June 28

Ever Heard of “Citation-Stacking”?

One of my courses in college required me to buy a textbook which was never discussed in class (and never cracked open, for that matter). An upperclassman let me in on the secret: the book was written by a friend of the professor, and was included in the list of required textbooks simply to give his friend a boost in sales.

Some academic journals, it seems, are doing something similar through a scheme called “citation stacking.” Here’s how it works: the more often an academic journal’s articles are cited, the higher the journal’s reputation and influence, theoretically. The rumor is that some journal editors are pressuring their contributing authors to include more citations from their own journal’s articles, thereby “stacking” their editorial content with self-promoting citations.

It appears that this fanatical drive for citations is fueled by some number-crunching group out there which counts up how many citations each journal receives every year, and then assigns an “impact factor” to each periodical. Woe to the poor editor whose journal has a low “impact factor” (i.e., fewer citations)—heads will roll!

This monitoring group for journal content recently slapped the hand of 20 different journals for “citation-stacking”—having too many articles which cite their own publication. It makes me feel sorry for the editors of super-specialized periodicals (like the “Journal of Diseases of the Left Earlobe” or something), whose articles hardly ever get cited in other journals. Doesn’t it make sense that there would be a lot more self-citation in the journal of a very specialized field of study? I only hope that the citation police take that into account!

Unless you’re an academic author, you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with you. Is there some form of “citation-stacking” in popular magazine and book publishing, especially Christian publishing? Well, in a way, yes. When I included a bibliography in one of the books I wrote, the publisher asked that I add in a few titles by their publishing company. Is it self-serving? Sure, it is—just as self-serving as authors whose books include a list of other books they’ve written.

Is it a bad thing? Not really. I had no problem with adding to my bibliography the books my publisher suggested, because they were good books by good authors, and they related directly to the topic I was writing about. I suppose if a publisher asked me to remove a competing publisher’s books from a bibliography, solely because they were a competitor’s titles, I might refuse, but I’ve never heard of that situation.

Are you aware of any other practices in Christian publishing similar to “citation-stacking”? If so, please comment and let us know.

June 19

Five Rules for Internet Research

Photo by Michael Kubalczyk on Unsplash

I recently read an article suggested by my web browser on the rising number of rent-burdened consumers. I learned that “rent-burdened” is a commonly used term, meaning a renter whose monthly housing costs were more than 30% of their income.

Yeah, I know, not very fascinating; economics for most people is about as exciting as watching paint dry. But bear with me; this is not about economics, but about research.

Anyway, I was so interested in the problem of being “rent-burdened” that I searched for another article—just a glutton for punishment, I guess. And there, at the top of the search results was another article, which spoke about how the number of rent-burdened households was falling, not rising! How could this be?

The other author was using the same definition of “rent-burdened,” so that wasn’t the problem. The two articles were written six months apart, and it’s doubtful that the figures could change in that short a time. After a long analysis of both articles, I found that the author talking about the falling number of rent-burdened households was using current figures, but the “rising” author was using figures that were three to seven years old. Was this author just incompetent, or pushing an agenda? Well, I’m going to name names: the article was published by Pew Charitable Trusts, an organization that ought to know what it’s doing.

My point is the first rule of internet research: Use multiple sources when you research a topic. That’s a good rule for any research, but especially for the Internet.

The second rule of Internet research applies here as well: Check the dates. In this case, the article was less than two months old, but the statistics they used were from three to seven years earlier.

The third rule is Check the authorship. Is the article from a respected information source, or just some joker with a blog? We should have been able to trust this article, but in this case, Pew Charitable Trusts let us down.

The fourth rule, unfortunately, appears to apply here as well: Check for obvious bias. Are multiple viewpoints presented, or is the information one-sided? The Pew article was dated April 2018, but it gave the results of a survey conducted between 2011 and 2015 by (surprise, surprise) Pew Charitable Trusts! One wonders why Pew would wait three years to issue these survey results. If they had issued them in 2016, however, it would have highlighted the bad economic conditions in the middle of the 2016 presidential race. Was there a two-year delay in reporting these figures in order to avoid giving more ammunition to one of the presidential candidates? Curious.

Finally, the fifth rule is Check the quality of the website and its content. Granted, this is a somewhat subjective thing, and does not apply to the Pew article. Their website is very nice-looking, and the article was well-written with no typos that I could see. But usually, if a website has bad information and unreliable research, the quality of the writing and the website design is likely to be pretty bad, as well. But let me add that this rule is not absolute. A good-quality site and well-written material could have bad information, and a slap-dash, poorly written website might have accurate information. But it’s more likely to be the other way around.

