Last Friday was the second open workshop for editors and translators in the Language Centre of the University of Helsinki that I’ve participated so far. We were fortunate to hear from a very experienced specialist of academic writing in English and a teacher at the University of Helsinki Medical Faculty, Carol Norris. She loves teaching her medical students so much she might consider doing the job for free.
The workshop first addressed practical co-editing in an academic writing course. Cooperative editing is a good learning method because it is usually easier to understand the writing problems of others than those of one’s own.
It is not true that academic writing requires using the passive voice, as many still believe. The problem is that we fail to recognize the passive or active voice. Carol explained to us how to use the active voice and inanimate agents without having to use the first person. Here are some examples from her article for the European Science Editing journal (February 2011) that show the logic of going active better than I can explain in sentences:
Untreated mice were used as controls.
-> Untreated mice served as controls.
X was observed in cells.
-> X was apparent in cells.
Results suggesting the opposite have been presented.
-> Some results suggest the opposite.
Sweet and simple when you know how to do it! Although I haven’t revised an academic paper for some time, next time I will know what actual improvements to suggest instead of just generally complaining about the use of passive voice.
Similar solutions apply to Finnish, by the way. I like to make passive sentences active according to what I call “the third-person passive” but I think the correct grammatical terms in Finnish are nollapersoona or nollasubjekti. For example:
Auto voidaan hakea kello 16:n jälkeen. -> Auton voi hakea klo 16:n jälkeen.
Siinä elämänvaiheessa ajatellaan lähinnä perhettä. -> Siinä elämänvaiheessa sitä ajattelee lähinnä perhettään.
Another “magic trick” we learned from Carol was to use end-focus for creating power and flow into one’s text. This approach was said (passive-voice bingo!) to make even unconscious plagiarism impossible. First, one needs to find “the vital what” in a sentence. This “hidden pearl” of newest data then goes at the end, creating a link to the next sentence. For example:
Results may be extraordinary, as shown by our study. (-> use the pearl + inanimate agent)
-> Our study shows that results maybe extraordinary.
Many thanks to Carol for inspiration and Julie for arranging the workshop. I am very much looking forward to the next one in the series.