6 Writing Rules

April 29, 2015

Image of a book cover entitled, "Politics and the English Language, An Essay by George Orwell"George Orwell was an English novelist, essayist and journalist; among some of his most famous works are the novels 1984, Animal Farm and Down and Out in Paris and London. He outlined six rules for better writing in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” He noted “But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails.”

The following rules will cover most cases:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
    Orwell encouraged you to ask yourself: “What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?” Overused phrases like “leave no stone unturned” or “toe the line” often fall flat because they are so common.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
    It is great to have a robust vocabulary, but don’t fall into the trap of trying to find fancy synonyms for all of your words. Many break this rule when writing personal statements or cover letters in an attempt to impress the reader.

  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    Clear and concise writing often doesn’t happen in the first draft. You will need to edit, edit, and then edit some more.

  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    Writers frequently break this rule, especially when writing resume bullets. An active voice is better because it is often shorter and more powerful. Not sure of the difference between an active voice and passive voice? Here is an example.  Passive: The boy was bitten by the dog. Active: The dog bit the boy.

  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    This rule applies to non-academic writing because obviously scientific literature and publications will contain highly specific and technical language. For non-academic writing, it is important to follow this rule so that a layperson can understand.

  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
    This last rule seems to be tacked on as a reminder to use your common sense about the application of the first five rules. Also, it seems Orwell could have followed rule #2 more closely and found another word for barbarous.

NOTE: Orwell applied the rules to politicians and political speak. You might be interested in his thoughts. Whether you are writing a personal statement, a cover letter or simply just an email, try these rules out.

Let us know what you think? What are some of your rules for writing well?

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Improving Your Writing Skills

September 29, 2014

Picture of a stick figure holding a big pen. Image courtesy of Microsoft Images.Employers almost always seek candidates with strong communication skills. In a world where much of our interactions are digital, written communication skills take precedence. Maybe you have always struggled with writing, or maybe you have to write in a language that is not your native tongue. Whatever the case may be, writing can be difficult for many. However, as it is a critical skill, it is important that you keep working to improve.

How can you improve your writing skills?

  1. Practice, Practice, Practice.

    The first answer is simple in theory, but not in practice. Writing is a skill. Like most other skills, it is perfected through committed practice. Most writing workshops and articles agree: write often. Additionally, it is important to measure your progress – word by word, sentence by sentence, and page by page. Set a manageable and measurable goal; for example, “I will write three pages of my dissertation each day.” 

    Perhaps you are no longer a student or writing is not a major task in your job description. Maybe you don’t feel like your daily responsibilities allow you to further hone your writing skills. If this is the case, it will be even more important for you to seek opportunities to do so. Volunteer to write articles for your institution’s newsletter or periodicals. Enroll in classes or workshops that will provide you with a structured time and place to work on your writing. The Writer’s Center is a local organization which focuses on in-person writing workshops in Bethesda. There are also many online writing workshops such as Gotham Writers, and don’t forget to take advantage of the educational world’s newest initiative – MOOCs. Many schools and programs offer Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) on a variety of topics. You can view the full schedule at: https://www.edx.org/ . UC Berkeley has a class in progress now which might be of particular interest: Principles of Written English, Part 1.

  1. The second answer is by asking for feedback/help.

    Some people struggle with sharing their writing with others, but remember that being able to receive constructive criticism is an important part of strengthening your writing skills. Most universities have school writing centers with trained tutors to help you out. At the NIH, you should check with your specific institute to see if they offer trainees scientific document-editing services. Also, career counselors at the OITE are available to help provide input on written documents like your cover letters or personal statements.

  2. Offer up your editing help.

    Editing other people’s work can help you do a better job of critiquing and improving your own work. It gives you insight into common mistakes, which you might be making yourself, and it helps to expand your vocabulary and your knowledge of different writing styles.

You never know when you might be called upon to write a grant application, a report, part of a press release, or even a perfectly crafted cover letter for a job application. Whatever the situation, strengthening your writing skills now will enable you to communicate with clarity and ease to a wide variety of future audiences.


Soft Skills = Today’s Critical Competencies

August 20, 2014

Image of a person surrounded by eight different bubbles. Each bubble represents a different soft skill, such as "presenting" or "being on time."Traditionally, soft skills were viewed as a secondary bonus to an applicant’s technical skill set; however, in today’s extremely competitive job market, employers are looking for proof of a mix of both hard and soft skills. In fact, recruiters will view a lack of demonstrated leadership or extracurricular activities on your resume as a potential red flag. Illuminating this fact is a study which shows that 60% of managers agreed that soft skills are the most important factor when evaluating an employee’s performance.