Next time you see an article online by Pew Charitable Trusts, give them another chance. Nobody’s perfect. But when doing research on the web, use these five rules to evaluate any material you find, and you won’t go wrong.



May 29

Three Tips for Honest Sentences

English grammar needs to be kept honest. By that I mean that we need to make sure we say what we mean, what is true and accurate, and not what the grammar can cause us to say if we aren’t paying close attention.

I can think of three ways that grammar can trip us up in this way. (I am sure you can think of more, and I certainly welcome your additions to this list!):

  1. You can have the wrong subject, and the wrong kind of verb for the sentence. The subject of the sentence is the doer in the sentence. It is very easy, however, to focus the attention of the sentence on the wrong person doing the wrong thing. For example, “Joe fell off the cliff” is fine if Joe is alone, and fell off the cliff himself. It uses the intransitive verb fell. (I have said in previous posts how confusing grammatical terms are, and this is one of them. When you see “intransitive,” think “subjective,” because it’s all about the subject of the sentence—just as the subject does the action, with an intransitive verb the action occurs to the subject as well. Joe fell; he did not “fell” something or someone else, because he can’t do that verb to something or someone else.)

    The problem comes in when the action is not truly subjective (or intransitive, if you really want to use the traditional, ambiguous term). If Joe didn’t really fall off the cliff by himself, but was pushed by Fred, then make Joe the object of the sentence, and use a transitive (or what I call objective) verb: “Fred pushed Joe off the cliff.” As a transitive verb, “pushed” is an action done to an object. And so we have an honest sentence, and we can see the real truth here: Joe is not the actor in this drama, but the victim.

    The Economist magazine addressed this in a recent article, with a real-life example of how the wrong subject and the wrong kind of verb can lead to fudging the truth.

  2. You can use the wrong voice, which is just another way of using the wrong subject. A second way grammar can fight against honesty is the use of passive voice. We could have used a transitive (objective) verb here, and still hidden the real culprit by again making Joe the subject, but in this case a subject who does not act, but is acted upon. “Joe was pushed off the cliff.” And it begs the question, by whom? We often talk about avoiding passive voice because it can be wordy, and blunts the action in the sentence, but do we realize how often it is used to escape responsibility for an action? This is why political material and government bureaucratic regulations often have passive voice: an unpopular tax “was passed” (by who? the ruling political party); an onerous regulation “has been imposed” (upon who? the unsuspecting citizenry). The politicians and bureaucrats avoid a lot of tar and feathers that way.
  3. You can use the wrong verb. Finally, a third way we can monkey with the truth (intentionally or unintentionally) is to use a verb that is too strong or not strong enough, giving a false picture of what actually happened. If “Fred pushed Joe off the cliff” is an accurate depiction of what occurred (with little indication of Fred’s motives or intent), do we get a different, and probably inaccurate, impression if it reads, “Fred hurled Joe off the cliff” (which may imply violent intent) or “Fred nudged Joe off the cliff” (which may imply an unintentional accident)?

    You may think, “I’d never do that,” but it’s a common mistake of even seasoned professional writers. For example, when Congress does, or fails to do, something that the President then criticizes, don’t we often see headlines like, “President slams Congress for action [or inaction] on . . .”? Enough of those headlines and we begin to think the President is furious, when he may simply have a difference of opinion. But it’s our own fault, because we are far less likely to read the article if the headline is, “President criticizes Congress for action [or inaction] on . . .” The point here—and this is especially true in politics—is that we can assume we know the intent of a subject (and reflect that assumption in our verbs) when we really have no idea.

There you have it—three ways you can veer off the path of truth with the wording of your sentences, and how to avoid it. As Christian writers, we should lead the way in upholding the truth. If you have other ideas on potential truth-killers to avoid, please share!

December 11

Let’s Not Create Urban Legends

Whenever I edit a Christian book that illustrates a point using “the results of a scientific study,” I cringe! Usually the information comes from another author who confidently quotes an unnamed source—and usually, that source is nowhere to be found, and the material is totally bogus! Make sure that any “research” you cite is true and accurate, and also draws the correct conclusions—and you normally do that by looking up the original research study, if possible.

When you don’t go back to the source, an urban legend can be created. Example: it is commonly reported that, according to scientists, the bumblebee is aerodynamically unable to fly. This is sourced from the story of an aerodynamics expert who tried to work out the math on this question, literally on a napkin, at a dinner party. He started by guessing the weight, wingspan, thrust, etc. of a bumblebee, and couldn’t make it work because he had the figures all wrong. When he got back to his workplace and looked up the correct weight, wingspan, etc., it all worked out (and the bumblebees of the world heaved a collective sigh of relief, I’m sure). But other people at the party apparently never got the memo, and spread the rumor that bumblebees are not supposed to be able to fly.

