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Improved MLA Style Guide: Delighting the Reader

24/07/2012

WritingThe great thing about writing is that you can make your own rules. For example, take the famous MLA Style Guide. It has an extensive collection of guidelines for citations and references. It’s great, except for the parts where it sucks.

So, as a creative person, I am making my own less-sucky adaptions…

Always include a short title

The MLA Style guide suggests using only an author’s last name as a reference, like this:

The seven authorization levels can be used to delegate work to a team, in a step-by-step approach (Appelo).

This sucks because with this reference, as a reader you still have to navigate to the bibliography to see what source I am referring to. Is it a book? Is it a magazine? Is it an airplane? You don’t know. That’s why I prefer this approach:

The seven authorization levels can be used to delegate work to a team, in a step-by-step approach (Appelo, Management 3.0).

With this alternative I add a short version of the title to the reference. Now readers can recognize more easily that I am referring to the book Management 3.0, of which the full title and other details can be found in the bibliography. (For magazine articles we authors use “double” quotes.)

The MLA Style guide suggests this expanded alternative only for disambiguation, in case a writer is referring to multiple works of the same author. But from now on I simply choose to do it always, by default. I think readers will appreciate it.

Use brackets instead of parenthesis

The MLA Style guide suggests using parenthesis around references, as shown above.

This sucks because as an author, trying to do a good job keeping everything accurate, I often have to go back and forth among my references. But references in parenthesis are terrible to find, because parenthesis are also used for other purposes. That’s why I prefer to place square brackets around references, like this:

The seven authorization levels can be used to delegate work to a team, in a step-by-step approach [Appelo, Management 3.0].

With this alternative it is much easier for me to search and find references. I’ve used this approach in my first book [Appelo, Management 3.0], which has been read by thousands of people, and not one person ever complained. At least not to me.

Am I doing this for myself? Hell no. I want my readers to have references that are correct. Making them easier for myself to find, helps me a lot to keep them accurate. (Yes, I know there are some tools out there that can help writers with this. But so far I find this much easier.)

Use letters to indicate pages or locations

The MLA Style guide suggests adding a number in the reference, when I want to refer to a specific page, like this:

The seven authorization levels can be used to delegate work to a team (Appelo 95).

This sucks, for two reasons. First of all, it is unclear to the reader what the writer means. Is it referring to page 95? Or to the year 1995? Or the number of readers who died while reading the book? Second, since many people nowadays read e-books instead of paper books, we authors must learn to use location numbers instead of page numbers. That’s why I now do it like this:

The seven authorization levels can be used to delegate work to a team [Appelo, Management 3.0 p.127].

OR…

The seven authorization levels can be used to delegate work to a team [Appelo, Management 3.0 l.2879].

When I add a p. for page numbers or a l. for location numbers I solve both problems with just one minor change. And then readers will also understand when I write [Appelo, Management 3.0 ✝623].

Include URL shortened links to online publications

The MLA Style guide specifically suggests not to include web addresses for online publications in a bibliography. Maybe because resources on the Internet tend to disappear or move around. So they say, do it like this:

Appelo, Jurgen. “Improve MLA Style Guide” NOOP.NL,
     24 July 2008. Web. 24 July 2008.

This sucks, because as a writer you should make it easier for readers to find resources, not more difficult. That’s why I started using bit.ly to add hyperlinks to online publications in my lists of resources, like this:

Appelo, Jurgen. “Improve MLA Style Guide” <http://bit.ly/LL4YXP>
     NOOP.NL, 24 July 2008. Web. 24 July 2008.

When resources disappear, or move around, I can make sure that the URL-shortened version is updated, because I can own that URL. After all, my job as a writer is to delight my readers. I see no reason to annoy people by having them do Google searches when I’m already keeping track of where to find things.

Anything else you would like?

I’m still experimenting with better references and citations for my upcoming articles and books. Is there anything else you would like me to do?

How else can I delight the reader with better references?

(photo: photosteve101)

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This article is written by on in My Work. Jurgen Appelo is at Happy Melly. Connect with Jurgen Appelo on .

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  • http://www.proyectalis.com/en/blog Ángel Medinilla

    My publisher asked me to give references for books in the form of:
    “Appelo J (2011) Management 3.0: leading Agile developers, developing Agile leaders. Addison-Wesley Professional.”
    Then they also asked me for the *city* of the publisher. This showed me that there was an Addison-Wesley Professional in Upper Saddle River, Boston and Reading – which I find rather useless for the reader unless he is interested in going personally to those cities to visit the publishers… WTF??
    Honestly, someone should really redesign those reference rules. Thank you for throwing the first stone :)

  • http://www.proyectalis.com/en/blog Ángel Medinilla

    BTW, I wouldn’t trust bit.ly or any other URL shortening service… They might disappear overnight or just start re-assigning shortened links to new URL’s… :(

  • http://agilesoftwaredevelopment.com Artem Marchenko

    I was trying to use bit.ly for similar purposes (to have a permanent link that can redirect to the current demo server whatever the address is), but.. it looks like you cannot change a bit.ly link ever – http://support.bitly.com/knowledgebase/articles/76480-can-i-edit-change-a-bitly-link-once-it-has-been-sh
    Just thought that you might like to know about it. Now I am looking for some similar shortener, but with the editable links.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jurgenappelo Jurgen Appelo

    Artem, thanks for the tip!
    I will look into this some more…

  • http://agilesoftwaredevelopment.com Artem Marchenko

    Write a new post if you manage to figure out something convenient, I’d use it :)

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