This month’s theme for the blog is everyone's favorite: APA style! (If you haven't heard my discussion with Brittany on APA gray areas, check it out here, and don't miss Rachel's explanation of precision and anthropomorphism and Hillary's three secrets to writing strong headings.)
In an earlier blog post, I explained how headings, which APA recommends for organizing ideas, can help guide readers through your paper. The thing is, it is not just enough to have headings; you need to have good ones. In this post, I will take you through some problem examples that I have seen as a Writing Center instructor and explain three secrets for revising headings to be more successful.
Problem #1: Generic
Remember that a reader will often scan through your paper to pre-read it and get an idea of the content, the length, and the flow. If readers encounter generic headings, they will not know the specific story you are telling, may become confused, or may lose interest. Generic headings are those that are so vague they could apply to any paper—not necessarily yours. The first way readers know what your paper is about is the title; the second way is the abstract (if your paper has one); the third is the headings. They are important not just for guiding readers through your work but also luring them in in the first place.
Secret #1: Be specific
So, if I were to revise the above headings for a paper on government health care, I might write
History of the Affordable Care Act
Do you see how these specific headings tell a clearer story?
Problem #2: Long
Identify three qualities of transformational leadership, according to this week’s resources.
Analyze how a chosen public figure has demonstrated those three qualities. Be specific and give examples to justify your position.
Examine the advantages and disadvantages of transformational leadership. Is it a viable style for business?
Sometimes I see students using the full assignment instructions or questions as headings, as shown above. This is a good practice as you are writing your first draft because the instructions can serve as a de facto outline. By following the instructions, you ensure that you are addressing all required components of the assignment. Unless your instructor prefers that you use these instructions or questions as headings, though, revise them for the final draft. In most cases, headings should be brief phrases, rather than full sentences.
Another problem with using the assignment instructions is that they often contain command-type language or “you,” so they come across as ordering the reader around.
Secret #2: Be brief
Long, detailed, commanding sentences can be revised to phrases such as these:
Transformational Leadership Qualities
Obama as a Transformational Leader
Advantages and Disadvantages of Transformational Leadership
With this revision, notice how I have retained key words and the key point of each assignment instruction, but I have done so in a way that is more concise and specific to the public figure I have chosen. To get ideas for headings, highlight the important words and phrases of the assignment.
#Writingtip from @WUWritingCenter: To get heading ideas, highlight the important words and phrases of the assignment.
Problem #3: Disconnected
Take a look at this example heading and paragraph:
Testing’s Impact on Teachers
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was enacted in 2002 to increase accountability and achievement in U.S. public schools. Each school is tasked with showing adequate yearly progress through its students’ assessment scores (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). According to recent scores, overall student achievement appears to be improving in reading and mathematics (Jackson & Mayhall, 2014). However, because NCLB focuses on those subjects, teachers cannot spend time on other important areas like science, history, and the arts. Furthermore, the continuity of teachers’ lessons is derailed by the frequent testing. In order to truly impact learning, teachers need to focus on differentiation rather than teaching to the test.
When I read the heading, I expect to learn about teachers and testing. However, the first sentence is about the No Child Left Behind Act. If I approach this paper without any clear knowledge of how that act relates to testing—which might be true of some readers—I won’t immediately make the connection between the heading and paragraph.
Secret #3: Clearly represent the content
To fix the disconnect issue with the example above, we could add one sentence to the start of the paragraph to create a bridge. Remember that the heading does not replace a topic sentence; the heading is a supplement.
The connection between testing, teachers, and NCLB would be clearer if I added this as a topic sentence: Regular student testing has a strong—and sometimes negative—presence in a teacher’s classroom, largely due to the No Child Left Behind Act.
Now that you know problems to avoid and secrets to follow for writing strong headings, take a look at the Writing Center’s page on heading levels for information about formatting headings in APA style.
This month on the blog, we're focusing on topics related to APA style. Check out our latest podcast episode, "Make APA Style Work for You: How to Navigate Grey Areas" and last week's post on precision and anthropomorphism, and stay tuned for a post about citations next week. As always, we welcome your thoughts and questions below in the comments section! If you liked this post, please share it, tweet it, and join the discussion!
Hillary Wentworth, a writing instructor and the coordinator of undergraduate writing initiatives, has worked in the Walden Writing Center since 2010. She enjoys roller-skating, solving crossword puzzles, and basking in the summer sun. She lives in Minneapolis.
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Monday, June 08, 2015 APA
Maybe it’s just because I’m a language geek, but sometimes I laugh at sentences, like this one:
Even though they were shaking their fists, the votes passed in both parties.
Am I laughing at the political statement? No. I’m laughing at the image of votes…shaking their fists. Because of the way that this sentence is worded, it sounds as though they were shaking their fists is describing the votes. (I suddenly have this flashback to the Schoolhouse Rock videos that showed a cartoon character of a legislative bill with arms, legs, etc., and I can’t help but giggle.) Because this description is separated from the actual word it describes, nonhuman subjects are given human actions, and the sentence suddenly becomes imprecise and even comical to the critical reader. A nonhuman vote is suddenly able to shake a fist!
Giving human characteristics to nonhuman subjects is often called anthropomorphism. In poetry, this sort of language can be fresh and unique, but in academic writing, it is considered confusing, unclear, or imprecise. In section 3.09 of the APA manual, the authors express the need for clarity and precision at the sentence level. What’s to keep our academic writing from succumbing to the fate of imprecision?
|Artwork (c) Jonathan Wolstenholme|
Consider these sentences that are similar to those I see frequently in student writing:
- The research reviewed four years of data. [Can research actually review anything, or was it the researcher?]
- The results determined that the study was valid. [Do results have the ability to determine anything?]
- Because of his four years of experience, the voice of the researcher could not be ignored. [Did the voice have four years of experience?]
- The school created a drug-free zone. [Did the school itself create this, or did the school leader or administrators create this?]
Each of these sentences gives human characteristics to nonhuman subjects, making the language imprecise, inaccurate, and at times, potentially confusing for the readers.
Here are some quick tips for precision:
- Make it clear who is doing what action
- Ensure that only humans get humanlike characteristics and actions
- Be direct in your language and sentence structure
- Ensure that descriptions are always directly next to what it is that they are describing
Take a look at the Writing Center’s page on precision and clarity for more tips and information on how to be as direct, precise, and clear as possible in your writing.
This month on the blog, we're focusing on topics related to APA style. Check out our latest podcast episode, "Make APA Style Work for You: How to Navigate Grey Areas," and stay tuned for another APA-related post next week. As always, we welcome your thoughts and questions below in the comments section!
Rachel Willard is a writing instructor and the coordinator of student messaging at the Walden Writing Center. She loves discovering the social interests of Walden students and hearing the stories that shine through their writing.
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This month on the podcast and blog, we're featuring topics related to APA style. We're starting off the month with our 22nd WriteCast episode: "Make APA Style Work for You: How to Navigate Gray Areas." APA style rules aren't always black and white, or even in the manual. In this episode, Brittany and Beth discuss some "gray areas" of APA style and how students can approach them in their writing.
Stream or download the episode below, and don't forget to share your thoughts in the comments! If you're reading this post via e-mail, click the post's title to visit the blog, where you can stream or download the episode.
Episode 22 Transcript
Anne Shiell is a writing instructor and the coordinator of social media resources at the Walden Writing Center. Anne also produces WriteCast, the Writing Center's podcast.
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