September 2012 Archives

This week I visited a first-year seminar class. I asked students what writing questions they had, and they asked me what it meant to write "robust sentences." I wondered where this question came from, and they replied that their professor had written this critique on their papers. They were confused. It wasn't that they didn't know the definition of "robust"; they quickly came up with synonyms for the word--strong, rich, and full-bodied--they just didn't know how to translate this concept to their writing. It was a good question.

One key concept to writing robust sentences is making sure there are no unnecessary words in your sentences. I call these freeloader words: they take up space but do none of the hard work of conveying meaning. By cutting freeloaders, sentences become stronger because every word is contributing to the clarity of the message. Conciseness adds to robustness.

This doesn't mean that every sentence has to be short. Sentence length variety provides for reader engagement and can be a tool for emphasis. It means that each sentence should contain no UNNECESSARY words.

Concise writing doesn't just happen. You have to consciously comb through your draft looking for freeloaders. As you do, envision revision. Ask: is there a way to communicate this idea with fewer words?

Practice with these examples.

(wordy) This experience allowed me to recognize the importance of how networking can be beneficial in many ways.

(better) This experience taught me the importance and benefits of networking.

(wordy) This paragraph will explain how the greenhouse effect is caused and how it works; it will start with saying that the greenhouse effect is caused by certain gases.  

(better) As heat from the Earth rises, it is absorbed by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; these gases include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.

In the first example, using parallel structure reduced the number of words. In the second example, using more precise words conveyed more information using fewer words.
Using punctuation effectively and avoiding passive constructions also will make your writing more concise. I'll discuss these in upcoming posts. For now, all this writing about strong, rich, and full-bodied has made me want to run out and get a little extra java before my next student meeting! Did you know McDonald's is giving it out free this week!

Cover August SC 12 3.jpg

Writing for a magazine with general readership is a lot different from writing a scientific article. If you're interested in writing a GRUNDY HAVEN paper, you want to write in this journalistic style. Here's an example; it's an article I wrote for State College Magazine about the intelligence of dogs. Notice the citations and creative comparisons.

How We Know What Our Animals Know
"Go get help, Jack!" Tom Kleban called to his dog in desperation as he lay in bed trying to free himself from blankets that had wrapped around his head during the night.

A diving injury had left him paralyzed from the neck down, and Tom was back in his Boalsburg home adjusting to life as a quadriplegic after months of hospitalization. As he tossed and turned to untangle the blankets, he became even more constricted. If Jack didn't get help, Tom was going to suffocate.

So Jack did what dogs do--he barked to get the attention of George Kleban, Tom's dad, who was sleeping upstairs. When George couldn't ignore Jack's frantic barking in the middle of the night any longer, he rose from bed and followed the dog down the hallway and flight of stairs to Tom's room. "He was always a great dog," says Tom, "but after my accident, he just took charge of me and protectively watched over me. I don't know exactly why, but he just knew."

Humans have been relying on dogs to help them for at least 13,000 years. The domestication of the dog probably began with the relationship between wolves and nomadic hunters and gatherers. Both wolves and dogs are pack animals, and they rely on communication to take down their prey. "As carnivores, they work together to circle and kill. It's not very pretty to watch, but it's a coordinated effort involving cooperation and communication--two attributes that probably made wolves perfect material for becoming 'proto-dogs,'" says Megan Maxwell, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology and is a certified applied animal behaviorist at State College.

Researchers have also been able to link wolf and dog genomes through similar mitochondrial DNA. The genetic and archaeological evidence is helping to establish our entwined evolutionary history and to provide insight into our close relationship with canines.
Wolves likely scavenged the scraps and garbage of early hunter-gatherer communities, Maxwell explains, but because wolves are carnivores and could be threatening to humans, it's probable the smaller, more sociable and less aggressive wolves who made barking sounds were allowed to coexist with humans. Barking was useful to humans and served as an early day alarm system. These wolves were more successful in passing along their genetic material, and with each generation, the wolf moved closer to becoming man's best friend.

Most of us have wondered what goes on in our canine friends' heads. New research conducted at Emory University in Atlanta may give us insight into canine cognition. Scientists have trained dogs to climb into an MRI tunnel to capture images of an awake, unrestrained dog. More experiments--safe to the dogs--are planned to understand what areas of the dog's brain are engaged with various stimuli. These experiments may help us understand how dogs process human language, whether or not they have empathy for us, and potentially unlock mysteries of our own cognitive evolution.

