A Rose by Any Other Name

Publicity still from Harold Ramis’ sci-fi comedy Multiplicity (1996) with Michael Keaton and Andie MacDowell, in which the Keaton character clones himself.

Many years ago, as a young college graduate, I decided to take a speed reading course at New York University. During the first class, the instructor boasted he was going to quickly double our speed without hurting our comprehension. The trick, so to speak, was to keep on going and not hesitate or backtrack on what we were reading. And lo and behold, everybody quickly fulfilled the instructor’s promise.

The reason this gimmick worked was rather simple. Unless you’re dealing with a very dense, scholarly tome, most writers almost unconsciously repeat themselves. They don’t necessarily do this by using the same words over and over again, but by reiterating the same ideas using different terms or phrases that have the identical or similar meanings (synonyms and related phrases, if you will). So, if you don’t immediately comprehend what’s on the page, you will quickly be cued in by the way the sentences and paragraphs are constructed.

While repetition may be inherent in your narrative, in writing nonfiction you need to be careful to not using the exact same word more than once in the same sentence unless absolutely necessary, or to make a point. Otherwise, your text might prove to be less interesting than it need be. (I’m not talking here of the use word repetition as a literary or poetic device.)

Thus, as an editor, one the most common ways I can improve a client’s writing is by looking for unnecessary word repetition and making appropriate substitutions. There are several ways to do this, the most common of which is to find a synonym or using alternative phrasing. The traditional way to find words with the same or similar meaning is by using a thesaurus. Today’s word processing programs provide useful lists of synonyms by placing your cursor on the word in question and either right clicking on it (in Windows) or by pressing the control key and tapping the mouse button at the same time (on a Mac); alternatively, you can use an online thesaurus like Miriam-Webster’s. Such sites not only provide useful lists of synonyms, but also antonyms (words with the opposite meaning), related words and phrases.

For instance, notice that in the opening paragraph of this blog post, I deliberately cut down the number of times I used the word “reading,” even though that was what I was writing about. Also, in the third sentence, I use the word “trick” in referring to what my instructor did, while in the opening of the second paragraph I used the “gimmick” instead. The process of doing so is not always easy, as you may have difficulty in finding an exact equivalent to such common words as (pardon the repetition) “reading,” but it’s worth the effort.

Scholarly Tech: Transcription and Text Expansion Tools

A Graphophone, an improved version of Edison's first phonograph, which became the basis for the Dictaphone. The foot pedal provided power much like a sewing machine.
A Graphophone, an improved version of Edison’s first phonograph, which became the basis for the Dictaphone. The foot pedal provided power much like a sewing machine.

There often comes a time in a writer’s life when you have a need to transcribe an interview or other recording. It may be that you’re just trying to capture a brief, passing quote from a video, or you need a verbatim transcript of a 90-minute oral history interview for your book or doctoral dissertation. While there’s nothing wrong with quickly jotting down the former on the fly, accurately transcribing a lengthy interview can be a tedious and sometimes challenging task. If you can’t afford to farm the job out, there are software-hardware solutions which can be useful. In particular, I’m referring to transcription software used with a USB foot pedal and a text expander.

Today’s transcription technology dates back to the 1880s, when Alexander Graham Bell helped adapt Edison’s phonograph to create what became the Dictaphone. Eventually, in the pre-digital age, purpose-built transcription machines using microcassette tapes became standard, but have been superseded by desktop and laptop computers. For me, I use NCH’s Express Scribe Transcription Software (for PC and Mac) with a USB foot pedal; the program seems to have become the standard, in part, because it was free—they made money by selling foot pedals—and because it works so well. (It has keyboard/mouse controls, but a foot pedal seems essential for serious work.) It currently comes in free and premium versions, with their foot pedal being the only one that works with the free edition. In addition to sound recordings, it can also handle various video files.

Text or abbreviation software is another way to make the transcription process (as well as writing in general) easier, though some people find such programs annoying. Actually, most major word processing programs, such as MS Word and LibreOffice, have an autocorrect feature which can substitute words or phrases after an abbreviation is typed—e.g., “asap” can be made to expand to “as soon as possible.” These are especially valuable if you’re doing something like medical transcription, which involve lots of technical terms; they can also help in typing often-used words or phrases, including the character names in your novel or screenplay. If you find autocorrect lacking, there are standalone PC and Mac programs that will work as easily in your word processor as in your browser.

The first such program I used was the much beloved PRD+, which had a well-deserved cult following among medical transcribers, but which failed to make the transition from MS-DOS to Windows. I then gloomed onto Shorthand for Windows, which I used with great satisfaction for many years; while my wife still uses it without a problem, that was not my experience of late. I found a viable alternative in FastKeys (Windows), which is actually a collection of utilities, including an auto complete function much like that found on smartphone keyboards; however, I basically use it for text expansion. It’s free to try, registration is only $US9.99 and I found technical support to be excellent.

Though these and other abbreviation programs have a lot in common, there are some differences in how they operate. As such, I strongly recommend you try to take an extended test run before you buy, just to make sure you’re comfortable with it.

Term Paper Tricks: Picking a Topic

Suffragette parade during Wilson administration.
Suffragette parade during Wilson administration.

It’s not uncommon for college students to have a problem picking a term paper topic. The class may not interest them, or they may not have any idea what they could write about, or perhaps they just have an aversion to writing term papers. Aside from discussing the matter with your instructor (always a good idea), I would like to present a few thoughts and suggestions which might be helpful.

Try to pick a subject you’re interested in and/or want to find more about. This may not always be possible, but even if you end up selecting a topic at random, try to find an angle that you can relate to.

Pick something for which there is more than enough research material available to you. For instance, if your professor mandates that you use one book, one peer-reviewed journal article, and one article found on the Internet, make sure that you can do this; also make sure that what you use covers is both relevant and covers the subject matter in some detail. For example, if you’re writing a paper on Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, using a scholarly article on his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, as a key source is a bit off the point.

If you cannot find enough material related to your topic, then perhaps you need to either select something else to write about or broaden the scope of your paper. So, if you find a surprising dearth of material on animated propaganda films made in Hollywood during World War II, there’s nothing wrong with expanding your parameters to include live-action movies made during the same period. There’s no glory in attempting to write a paper about a topic, no matter how passionate you are about it, if you can’t find the necessary material you need to write it. (If you still want to pursue the topic, despite a lack of sources, you could talk to your professor about doing an original research paper—but that’s a matter beyond the scope of this post.)

Avoid topics more suitable for a book rather than a 1,500 or 2,000 word term paper. While writing something about the women’s suffrage movement in the United States may seem rather simple, trying to cram all the highlights of its history into a few pages may turn out to be an exercise in frustration. Thus, it wouldn’t be surprising that such a paper would end years before the ratification of the 19th amendment to the Constitution in 1920, simply because the writer reached his/her assigned word count. One obvious solution is to select a more manageable aspect of the story; for example, one might focus on the role of an important figure in the movement, such as Susan B. Anthony, or the role played by an organization, like the National American Woman Suffrage Association.