10 Tips for Improving Your Academic Writing

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.

  1. 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?
  1. 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.
  1. 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
  1. Show them. Transition words and phrases like therefore, because, and unlike can help you clarify connections without adding lots of extra words.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

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. 

Passive activism

Finally, a form of activism that works for me! From running this blog, the largest benefit for me by far is getting to interact with experienced writers. It is one thing to read a book, and it is another to have tailored lessons! One of the core concepts I am yet to wrap my head around is the active and passive voice. I get flagged for writing in the passive quite a lot, so I decided it was time to do something about it!
Grammatic Irony takes some time out from analysing fantasy worlds (LoTR next?) and offers us me a lesson in writing.Louis

If, like me, you learnt to type in the 1990s or early 2000s, you probably have memories of this bastard tapping on your screen and underlining all your sentences with red and green squiggles.

‘It looks like you’re repressing the urge to reach into the screen and throttle me.’

For those of you spared this terrible knowledge, this is Clippy, one of the virtual assistants who came with Microsoft Office as a way to encourage perplexed users to ask for help when they needed it. Once a question was asked, the assistant would search millions of lines of code searching for an answer, and then return a negative or useless result, before getting back to making unhelpful commentary on sentence length or fragments.

What a time to be alive!

Nowadays, if one’s cookies contain so much as a smidgeon of grammatical enquiry, the unfortunate browser is likely to be bombarded by adverts for proofreading services or Grammarly, the reincarnation of Clippy, proving that no idea is so bad that human beings can be dissuaded from trying it again and charging extra.

Now, I know some people (like the owner of this blog!) rely on Grammarly and, as one who has never used it, I cannot honestly claim to know whether it is worth what it claims to be worth. I can, however, remember one advert which, just like Clippy, underlined a sentence in the passive voice to show how very clever it was and forced the poor soul, who was just trying to send an e-mail, to rearrange the entire passage so that it was in the active voice. Why does everyone hate the passive voice?

Well, firstly, it is not, in fact, everyone. This is a particular bugbear for speakers of American English who have been told that the passive voice is bad and wrong and makes people go blind, or something. The attentive reader may have noticed that I am the slightest bit unconvinced by this assertion and, moreover, that same reader may have noticed that I have used the passive voice multiple times in this post and I am only just getting started.

‘Choo choo! All aboard for Grammarsville! Next station: FUN!’

American audiences have been trained to fear the passive in much the same way that some people claim to have an aversion to words like moist. There is no testable reason behind this aversion, it is simply a peculiar, modern social reality. After all, the words hoist and oyster still seem to be acceptable in general conversation. Moreover, the passive is a valuable linguistic tool, useful not only for academic but also narrative prose. Perversely, so extreme is the rejection of the passive that some people see the passive voice in completely different grammatical constructions, such as the subjunctive.

So who is to blame for this active discrimination of the passive? Why, none other than our old friends, Strunk and White and their book The Elements of Style; a gripping read and one of the finest works of fiction of the 1920s.

A visual representation of tone-deafness.

At this stage, some may be asking themselves, ‘When is he going to get around to telling us what these ambiguous constructions actually are?’ and to them I say, ‘You had your chance to do this your way, now strap yourself in and prepare to be thoroughly disambiguated’.

An English sentence, as a general and therefore frequently broken rule, has three core components: the subject, the verb, and the object, and they generally occur in that order. This pattern is called SVO by linguists.

In the sentence, ‘I ate the jam’, I is the subject, ate is the verb, and the jam is the object. See this pattern in the three sentences below.

Jane makes jam.

John has hidden the jam.

I will eat the jam.

In the second and third examples, the verb is comprised of two parts (an auxiliary and a participle) but they still occupy the single verb slot in the sentence. Even more complicated sentences, with adverbs and relative clauses lying around, will generally follow this pattern. For example, here are the three parts of speech in the main clause underlined, and in SVO order.

Even more complicated sentences, […] will generally followthis pattern.

The subject is generally the most important part of a sentence because everything within the sentence relates to the subject somehow. Objects can sometimes be omitted, and when they are omitted or change, although they change the meaning of the sentence, they only do so in relation to the subject.

I feed.

I feed myself.

I feed the dog.

I feed myself to the dog.

All of these sentences are examples of active sentences. They show a subject doing something, often to an object, and sometimes to a direct and indirect object. Most sentences are active sentences, and in them, the subject is said to be the agent, the one doing or eating or stealing or generally being involved with verbs.

‘I am the noun who verbs!’

A passive sentence, on the other hand, allows the author to relegate the agent to the object’s position or omit an agent entirely, thus focusing on the effect of an action rather than the perpetrator of an action.

The dog is being fed.

The jam was made.

The dog had been fed.

The jam has been stolen by someone.

The dog will be fed by you.