We know the architecture of the dog brain is similar to the human brain. "Similarities between dogs' and humans' brains are that they're both mammalian and are capable of problem solving and feeling emotion," says Lisa DiBernardi, a Florida oncology veterinarian who has treated dogs with large brain tumors.

The brains of both dogs and humans are made up of billions of neurons and organized into specialized areas. "But there's a reason the dog's nose is so much bigger than ours. It has sophisticated nasal turbinates that collect scent information, so their odor-processing region is larger than ours. Dogs understand their world through chemical communication and smell. We understand ours through language," says DiBernardi.

"A dog can detect particles per trillion," says Richard Strobel, a forensic chemist at a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives laboratory in Washington, D.C. Think of your dog as being able to smell each ingredient as you're cooking stew--for example, the potatoes, carrots, garlic or meat--instead of just the overall aroma. "And they can be trained to isolate and alert on a particular scent--for example, RDX [a common explosive]--no matter what it has been combined with."

Strobel has seen a growing interest in using dogs and their noses in law enforcement since the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. "They're definitely smart, especially about scents, and they've been bred to be clued into our every movement, even our eyes. Actually, we have more errors from dog handlers than the dogs themselves."

Veterinarian Ellen Scholz of All Creatures Veterinary Care in Centre Hall suggests caution in defining dog intelligence. "Humans tend to think of intelligence as associated with problem solving and language, and so retrievers, who have been bred to follow human commands, are viewed as being smarter than, say terriers, who were bred to hunt rodents. Terriers are good at what they do, but we don't equate being a good 'mouser' with smarts."

Defining the intelligence of dogs is the main focus of work done by Stanley Coren, a psychology professor and researcher at the University of British Columbia who has written extensively on the subject. In an email, he mentions the difficulty of comparing intelligence across species. One method to determine comparative intelligence, according to Coren, is to argue the larger the brain, the smarter the animal. "Humans have larger brains (averaging 1,400 grams) than dogs (averaging 72 grams)... However if we use brain weight alone, we would be forced to conclude that the elephant, with its 6,000-gram brain is smarter than man, and that the super geniuses of the earth are whales--for instance, the sperm whale has a brain that averages 7,800 grams."

It turns out the larger brain in some animals is needed to control the numerous muscles and process sensory information; it's not necessarily adding additional complex thought capabilities. According to Coren, another way of looking at dog intelligence is using the encephalization quotient (EQ) developed by psychologist Harry Jerison. "It's a mathematically sophisticated comparison of the actual brain weight of an animal compared to the expected brain mass for that animal's body size," Coren says.

Using the EQ, humans are the most intelligent, with an EQ of 7.44, followed by great apes, porpoises and elephants. The EQ of dogs is 1.76, and perhaps to the dismay of cat lovers, the EQ of cats is 1.00.

But don't worry, cat lovers. As Scholz explains, there are numerous animal intelligence tests, and many are flawed. Take this one supposedly designed to measure a dog's problem-solving ability that is adapted from a standard human infant intelligence test: Have the dog sit a couple meters away from you. Place a tasty morsel under a can in full view of your dog. Encourage your dog to get the treat, and time how long it takes. A dog is considered "smart" if it finds the treat in five seconds. Cats, of course, wouldn't participate in such a stupid test.

Scholz believes we should be careful about the inferences we make about what our pets are thinking and communicating. To illustrate her point, she tells the story of a horse named Clever Hans who was supposedly able to perform mathematical calculations and tap out answers with his hoof. In the late 19th century, scientists examined the horse and endorsed the idea. It wasn't until one particularly astute scientist discovered the horse was responding to imperceptible changes in the body language of the questioners and was not actually doing any math. The questioners themselves were unaware they were communicating nonverbally.
Many of our miscommunications occur because dogs specialize in nonverbal communication and humans specialize in verbal communication.

"My dog knows when I'm in a bad mood before I even do," says Scholz, "because it reads all my nonverbal cues before I may even be aware of them."

And we aren't always perceptive of what their nonverbal cues mean either. We may assume a wagging tail is always a sign of pleasure, but it's not. "Many people end up getting bitten, and ask, 'Why did this happen? The dog was wagging its tail,' but there are a host of ways a dog communicates with the movement of its tail, and it's not always about being happy," says Maxwell.

Dogs are also capable of recognizing words. Coren presented cumulative evidence to the American Psychological Association in 2009 showing that a dog's cognitive skills resemble those of a 2-year-old child.