So-called “higher criticism” of the Bible falls into this trap. Higher critics claim that the Bible, especially the Old Testament, was compiled over centuries, well into and even after the time of Christ. Much of it is based on the theory of the “J document” and “E document” (theoretical predecessors of the first five books of Moses, one of which speaks of “a god” named Jehovah, and a separate document which speaks of “a god” named Elohim). The argument goes that the Jews had two gods, and only agreed on monotheism later, at which point they merged the two documents, and that’s why in the Old Testament God is call Jehovah in some places and Elohim in others! Then they discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls, dated to before the time of Christ, which contained most of the books of the Old Testament, virtually identical to the ones we have today (the wording is something like 99.5% the same). It proved the faithful transmission of God’s Word through the centuries, and totally discredited the “J document/E document” theory — and yet, liberal scholars still hold to this theory today!

My point, however, is not that including undocumented (and/or misinterpreted) research in your book is necessarily going to create an urban legend. But it may end up spreading a falsehood. It could be harmless, as in the bumblebee story, or it may be dangerous, as in the theories of higher criticism.  Regardless, is this what a Christian writer should be doing?

August 12

What a laugh!

If you want to get your reader to pay attention to a comment you’ve written, to remember your point, try humor. It’s often the only way you can get anyone to take you seriously.

“Ah,” but you say, “I’m no comedian; I’m at a loss when it comes to making a witty comment.” The cure for that, my friend, is to learn to laugh at yourself. I love to use self-deprecating humor in my writing, because I never run out of material!

Perhaps you think that, as a Christian, life is too serious for levity. Are your shorts too tight? Lighten up, for crying out loud. Some of the best humor, especially self-deprecating humor, is a healthy response to pain, frustration, and humiliation—all very serious stuff. And it’s too serious not to see the irony in the situation.

Do you know what I did when I realized my sinfulness and need for Christ in my life? Once I surrendered myself to Christ and received His forgiveness, I laughed! (The people I was praying with thought I was a little kooky, I think.) I laughed because I realized what a silly fool I had been, hopelessly trying to make myself “good enough” for God, when all the time He just wanted me to give up and accept His gift of salvation, by faith. Is salvation by faith a serious business? You bet it is—too serious not to laugh at our own attempts to be accepted by God any other way.

In Psalm 2, the rulers of the world speak of overthrowing God’s authority and choosing their own way. Serious stuff, right? How does God respond? “He who sits in the heavens laughs” (Psalm 2:4). Somehow how I don’t think they’ve got God very worried. And that’s the point! Get the joke? Stop that grinning—this is serious, remember?

Humor can be used to deflect opposition, as well. During a presidential campaign debate, Ronald Reagan was asked, as the oldest President in history, if his age affected his ability to perform in the office. His response? “I will not make age a factor in this campaign. I will not exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The audience burst into hysterics. Even his opponent, Walter Mondale, standing at the other podium on the stage, could not help laughing. And the question of Reagan’s age was barely mentioned throughout the rest of the campaign.

If you still think you may need a funny bone transplant, read some of the great authors of humor from the present and the past. That may help jump-start your humor machine.

May 4

Step 1: Engage Brain

While structuring and organizing a new business venture (which I will be posting about soon), I have re-discovered something about writing and thinking: in order to write well, you need to engage your brain.

OK, OK, so it’s not that profound; it’s not a “stop the presses!” moment. I never said it was. But it has struck me anew just how little we (I should say “I,” but I’m hoping you relate to this) really think deeply about the problems, possibilities and issues of our daily lives.

Part of the reason for this is surely that thinking—pondering, musing, analyzing—is hard work, and we (and here I really should say “I”) are mentally lazy. Deep down, we would really like to just have the words flow without thought, wouldn’t we? The problem is, words without thought tend to be shallow, hackneyed clichés that fail to communicate well. Remember what the poet Sheridan said: “Easy writing’s vile hard reading.”

Another reason we do less deep thinking today is our distraction-prone culture. Social media is often cited as the main culprit, but there are plenty of other factors that deserve blame: postmodernism’s muddling of fact and opinion; our love for sound bites and talking points over reasoned discourse; and the proliferation of more and more sources of information—and disinformation.

So how do we overcome distractions and our natural inclination to avoid the hard work of deep thinking? Ironically, I have made a second re-discovery about thinking and writing, the flip side of the first: a great way to engage your brain is to write!