Recognizing the extreme importance of soft skills, The Department of Labor (DOL) developed an entire curriculum on the subject entitled, “Soft Skills to Pay the Bills: Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success.” Targeted toward teens and young adults, this program was created as an introduction to workplace interpersonal and professional skills.

The DOL’s list of key soft skills is very similar to OITE’s core competencies; it includes:

  1. Communication
    Permeating almost every aspect of a job, this skill is often ranked first among employers. It includes your ability to speak, write and present.
  2. Enthusiasm & Attitude
    Employers get frustrated with employees who are resistant to change or unable to adapt to new directions. Having an open and upbeat attitude will help your group generate good energy and move forward on projects.
  3. Teamwork
    There will be aspects of teamwork within every job. Leaders and project managers often lament that most of their jobs are spent trying to get colleagues to work effectively together. Therefore, it is essential to your career to work cooperatively and be able to participate in group decision-making.
  4. Networking
    Like teamwork, networking is about building relationships. It also involves critical elements of communication and the ability to represent yourself effectively to others.
  5. Problem Solving & Critical Thinking
    There is no shortage of challenges and issues that can arise on the job. Employers want employees who will be able to face these problems critically and creatively by gathering enough information in order to develop a solution.
  6. Professionalism
    No matter the job or the industry, professionalism is a critical key to your success. Professionalism isn’t one trait – it is a combination of characteristics. It often means conducting yourself with a high level of responsibility, integrity and accountability. Part of professionalism is having a strong work ethic and being willing to go that extra mile. Another integral component is being dependable, trustworthy, and always following through on your projects.

Soft skills are no longer undervalued by employers. Make sure you are practicing these skills in your current position and/or seeking out opportunities to develop these skill sets. You will not only be helping your professional development, but you will be especially thankful the next time you are in an interview and they ask you a common behavioral question like “Tell me about a time when you had to utilize effective communication skills within a group setting,” and you have a stellar anecdote to share.


Illegal* Interview Questions – What They Are and How to Handle Them

June 11, 2014

A white button with the words "Illegal Interview Questions" covered by a red X.In the United States, federal and state laws prohibit prospective employers from asking certain questions that are not related to the job for which they are hiring; however, most interviewers are not deliberately trying to discriminate against job applicants. In fact, many illegal* interview questions come out unintentionally in a conversational tone. As an example, an interviewer could start the interview with some ice breaker type questions and say, “You have such an interesting name! What’s the origin?” Outside of an interview, this would be a pretty innocuous question; however, within an interview, it could be construed as trying to ascertain your nationality.

Personal information like your heritage, religion, age, and marital status can very subtly sneak into an interview. Here are a few more examples:

Subject:
Nationality
Illegal Questions:
Are you a U.S. citizen? Where were you born? Is English your first language?
Legal to Ask:
Are you authorized to work in the United States on a full-time basis? What languages do you speak and what is your proficiency level? (This can also be tested by the interview itself and/or a written exam.)

Subject: Marital/Family Status
Illegal Questions:
Are you married? Are you planning to have children? How many kids do you have? What are your child care arrangements?
Legal to Ask:
Would you be willing to relocate if necessary? Are you willing to travel as stated in the position description?

Subject: Disabilities
Illegal Questions:
Do you have a disability? Have you had any recent illnesses or operations?
Legal to Ask:
Are you able to perform the essential functions of this position with or without reasonable accommodations?

Subject: Age
Illegal Questions:
How old are you? What is your birthdate? When did you graduate from college?
Legal to Ask:
Are you over the age of 18?

Subject: Affiliations
Illegal Questions:
What religious holidays do you celebrate? What clubs/organizations do you belong to?
Legal to Ask:
Are you available to work Sundays (if the position notes this)?

What should you do if one of these questions gets asked during your interview? It can be a challenge to weigh your options quickly while you are still face to face with the interviewer. So, if there is an area which is of specific concern for you, try to prepare some possible responses. Here are four different options:

  1. Simply answer the question. Only choose this option if you are truly comfortable providing that information and don’t personally feel that it could cause an issue for you.
  2. Answer the question with a question of your own. You could say, “I’m happy to try and answer that question for you, but can you help me understand how that relates to this job first?”
  3. Don’t answer directly, but respond to the intent of the question. For example, if the interviewer asks if you are a U.S. citizen, you can respond by saying, “I think you are meaning to ask if I am legally authorized to work here and the answer is yes.”
  4. Refuse to answer the question. This last resort should only be utilized for a very egregious question.