Now, instead of being the objects, jam and dog are the subjects, but not the agents. The agents are less important. Consider sentences like the following:

He is known to lie.

It is said that no-one ever returns from Deep Drop Mine.

The Prime Minister’s motion has been defeated.

The suspects were detained and questioned.

Millions of people were killed in the Second World War.

These are perfectly natural, passive sentences and not all would benefit from being rendered in the active voice.

Backbenchers defeated the Prime Minister’s motion.

Police detained and questioned the suspects.

Soldiers killed millions of people in the Second World War.

This last example is particularly egregious: in the Second World War, death came from many quarters, not least the concentration camps. To make soldiers the subject and agent implies that there were no, or few, deaths caused by other factors. A writer who wishes to draw out the tragic waste of life therefore has two immediate options:

  1. Millions of people died in the Second World War.
  2. Millions of people were killed in the Second World War.

The first sentence is active, the second sentence is passive. The first sentence is potentially misleading; the second sentence is not.

Forming the passive voice is complicated but, in brief, requires a form of the verb to be as an auxiliary and, optionally, the conjunction by followed by the object and agent.

‘The police detained the suspects’ is a fine active sentence but the passive construction allows the mind’s eye to remain with the suspects, rather than the police. This is a natural part of telling a story or reporting an event.

‘I don’t know how it happened but I was soaked with water!’

‘No, I can come out tonight: the children are being looked after.’

‘Have you never been taken to dinner?’

‘Don’t get yourself hurt.’

And so on. The passive voice not only allows the writer to keep attention on certain elements, but also to omit and even obscure information, for whatever reason.

Note that not every sentence with to be in it is in the passive voice and not every form of the passive has to be in it. Some examples can be ambiguous: ‘I am happy’ is simply a statement with a subject, a verb, and an adjective. ‘I am excited’ could also be such a statement, but it could be that someone or something is exciting me: ‘I am excited by this grammatical discussion’.

Calm down, ladies

This form of passive is very rare nowadays and would probably only appear for dramatic or humorous effect, such as in phrases like, ‘I am undone!’ as Doctor Deplorable’s plans are ruined yet again, and presumably accompanied by much shaking of fists (jet-pack escape optional).

So, the active and passive are both useful constructions with different nuances and applications. Why did Strunk and White think they were bad? Well, in truth, they did not. Strunk cautioned against using the passive too much, especially when its active counterpart would have been a better fit. Fowler and Orwell were, arguably, more hostile towards the passive but still did not abominate it entirely.

There are two main criticisms of the passive which have led to its lack of favour in contemporary writing. Firstly, unlike the active voice, it very quickly becomes tiresome to read. If too many clauses and sentences in quick succession are rendered in the passive voice, paragraphs become cumbersome and meaning is obscured. This leads us to the second point: the passive voice, because it does not require an agent, can be used in such a way that agency is hidden and thus responsibility and accountability abrogated by the author. The former problem is the purview of academic writing and is not usually deliberate, or so I am led to believe. The latter problem is a deliberate tactic of obfuscation favoured by politicians: ‘Mistakes were made,’ and so on. However, it is also true that some people do fall into a pattern of passive sentences when put on the spot.

The satirical sitcom Yes, Minister and its successor Yes, Prime Minister delights in playing with these two personalities and occasionally setting them against each other in the forms of the conniving Sir Humphrey Appleby and the bright but anxious Bernard Wooley.

By now, some of you may still be mystified by the passive. If so, fear not; there are many online resources which can help the would-be writer to form and use the passive. Do not fear the passive or twist your writing into knots to avoid using it; simply be discerning and cautious. And, to those who remain convinced that the passive is ruining English, I extend the following invitation: read this article again and check for all the passive constructions; I guarantee you will find some that, on the first reading, went completely unnoticed, and others which were active sentences all along.

If you would like to read more from the mind of Grammatic Irony, click the link bellow!

The Who, Why, What, When, and Where of Writing

We are lucky enough to have another guest writer this week . Jenny Knipfer lays out her views on all things writing. I find it interesting to read about the different obstacles that are overcome and created as one improves as a writer. I am sure many of you will relate to the following piece. As a novice, it gives me a great insight into what is to come if I can keep at it!Louis

Who is a writer. The simple definition:  anyone who writes. The complicated meaning:  those who have a passel of experience, educated legitimacy, published work, or some esteem in the literary world. I fall somewhere in between those two extremes.

I read a book years ago on writing called, The Right to Write, by Julia Cameron, which I found to be an excellent and encouraging work. In it Julia puts forth that inherently we all have “the right to write.” Writing is not only for the elite, the super educated, the famous, or the geniuses. Writing belongs to humanity. We all desire to express ourselves. To know and to be known exist as human needs. Writing – the act of recording our thoughts and feelings for our eyes and others to see and comprehend – nests at the heart of what it means to be human. You are a writer.

