires a form of the verb to be as an auxiliary and, optionally, the conjunction by followed by the object and agent.
detained the suspects’ is a fine active sentence but the passive
construction allows the mind’s eye to remain with the suspects,
rather than the police. This is a natural part of telling a story or
reporting an event.
‘I don’t know
how it happened but I was soaked with water!’
‘No, I can come
out tonight: the children are being looked after.’
‘Have you never
been taken to dinner?’
‘Don’t get yourself hurt.’
And so on. The passive voice not only allows the writer to keep
attention on certain elements, but also to omit and even obscure
information, for whatever reason.
Note that not every sentence with to be in it is in the passive voice and not every form of the passive has to be in it. Some examples can be ambiguous: ‘I am happy’ is simply a statement with a subject, a verb, and an adjective. ‘I am excited’ could also be such a statement, but it could be that someone or something is exciting me: ‘I am excited by this grammatical discussion’.
This form of passive is very rare nowadays and would probably only
appear for dramatic or humorous effect, such as in phrases like, ‘I
am undone!’ as Doctor Deplorable’s plans are ruined yet again,
and presumably accompanied by much shaking of fists (jet-pack escape
So, the active
and passive are both useful constructions with different nuances and
applications. Why did Strunk and White think they were bad? Well, in
truth, they did not. Strunk cautioned against using the passive too
much, especially when its active counterpart would have been a better
fit. Fowler and Orwell were, arguably, more hostile towards the
passive but still did not abominate it entirely.
There are two main criticisms of the passive which have led to its lack of favour in contemporary writing. Firstly, unlike the active voice, it very quickly becomes tiresome to read. If too many clauses and sentences in quick succession are rendered in the passive voice, paragraphs become cumbersome and meaning is obscured. This leads us to the second point: the passive voice, because it does not require an agent, can be used in such a way that agency is hidden and thus responsibility and accountability abrogated by the author. The former problem is the purview of academic writing and is not usually deliberate, or so I am led to believe. The latter problem is a deliberate tactic of obfuscation favoured by politicians: ‘Mistakes were made,’ and so on. However, it is also true that some people do fall into a pattern of passive sentences when put on the spot.
The satirical sitcom Yes, Minister and its successor Yes, Prime Minister delights in playing with these two personalities and occasionally setting them against each other in the forms of the conniving Sir Humphrey Appleby and the bright but anxious Bernard Wooley.
By now, some of you may still be mystified by the passive. If so, fear not; there are many online resources which can help the would-be writer to form and use the passive. Do not fear the passive or twist your writing into knots to avoid using it; simply be discerning and cautious. And, to those who remain convinced that the passive is ruining English, I extend the following invitation: read this article again and check for all the passive constructions; I guarantee you will find some that, on the first reading, went completely unnoticed, and others which were active sentences all along.
If you would like to read more from the mind of Grammatic Irony, click the link bellow!
Last year I did not have any holiday; I was too focused on my study to think about taking any time off. Last time I spoke of a holiday was because I had not had any and had made the resolution to take more time off in future as to not get burnt out.
I am going away on a family holiday next week to Snowdonia National Park. Unlike last time, I do not feel as if I need, or have earned the break. This is one of the significant problems with preventative strategies – in this case, I am trying to prevent burn-out. The problem is that often it is not until the actual event, getting burned out for example, that you feel as if you need to do something. You’re not addicted until your addicted etcetera.
I shall take some work with me just in case I feel inspired to do some in a moment of downtime, but I doubt that will happen. I am hoping I can fill the week with as much mountain based activities as I can, and even if I do get bored, I always have my kindle.
In a moment of retrospection, this is something that blogging has been useful for, I have noticed that my organisational skills have improved slightly. Because I know I am going to missing a week I have been spending the prior week organising and booking things, so that when I come back, I will hit the ground running.
In the past, I would have wound all my projects up the week before going away and then would have to build back up again when I returned. The result is that there would be several weeks where I was performing sub-optimally. The new, and hopefully not temporary, version of me has managed to plan things so that I should actually be in a net positive in terms of productivity after this break.
Doing a PhD, or any extended period of study for that matter, has its benefits in the non-implicit skills that you develop – organisation and critical thinking are two such examples. In my opinion, this is where most of the value of such a person comes from, and not the specific subject area they are studying.