Knowing in advance what kinds of illegal questions are apt to sneak into an interview and how you feel about answering them should be a part of your interview preparation. This can help you quickly diffuse an uncomfortable situation should it arise. Beyond what’s legal, there are also disclosures that can make you feel uncomfortable discussing in a professional setting. We will be touching on some of these issues in future blog posts.

*  Illegal interview questions, while not illegal in the strictest meaning, do have great potential to open a company or organization up to being held liable in a discrimination law suit.


The Need for More Inquisitiveness in Science

February 10, 2014

Post written by guest blogger Dr. Howard Young, Principal Investigator at the National Cancer Institute.

Recently, I attended a seminar with talks given by two younger scientists.  The audience consisted mostly of fellows, postbacs and some students.  The subjects of the two talks were different and there was sufficient time for questions and a discussion.   To my surprise and disappointment, other than my questions, only one other question was asked and it did not come from a trainee.   I left the seminar wondering why younger scientists are not more inquisitive with respect to science outside of their personal domain.

A few of my colleagues have suggested some possible explanations for the lack of questions. Maybe cultural differences are to blame, since  in some cultures it is not considered appropriate to question more senior individuals.  Others suggested that the presence of senior scientists at a seminar is intimidating and younger fellows would not want to take the chance of embarrassing themselves in front of these individuals.  Another possible explanation could be that the seminar was so far out of their field that they were completely lost from the start.   Even if any of these were true, we still need younger scientists to learn to be more active in the discussion of science.

So, how can we encourage inquisitive questions?

  • Mentors should make an effort to stress that curiosity is encouraged and active participation in seminars and meetings through questions and input is expected.
  • Talk about how being inquisitive in science is necessary, regardless of your culture and you standing on the “totem pole.”
  • Stress that an open and inquisitive mind is needed for whatever career path a scientist chooses.
  • Model good questioning, and perhaps provide a “seed question” that will get the thought processes rolling.

To help frame your own questions, think about three things:
1) How can the speaker help me with my research?
2) How can I help the speaker with their research?
3) Why am I at this talk?

In truth, there are no easy or foolproof answers to this issue.   Please let us know your suggestions and thoughts about how you learned to ask questions and be inquisitive.


Two Part Series: Part 2 – Getting the Most Out of Mentoring Relationships

December 13, 2013

An image of puzzle pieces being drawn by hand. The puzzle pieces read: "Motivate," "Lead by Example," "Mentor," and "Vision" to name a few.In the first part of this series, we talked about how to identify a good mentor. Now that you have done so, how do you cultivate and maintain that relationship? Identifying a mentor is not an easy task; making it work can be even more challenging. In this blog, we will give you some tips to help foster and maintain your mentoring relationships.

Take ownership of your career
Take charge; remember you are the one in control! Think about your career goals in the short-term and long-term. Communicate these goals to your mentors, so they can understand your interests and better guide you on which steps to follow or opportunities to seek to reach your goal. A good mentor will offer advice but not tell you the path to choose; ultimately, that is up to you.

Communicate your expectations
Once you define your goals, it is very important to discuss them with your mentors and work together to develop a plan (such as an individual development plan or IDP) to accomplish your goals. If you prefer structure, you can establish clear expectations for the relationship. For example, you can start by determining how often you will meet (weekly, monthly) and how you will communicate (by email, in person, Skype, etc.). When expectations are set early on, your mentor will then know what you are seeking from the relationship, but you will also know what s/he expects from you. This will help you to effectively manage the relationship and will avoid future misunderstanding.

Respect each other’s time
Be mindful of your mentor’s time! Take full advantage of the time you have with him/her. If you know you are meeting or talking to your mentor, be prepared! Before each meeting, you can send your mentor an agenda of topics you would like to discuss in advance and any questions you might have, which will also help them better prepare for your discussion.

Keep your mentor up to date
Mentors can be anywhere and with the help of technology, you don’t need to be close to each other to stay in touch. Let your mentor know about your progress (the good and the bad). You can tell them about any recent accomplishments or awards, as well as your professional struggles.  It is important to keep the lines of communication open, so your update doesn’t even have to be related to you; you can send them a paper or article that you think s/he might be interested in.

Remember: a mentoring relationship should be a rewarding and educational experience for both of you!  The quality of the output will largely depend on the quality of the input, so be sure to treat your mentoring relationships with the professional respect they deserve. Always be prepared for your meetings and practice good communication, but don’t be afraid to be honest about your interests and/or the new directions you are seeking.