"That means they understand about 165 words and gestures," says Coren. And the top 20 percent of intelligent breeds, such as Border collies and German shepherds, can recognize about 250 words.

Lisa Bahr, the supervisor for Centre County PAWS animal shelter, is convinced dogs are more intelligent than we realize and points to some undesired behaviors as evidence. "One of the consequences of having an active brain and being smart, though, is boredom. Many of our really intelligent dogs exhibit destructive behaviors, such as shredding newspapers." Turns out, idle paws are the devil's workshop too.

To channel some of the destructive energy in a new direction, PAWS set up a program, Pet Partners, under Maxwell's direction. Volunteers are partnered with dogs, or other pets, and visit a couple times a week to work through a stimulation plan and help enrich the animals' shelter experience.

The connection between destructive behaviors and intelligence is one Maxwell sees frequently. "The dog is always learning from its owner," she says.

"The barkers, the jumpers, the crotch sniffers are all just cleverly learning from you. I've had clients who have taught their dogs to eat only out of their hands, or only if they spread the kibbles across the kitchen floor, or even one client whose dog would eat only Philly cheesesteaks--but really the dog was just doing what the owner reinforced.
"From a clinical perspective" says Maxwell, "I find it easier to 'fix' dogs' problems than human ones, so in that way, I'd say they're very smart."

Fred Metzger, of Metzger Animal Hospital in State College, says dogs can outsmart owners. "They've adapted to our way of living through the years, and look how they game the system in their favor," he says as he excuses himself from our interview to retrieve special treats for his rambunctious and loveable rescue dogs who won't let us talk until he does what they want. "I'm what's known as a 'focused pet owner,'" he says. "I'm manipulated by my dogs."
According to Metzger, his super-attentive dog relationship isn't unusual. "Dogs used to be viewed as work animals, but now they're valued more for companionship. They're significant members of our households."

He believes the stronger emotional bonds we have with our animals is a positive development. "My dogs have made me a nicer person. Let's face it: They're better than we are. I think they show us what we should be like. Learning more about them will tell us more about ourselves--for the good and the bad."

Your ship just came in with a boatload of money for your education. You got a scholarship!

Your outstanding academic performance and work ethic are being recognized. You are an exemplary student and a role model for others. This means you have the maturity and wisdom to write a scholarship thank you letter too.

Keep in mind that writing a scholarship thank you letter is a way to both acknowledge the generosity of your donor and to demonstrate your professionalism, good manners, and effective communication skills. If it is done well, it may be useful to your career networking. Your well-written letter also reflects positively on EMS, and it is likely to encourage further support for you and other students. It's in your best interest to take some time to do this well!

Although each thank you note should be written individually with consideration of the specific audience, there is a general format or "recipe" that you can use.
In the first paragraph,
Begin by letting your donor know the purpose of your letter. Make sure to include the name of the scholarship and the semester(s) for which you will be receiving it. 
Example 1: Thank you for (name of scholarship) that I have been awarded for Spring Semester 2013.
Example 2: I am honored to be a recipient of the (name of scholarship) for the 2013 academic year.

In the second paragraph,

Let the donor know something about you and reassure him/her that the funds are being used wisely. Conciseness is important in any communication, but this second paragraph needs to be adequately developed.  Think of one or two key ideas and give specific support for each of your points.
Example 1: Write about what you are studying and how helpful this scholarship is toward your achieving your educational objectives. You might refer to a few capstone projects or classes that were instrumental in your academic growth. Mention how you are developing particular skills (e.g., analytical, communication, leadership, time management, problem solving) and technical knowledge within your field.
Example 2: Write about work, internships, activities, or other professional aspects of your college career. Include information about your future plans and how this scholarship will enable you to focus on reaching these objectives. You may comment on your financial need, but keep the tone of the letter formal.

In the third paragraph,
Close with a final thank you that expresses your gratitude.  
Example 1: I sincerely appreciate this scholarship. I will make sure to do well in school, so someday I will be able to help others as you have helped me.
Example 2: Thank you for making this scholarship possible and for your continued generosity toward the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.  Because of your help, I will now be able to concentrate more fully on my coursework.

General TIPS
•    Proofread carefully. Check spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
•    Type your letter following a standard letter format.
•    Don't forget to sign your letter.

If you have questions or need additional assistance, I can help. Send me an email (, and I'll set aside some time to guide you through this process.

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