I now have an answer to the eternal question of ‘what do you want to do, and or, be?’ and that is ‘a life-long learner’.
It has also become clear to me that attempting things that are difficult are usually the most worthwhile as the unintended consequences are often profound. One only has to think of CERN and the attempt to understand the fundamentals of nature which have had profound benefits to humanity – I am thinking of the world wide web here.
The need for better communication between scientists that were trying to understand the universe had inadvertently meant that you are now reading this.
For me, the unintended consequences of doing a PhD have been that I am now a fairly decent programmer, I am a much better writer than I used to be, and I have developed reasonably robust critical thinking skills. The critical thinking skills have been particularly convenient in the Brexit/Trump era.
We are lucky enough to have another guest writer this week . Jenny Knipfer lays out her views on all things writing. I find it interesting to read about the different obstacles that are overcome and created as one improves as a writer. I am sure many of you will relate to the following piece. As a novice, it gives me a great insight into what is to come if I can keep at it! – Louis
Who is a writer. The simple definition: anyone who writes. The complicated meaning: those who have a passel of experience, educated legitimacy, published work, or some esteem in the literary world. I fall somewhere in between those two extremes.
I read a book years ago on writing called, The Right to Write, by Julia Cameron, which I found to be an excellent and encouraging work. In it Julia puts forth that inherently we all have “the right to write.” Writing is not only for the elite, the super educated, the famous, or the geniuses. Writing belongs to humanity. We all desire to express ourselves. To know and to be known exist as human needs. Writing – the act of recording our thoughts and feelings for our eyes and others to see and comprehend – nests at the heart of what it means to be human. You are a writer.
Why do I write? Because the words are in me. Because I must. A period of time existed when I couldn’t, and it trapped me, choked me, and almost killed my spirit. If these thoughts and stories cannot break free from my cerebral cortex they become lodged in my heart like hopeless hope—a winged creature dead at my feet.
For me, writing always starts there. It springs from a real place of desired freedom, of release. If I encourage, inspire, challenge, or entertain others with my words, it makes me happy, but even if no one ever read my thoughts, I would still write.
What does it mean to write? Is it merely the act of transferring letters and words in a meaningful way to something which can be read. The importance behind writing stems from our thoughts fueling the letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters . . .
I write to extend a part of me to the page, tablet, or computer screen. It both startles and frees me to see what exists in my mind. These words and ideas come from me—my mind, my heart, my experiences, and my imagination.
When did I and do I write? Anywhere and everywhere. In the past and in the present. I wrote before I knew what I was doing. (Don’t get me wrong, I still have a lot to learn.) As the years trailed by, I learned from formal education, my own study, pleasure reading, and from practice.
Writing sails along like most things in life, but you have to first know the rules before you can bend them. Years of playing the piano taught me that. After much time learning musical rules, my real voice and heart came out in all of its raw beauty when I set the peramiters and sheet music aside and played from my soul.
I am no Mozart or Shakespeare, and I understand everything must have boundaries. Writing needs good bones, but writing encompasses more than rules just as music does.
Creative writing equates to art, which can be subjective. The eyes of the beholder may or may not recognize beauty when it comes to the written word. We embrace or disfavor an author based on their style, voice, ability to masterly weave a story, and sometimes by how well or not they follow the rules. The rules again, sigh. I’ve placed some of my favorite authors of yesterday aside because I know more now. I can’t read a work riddled with the same weak structure I strive to eradicate in my own writing. I want to read books on par with where I believe I’ve grown to as a writer. Gosh, that sentence sounds a bit conceited, but so be it. I desire to attain the best route in which to take my readers, not the laziest.
Lately, I’ve started reading quite a bit of what I call “lazy writing.” Lazy may not be a fair term to use. Uninformed may be more correct. I committed this litany of writing no-nos before I learned better: too much generalization, passive sentences structure, weak verb use, and an alphabet soup of unnecessary words. Perhaps I commit some taboo writing deed in my work now? I hope not, but I strive to keep learning; I am a writer but a writer in process.
I’ve soaked in so many helpful writing practices of late. I’ll leave my thoughts on writing with the following general and specific writing exercise which I have found to be fruitful.
As people we often converse in general terms. For example, “The sunset painted the sky beautiful.” “My day ended well.” The words beautiful and well tell us little or nothing as a reader. They are too broad, overused, and have become meaningless. A reader needs specific words to inhabit the world you, as an author, create for them.