Why do I write? Because the words are in me. Because I must. A period of time existed when I couldn’t, and it trapped me, choked me, and almost killed my spirit. If these thoughts and stories cannot break free from my cerebral cortex they become lodged in my heart like hopeless hope—a winged creature dead at my feet.

For me, writing always starts there. It springs from a real place of desired freedom, of release. If I encourage, inspire, challenge, or entertain others with my words, it makes me happy, but even if no one ever read my thoughts, I would still write.

What does it mean to write? Is it merely the act of transferring letters and words in a meaningful way to something which can be read. The importance behind writing stems from our thoughts fueling the letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters . . .

I write to extend a part of me to the page, tablet, or computer screen. It both startles and frees me to see what exists in my mind. These words and ideas come from me—my mind, my heart, my experiences, and my imagination.

When did I and do I write? Anywhere and everywhere. In the past and in the present. I wrote before I knew what I was doing. (Don’t get me wrong, I still have a lot to learn.) As the years trailed by, I learned from formal education, my own study, pleasure reading, and from practice.

Writing sails along like most things in life, but you have to first know the rules before you can bend them. Years of playing the piano taught me that. After much time learning musical rules, my real voice and heart came out in all of its raw beauty when I set the peramiters and sheet music aside and played from my soul.

I am no Mozart or Shakespeare, and I understand everything must have boundaries. Writing needs good bones, but writing encompasses more than rules just as music does.

Creative writing equates to art, which can be subjective. The eyes of the beholder may or may not recognize beauty when it comes to the written word. We embrace or disfavor an author based on their style, voice, ability to masterly weave a story, and sometimes by how well or not they follow the rules. The rules again, sigh. I’ve placed some of my favorite authors of yesterday aside because I know more now. I can’t read a work riddled with the same weak structure I strive to eradicate in my own writing. I want to read books on par with where I believe I’ve grown to as a writer. Gosh, that sentence sounds a bit conceited, but so be it. I desire to attain the best route in which to take my readers, not the laziest.

Lately, I’ve started reading quite a bit of what I call “lazy writing.” Lazy may not be a fair term to use. Uninformed may be more correct. I committed this litany of writing no-nos before I learned better:  too much generalization, passive sentences structure, weak verb use, and an alphabet soup of unnecessary words. Perhaps I commit some taboo writing deed in my work now? I hope not, but I strive to keep learning; I am a writer but a writer in process.

I’ve soaked in so many helpful writing practices of late. I’ll leave my thoughts on writing with the following general and specific writing exercise which I have found to be fruitful.

As people we often converse in general terms. For example, “The sunset painted the sky beautiful.” “My day ended well.” The words beautiful and well tell us little or nothing as a reader. They are too broad, overused, and have become meaningless. A reader needs specific words to inhabit the world you, as an author, create for them.

A general sentence, which happens to be a metaphor:  Creative writing is artistic.

A specific, tangible explanation:  Creative writing paints a picture for a reader whose senses can only be vicariously experienced through the written word. The reader lives, breathes, hears, sees, smells, and feels because of the words you craft as a writer and an author. When you write, you create a world of images for another person to see and experience. As a writer:  you seam the words together like scraps of colorful fabric to piece a quilt; you erect a structure of imaginative building blocks for another soul to walk upon; you shape and craft a boat for the reader to sail from their life into your character’s; you conjure new worlds, people, places, and circumstances for readers to visit. As a writer, you translate to more than an artist. You become an architect, a cartographer, a quilter, a healer, a builder of vehicles, a magician etc. . .

I encourage you to practice this. Start or end a paragraph with a generalization, but give meaty specifics either before or following.

Where am I as a writer? Perpetually in the classroom, as I believe we all should be. I work at my craft. I practice. I listen. I learn. This year I’ve learned how to write with an active voice and avoid passive sentence structure. “What’s this?” Read my thoughts on a passive voice here.

My challenge to you . . . Rewrite this post in your own words. Describe your, “who, what, why, when, and where” of writing and what these each mean to you.

Blessings on your journey.

You can find more about, and get in contact with, Jenny at any of the links below!

Your Language Determines Your Audience

I bring you another guest blog post. This one was written by Phil Rosen, and it is precisely what I envisioned when I set out to feature guest bloggers. It is an excellent piece, and more importantly, it teaches me something about writing. I feel compelled to wax-lyrical about this piece, but I shall let it do the work for me.

How your vocabulary can grow or shrink your audience

Despite the fantastical landscapes and stories they craft, writers are people too. And writers, like non-writers, enjoy when others applaud their intelligence and wit.

Writing isn’t done for the compliments, though human vanity takes them into consideration nonetheless. One way to accrue praise as a writer is through language. Language and vocabulary constitute two of many tools for writers; both can be used incisively or haphazardly.

