As a graduate student and then as a practicing librarian, I’ve consumed my share of dry-as-the-Mohave-in-July academic literature. As an academic editor, I’ve helped authors make their prose clear and readable–or at least preferable to a slow death in the desert. From my experiences as a reader, writer, and editor of academic literature, I give you the following top 10 recommendations for improving your academic writing. Bonus: most of these techniques apply to business writing as well, so try them on your next email or annual report.
- Be clear. The purpose of writing is to communicate, not to obfuscate or show off. Big words don’t make you sound smart. They make you sound pretentious, and they make your writing harder to read. When you have a choice between an everyday word and an SAT word that means the same thing, go with the everyday word. I am not suggesting you dumb down your work but that you do your best to make your work understandable and accessible. You do want people to read it, don’t you?
- Be brief. Use the minimum number of words necessary to communicate your idea clearly. Most of the editing I do consists of deleting meaningless words and redundant points. Every word you write is a request for a reader’s time. Don’t waste that time.
- Stay on topic. Think about what you want each article, paragraph, and sentence to do and make sure you stick to that purpose.Tangents and other material unrelated to your purpose will distract or confuse the reader. Help your reader make connections, and guide them through the progression of your ideas. Don’t assume they’ll understand how paragraph 3 relates to paragraph
- Show them. Transition words and phrases like therefore, because, and unlike can help you clarify connections without adding lots of extra words.
- Organize your thoughts. Use an outline or a mind map or just make some notes and sort them into logical chunks before you write. Well-organized writing is much easier to follow and will make your points clearer. For a longer work such as a dissertation, consider trying Scrivener , a program for writers of long-form work. It is designed to help you organize your ideas and your text. A free trial is available.
- Avoid passive voice as much as you can. Some people argue that this is a pointless rule made up by English teachers. They’re wrong. Most readers prefer active voice, because it is much easier to read and understand. Don’t make me hunt all through the dang sentence to figure out what you’re trying to say. Get that subject up front! And yes, sometimes passive voice is hard to avoid in academic writing, because we aren’t allowed to write in first person. Just do your best.
- Don’t submit your first draft. Gag your inner editor and get those ideas into words. But when you’ve finished the first draft, allow plenty of time for revision before you submit. For journal articles, I try to allow at least two weeks to revise my initial draft and usually produce at least two additional drafts during that time. And yes, as an editor, I’ve received pieces that were clearly cobbled together at the last minute. One memorable chapter consisted primarily of quotes from other works, pasted together with almost no original writing in between. Don’t do that. You’re contributing to the worldwide body of scholarly literature in your discipline, not writing an undergraduate term paper two hours before it’s due while hung over from last night’s party.
- Write with confidence. We academics do a lot of hedging in our writing. “It appears that…,” “The evidence suggests…,” Etc. That’s usually necessary, because we can rarely prove anything beyond all doubt. Now I’m imagining Isaac Newton as a modern academic author:”In repeated trials with a variety of solid objects, those objects accelerated toward the earth. These results suggest that the earth produces a force that acts upon objects of measurable mass, but more research is needed to solidify this thesis.” But I just violated rule 2 above. Drat. Back to the topic at hand. Despite the need for a bit of academic hedging, make sure that your conclusions look like, well, conclusions. “The results of this study suggest that 2 hours of underwater basket weaving per day reduces systolic blood pressure in duck-billed platypuses by an average of 5.3 points.” Put the precious new knowledge you’ve discovered right out there in plain sight.
- Write with style. Sure, you’re writing up the results of a Stage 1 clinical trial on the impact of underwater basket weaving on the blood pressure of duck-billed platypuses, not the great American novel, but you can still make your writing interesting to read. Try varying the length and structure of your sentences to enhance meaning. For example, a short sentence in a paragraph of longer ones will stand out, so try a short sentence to emphasize a key point, like I did with the sentence immediately preceding this one.
- Get help if you need it. Many brilliant researchers can’t write their way out of a wet petri dish. If that’s you, do not despair. We all have different talents (for example, I can write just fine, but I have the mechanical reasoning ability of a sea sponge). If you know you are a weak writer, or if you’re struggling to write in a language other than your mother tongue, find someone to edit your work before you submit it. Some lucky folks can get professional help from their institutions. My last institution employed science writers to help researchers with grant proposals and publications. If you aren’t so fortunate, see if you can bribe a friend or colleague to help whip your prose into shape. Some of us will work for tacos.
One last point: Writing is a skill that most people can learn, not a black art given only to the lucky few born under a full moon at midnight. If you would like to be a better writer, read a book or take a class, then practice, practice, practice!
Want to learn more? Here are a few articles that expand on some of the ideas above.
- Clayton, Victoria. The needless complexity of academic writing: a new movement strives for simplicity. The Atlantic, 2016 October 26.
- Corson, Tim, and Smollett, Rebecca. Passive Voice: When to Use It and When to Avoid It. University College Writing Centre, University of Toronto. This article gives a variety of examples of active and passive voice, including examples appropriate for scientific papers.
- Revising drafts. The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Though this handout is written primarily for undergraduates, its commonsense approach to revision will be useful to academic writers of all ages and experience levels.
Janet Crum is a librarian at Northern Arizona University, published academic author and editor, and fiction writer.
he loves clear, straightforward prose and hates passive voice with the fire of a thousand suns. Janet grew up in Northern California farm country and currently lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, with her husband, son, and three greyhounds. Stop by her blog for writing advice and random ruminations seasoned with lots of childish humor.