A general sentence, which happens to be a metaphor: Creative writing is artistic.
A specific, tangible explanation: Creative writing paints a picture for a reader whose senses can only be vicariously experienced through the written word. The reader lives, breathes, hears, sees, smells, and feels because of the words you craft as a writer and an author. When you write, you create a world of images for another person to see and experience. As a writer: you seam the words together like scraps of colorful fabric to piece a quilt; you erect a structure of imaginative building blocks for another soul to walk upon; you shape and craft a boat for the reader to sail from their life into your character’s; you conjure new worlds, people, places, and circumstances for readers to visit. As a writer, you translate to more than an artist. You become an architect, a cartographer, a quilter, a healer, a builder of vehicles, a magician etc. . .
I encourage you to practice this. Start or end a paragraph with a generalization, but give meaty specifics either before or following.
Where am I as a writer? Perpetually in the classroom, as I believe we all should be. I work at my craft. I practice. I listen. I learn. This year I’ve learned how to write with an active voice and avoid passive sentence structure. “What’s this?” Read my thoughts on a passive voice here.
My challenge to you . . . Rewrite this post in your own words. Describe your, “who, what, why, when, and where” of writing and what these each mean to you.
Blessings on your journey.
You can find more about, and get in contact with, Jenny at any of the links below!
I bring you another guest blog post. This one was written by Phil Rosen, and it is precisely what I envisioned when I set out to feature guest bloggers. It is an excellent piece, and more importantly, it teaches me something about writing. I feel compelled to wax-lyrical about this piece, but I shall let it do the work for me.
How your vocabulary can grow or shrink your audience
Despite the fantastical landscapes and stories they craft, writers are people too. And writers, like non-writers, enjoy when others applaud their intelligence and wit.
Writing isn’t done for the compliments, though human vanity takes them into consideration nonetheless. One way to accrue praise as a writer is through language. Language and vocabulary constitute two of many tools for writers; both can be used incisively or haphazardly.
Flexing a broad, cultured vocabulary can be enticing for a writer seeking credibility and status. Sentences strung together with complex, multisyllable words is something that can give off the perception of intelligence or sophistication. Whether or not this is an accurate perception, however, remains questionable.
Anyone that uses the word insalubrious instead of the word unhealthy must be really intelligent—right?
Readers—not writers—make the call here.
It isn’t self-evident that elevated diction makes for better writing. “Better writing,” really, depends on the audience. Whether an audience can read your writing, and whether they do read your writing, depends heavily on the language employed.
Does the audience understand what the writer is trying to communicate?
Is the story taking a backseat to the language being used?
How many of the words are actually necessary to tell the story clearly?
Language determines the audience. The bigger the words, the smaller the audience. The opposite is true too. Writing that can be understood by a seventh-grader can be understood by a massive audience (e.g. JK Rowling’s Harry Potterseries).
This rule of thumb isn’t inherently negative. Many popular works are written for academic, higher-educated audiences. Complex language demands an elevated literacy and comprehension level. This type of language is less comprehensible; the audience for it is smaller and refined.
At the same time, outdated, literary words like beseech, effulgent or perchance can muddle a story and suspend the readers’ understanding if they are abused. Rather than following the narrative, the reader may find their nose stuck in a dictionary, playing the role of interpreter rather than audience member.
The message here isn’t to avoid using complex language, but a writer must realize that language can either limit or broaden an audience. An article or book written in simple, colloquial language, has a much larger audience. More people can access and digest it, compared to a more convoluted writing style.
“What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.”
Sounding smart — or, trying to sound smart — with words shouldn’t be prioritized over communicating meaning. It can come off pretentious and disingenuous, rather than intelligent. The meaning of a message should precede the word choice. Fixating on a single word or phrase rather than concentrating on the intended message is unfruitful.
Meaning can be lost when it isn’t the primary communication goal. Selecting words that best relay information opens up a story to all readers. Selecting words in an attempt to, instead, relay eruditeness can drown the reader in verbiage, therefore minimizing the audience.
The words you choose to include— or omit— impact who can and will read your writing. Language is what selects our audience; choose wisely.
Living well requires reading well. Check out Phil’s Essential Reading List for books to make you think, feel, and unlock your creativity. Phil is a travel writer and editor based in Hong Kong. To see more of his ideas, visit his blog Phil’s Next Stop.