A central principle of communication is that language (spoken and written) is inseparable from conceptual thought. We think in words far more than we may realize, and all our writing is a product of our thought processes. So when you decide to do deep thinking, have a notepad and pen handy, and write out your thoughts. (Yes, you could tap it out on a keyboard, but it makes you more vulnerable to some of those cultural distractions.)

Are the words that I write down while thinking deeply going to be read by anyone else? Maybe not, but write as if they are. When you work to make your written thoughts understandable to a stranger, you will find that it creates new patterns of thinking, and helps you avoid shallow reasoning and cliché-ridden mental habits.

As I’ve been thinking (and writing) deeply about my new business, I am seeing previously ignored details that I can now deal with and potential pitfalls that I can now avoid. Because I have written down my thoughts as if explaining them to a stranger, I have been able to use these notes as a source for promotional/marketing copy for my company. Nothing gets wasted.

I encourage you to make a regular habit of deep thinking, accompanied by careful writing; it will lead to freshness of thought and clarity of expression. And if the notes you make from your great and profound ideas result in publishable text, all the better!

December 19

Front Matter Does Matter

Image by Simon Howden/ freedigitalphotos.net

Most nonfiction book writers couldn’t care less about the chicken or the egg. When they ask which comes first, they’re probably talking about the foreword, the preface, the acknowledgments, and the introduction. And what’s the difference between them, anyway?

The foreword, preface, acknowledgments, and introduction (along with the dedication and table of contents) are what publishers refer to as “front matter,” and although they are small parts of your book, they can be critical. These preliminary pages of your manuscript should set the pace for the rest of the book, drawing readers in and making them want to read on.

Since these are the first pages an editor looks at, you should make sure you get them right, and make a good first impression. Acquisition editors may not reject a book merely because of a pretentious, silly or maudlin preface, but it can color their view of the rest of the manuscript. Besides, if you demonstrate confusion over what a foreword, preface or introduction is, an editor is likely to wonder what else you may have wrong.

So what’s the difference between all these front parts of a book? Here they are, in the order in which they should appear in your manuscript, following the table of contents:

Foreword: This is a statement by someone other than the author, recommending the book.

Preface: This is the author’s own statement about the book — usually, the reasons he or she wrote it.

Acknowledgments: This is a place to recognize those who helped the author in some way with the book. The acknowledgments may also include a list of permissions granted for reprinted material. Sometimes the acknowledgments can be included in the preface, or even instead of the preface.

Introduction: This is the point at which you begin to introduce the subject of the book, setting the scene, identifying the problem, challenging the reader, etc. This is the real beginning of the text of the book.

Now that we understand what the preliminary parts of a book are, let’s look at some of the ways an author can run into trouble — and how to avoid it:

1. The foreword is an optional item. Unless the person writing it is so well-known that you want to include “With a foreword by So-and-so” on the cover, don’t bother with it — at least, not at the stage of presenting the manuscript to a publisher.

2. A preface has to have some real content to it, or you might as well not include it at all. There is no reason to talk about your childhood and how you always wanted to write, and so on, ad nauseam. If the book is an outgrowth of how God brought you victory in some area of your Christian life, and you can briefly — briefly — tell that story in an engaging way, then by all means, make that your preface. I find it interesting, however, to discover that very few of the better-selling authors have prefaces in their books. They usually just launch into the message of the book.

3. Some authors get the acknowledgments mixed up with the dedication (which should be placed before the table of contents, by the way). A dedication means the book was written in honor of someone, while the acknowledgments are to thank someone for their assistance in putting the book together.

4. I occasionally receive manuscripts which include in the front of the book what the author has labeled a “prologue.” This is really a misnomer. A prologue, according to the dictionary, is an introduction to a poem, a play or other work of literature. I think it can be assumed that the term “prologue” could be used in a novel, for example (I do so in my own novel), but in nonfiction it’s best to stick with the more mundane term, “introduction.” (Better yet, just call your introduction “Chapter 1.”)

Why all this concern about “front matter”? Many readers never even glance at the dedication, foreword, preface or acknowledgments, and some of them barely skim the introduction, so why make such a big deal about them? It is because your first reader of your book is the acquisition editor. The care that you put into these first words can make all the difference as to whether the editor looks at the rest of the manuscript. Remember, first impressions last — so get your front matter right!

December 9

In Defense of Editors

In a recent post, I mentioned that many of the clichés in my book were removed by the editor. One of my good friends commented that I should have left those clichés in, despite what my editor said. “Your clichés are uniquely you,” she said.  That was meant as a compliment, but . . . well . . .