Flexing a broad, cultured vocabulary can be enticing for a writer seeking credibility and status. Sentences strung together with complex, multisyllable words is something that can give off the perception of intelligence or sophistication. Whether or not this is an accurate perception, however, remains questionable.

Anyone that uses the word insalubrious instead of the word unhealthy must be really intelligent—right?

Readers—not writers—make the call here.

It isn’t self-evident that elevated diction makes for better writing. “Better writing,” really, depends on the audience. Whether an audience can read your writing, and whether they do read your writing, depends heavily on the language employed.

    Does the audience understand what the writer is trying to communicate?

Is the story taking a backseat to the language being used?

How many of the words are actually necessary to tell the story clearly?

Language determines the audience. The bigger the words, the smaller the audience. The opposite is true too. Writing that can be understood by a seventh-grader can be understood by a massive audience (e.g. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series).

This rule of thumb isn’t inherently negative. Many popular works are written for academic, higher-educated audiences. Complex language demands an elevated literacy and comprehension level. This type of language is less comprehensible; the audience for it is smaller and refined.

At the same time, outdated, literary words like beseech, effulgent or perchance can muddle a story and suspend the readers’ understanding if they are abused. Rather than following the narrative, the reader may find their nose stuck in a dictionary, playing the role of interpreter rather than audience member.

The message here isn’t to avoid using complex language, but a writer must realize that language can either limit or broaden an audience. An article or book written in simple, colloquial language, has a much larger audience. More people can access and digest it, compared to a more convoluted writing style.

In Politics and the English Language, George Orwell, one of the great writers of the 20th century, put a different angle to the issue,

    “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not     the other way around.”

Sounding smart — or, trying to sound smart — with words shouldn’t be prioritized over communicating meaning. It can come off pretentious and disingenuous, rather than intelligent. The meaning of a message should precede the word choice. Fixating on a single word or phrase rather than concentrating on the intended message is unfruitful.

Meaning can be lost when it isn’t the primary communication goal. Selecting words that best relay information opens up a story to all readers. Selecting words in an attempt to, instead, relay eruditeness can drown the reader in verbiage, therefore minimizing the audience.

The words you choose to include— or omit— impact who can and will read your writing. Language is what selects our audience; choose wisely.

Living well requires reading well. Check out Phil’s Essential Reading List for books to make you think, feel, and unlock your creativity. 
Phil is a travel writer and editor based in Hong Kong. To see more of his ideas, visit his blog Phil’s Next Stop.

I particularly enjoyed ‘I Write for a Living at 22. Here’s How I Got Here‘. I am fascinated by people who find their calling in life, fascinated and jealous.

Connect with, or stalk, Phil

A malevolent cuisine

I have come to enjoy the non-writing aspects of blogging just as much as I enjoy learning the craft. Which is why I have decided to feature other writers on my Blog.

The first of which is by Aik Aleksanich who has a masters degree in philosophy and is currently blogging whilst writing his 1st book. The writing is influenced by philosophers such as Cioran, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and, as a consequence, the writing is often dark, pessimistic and nihilistic, but importantly, interesting.

A malevolent cuisine

You don’t even know, you have no idea but it’s growing inside you.

Proliferating like cells of cancer – dividing, spreading, making its presence known slowly but surely, just like death.

It feeds off you and your surroundings, not making sense.

The only thing you do is stare at your screen and type away, letting the blue light ruin your sleep, for one more night.

You can feel that you are full but it’s not the breakfast you had this morning. It’s something else filling you up and you can’t point out what.

Everything was calculated, every aspect of your life you had planned out. Like a recipe of a cake.

1 ounce of melted butter, 2 tablespoons of sugar, misunderstood relations and emotions, unpredicted incidents…do not mix – but whisk them well.

And you did everything you should have but the cake did not rise, just like your life did not work out.

You changed. Even physiologically.

You bloated and became full of melancholy that needs to be freed.

Pregnant with things you couldn’t explain, you developed a taste for misfortune and destruction.

The burning sensation of liquor grew on you. Cigarette smoke became the air in your lungs.

Caffeine, lots of caffeine, like it’s a necessity for your rusted heart to start pumping again- with no milk, no sugar- but you were a sweet tooth back then.

Anyway, you write. Not to tell a story or to get laid. Nor to earn money or make a name. You write to stay alive, to empty yourself so you won’t explode like a balloon filled with too much air.

You blame yourself for forgetting.

The smell of someone, you can’t remember, the touch of a skin or the contours of a face.

And writing, like suicide, frees yourself of your own blame.

You write to keep things alive that are fading away.

You write because you can’t do much else.

Visit Aik’s Blog for more writing, or if you’re cooler than me Instagram!

If you would like to do as Aik has go here!