My friend was not the only one to suggest that clichés are my “style” and should be kept in. But the editor is your first audience, and if you trust your editor, you have to accept that the editor sees blemishes in your writing that you are blind to.  And in the interest of full disclosure (it really hurts to admit this), I have to say that the number of clichés in my manuscript was really over the top! (The ironic use of the cliché “over the top”  in that last sentence was NOT deliberate; I only just now noticed it!)

Another friend made the point that a few clichés are inevitable, because you can’t make every sentence into a brilliant and original turn of a phrase, or it would be hard to read. I agree. It would be hard to write as well! Brilliant originality in every sentence? I don’t want to put any author under that kind of pressure! However, if a phrase is so “original” it is hard to read, then it’s probably badly written! If it’s a really good original thought, then it should be quite easy to read.

To give one example of an author who uses one original phrase after another, let me suggest A.W. Tozer.  His writing is not hard to read, in the sense of being hard to figure out what he’s saying. His writing tends to be slow reading, because what he says is so profound it causes the reader to pause and think about it. Hard to skim? Yes. Hard to read? Never! This is why Tozer is so often quoted.

So don’t feel sorry for me because I was asked to change a few clichés. It gave me a chance to get a little creative. And I wouldn’t have seen them because I was blind to the mistakes. (Besides, she let me keep a few of my favorite clichés!)

It’s always good to have another pair of eyes to look at your manuscript. My editor even found a few sentences in my manuscript (a manuscript I had gone over and over) that didn’t make sense to her.  I looked at those sentences and said “Wow, how did I miss that?” And I wrote something much better.

So give your editor a fair chance. He or she is committed to making you look good!

November 28

Brick or Stone?

Do you plan out your writing or just start putting words down on paper, hoping to “discover” the structure in the brick-stoneprocess?

While a certain amount of writing out your thoughts without any concern for structure (sometimes called free-writing) is a perfectly acceptable practice, you’ll never get to a publishable piece if you don’t do some organization, if at least after the fact.

Some people seem to think that writing, especially fiction or nonfiction, has to be so much “discovery” that any kind of planning and organization is anathema to them. Behind this attitude appears to be a fear of the writing becoming too formulaic, as if structure rather than lack of originality is the culprit. In their mind, a well-structured piece of writing would be compared to a brick wall, where every element in the wall is virtually identical — it fits together well, but it is dull and repetitive.

Not so, however. A well-structured piece of writing is more like a stone wall, with each piece of stone a unique size and shape, and with all the pieces fitting together at various angles and positions. A good stonemason needs to choose carefully where each piece of stone fits, like assembling a jigsaw puzzle.

Only after the wall is complete does the stonemason step back and say, “It’s perfect — every stone in the right place.”

November 25

Clichés and original thought

Okay, I confess. I love clichés! Although my editor struck most of them from Concept to Contract, she allowed me to keep a couple of my favoritecliche2s — which made me happy as a clam!

And if I had been editing a manuscript of some other author who used those same clichés, I would have struck them, too. A cliché is a sign of a lack of original thought (ouch, it hurts to make that confession!). So the only way to replace a cliché is to come up with something original — some kind of statement that conveys what you are trying to say in a fresh way.

The problem is, we tend to be blind to our own mistakes — probably that’s why we keep making the same ones over and over again! So you’ll never find your clichés unless you deliberately look for them.

Read through your manuscript and take note of particular phrases that sound vaguely familiar. Then do a global search for them in the entire manuscript. Some phrases, such as “on the other hand” or “in a little while” are not exactly clichés, but are often overused. If such phrases turn up more than three or four times, remove most of them. If a phrase is a bona fide cliché, strike it out! (My editor is laughing at me over that advice, I’m sure.)

Once you find a cliché, how do you fix it? One simple way is to create a new one, like “. . . hungry as a horse supermodel on a diet.” Or merge them so they play off each other, like “When you’re over the hill, you start picking up speed.” But you can’t do that with every one of them. You may need to rethink what you are trying to say. Maybe it’s as frayed, faded and tired as the cliché you are using.  Maybe you need to improve the content of your material.  Maybe you need to express it in a fresh way, looking for a whole new aspect of the issue.

Let me show you a couple of clichés my editor found (crossed out) and the replaced wording (in red).

Sometimes an idea seems to just write itself. Other times you have to plug away at it feel like your creativity is trying to run with a sprained ankle.

But sometimes you’re just beating a dead horse trying to capitalize on an idea with an inherent flaw, and instead of capitalizing, you should be euthanizing!

As you can see, the solution to a cliché may sometimes be to add more information. A cliché can often be a spot in your manuscript where you lose the reader, because the tired phrase contains assumed information — you’ve stopped talking to your reader and you’re talking to yourself. (You know, they put people away for things like that!)