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. 

A writer’s warm-up – 87

It is relatively early in the morning for me to be writing. Still, I have a lot of other writing-related things to do today, so I am trying to get a head start on it.

As I am not at my prime this early in the morning, and the mind is still a little foggy, something has occurred to me.

Do you, a writer, have a warm-up routine before starting?

I imagine writers are not the breed to have such a formality, but maybe there are some of you out there that are more structured in the process. I come from a background that is more athletic than academic; in the world of performance, having a warm-up routine ensures you start as close to optimal as possible.

The warm-up is for the mind as much as it is physical; the mind-muscle connection is real. Given this, it makes sense to me that before starting to write, there may be a benefit to do a form of warm-up. Having a quick google, it seems as if it is a concept that already exists. I am surprised that with all the effort I have put into ‘Learning to write’ that I have not come across this idea before.

I suppose that editing makes this idea less relevant, the allure of getting more words on the page is probably more appealing to most people. The type of writing I do lends itself to getting words onto the page and then editing down rather than editing as I go along.

Anyway, the reason I am starting this early is that I have to start putting together another piece of writing. At some point during my PhD, I have to undertake a three-month internship with a non-academic partner. The one I am going to apply for is a government organisation that conducts research into waste management in an attempt to guide policy. Throughout my research, I have referenced their work heavily, so I feel as if I know them quite well.

I have had some email correspondence with one of the lead researchers, and from the emails we exchanged, I am very confident of securing the placement if I can get to the interview stage. To get to the interview, I have to create a POSTnote, I know, I hadn’t heard of one either until I saw it was one of the requirements. It is a document that synthesis the research and relevant literature in an attempt to brief politicians. The documents also become available to the general public. You can see some examples here.

The one catch with this report is that it has to be about something not directly related to my field. Seeing as this is a document only to be used at the interview stage, I feel as if I could be a risky and produce one that is within my field and thus make it easier on myself. However, I know that data is the lifeblood of the company. I will be potentially joining, so I am going to make my piece about AI and agriculture and hope that it sticks.

So, I am off to do some research, this has been a proper warm-up for the challenge to come!

I hope you’re all having a much more enjoyable weekend than I am!

The one where I went to an academic conference for the first time – 86

This past week I attended an academic conference in the Czech Republic. I have always been sceptical about the value of academic conferences, and now I have a much more defined opinion of them.

In short, they are networking holidays.

At the conference I attended, I was in the minority – as a student. Most of the other attendees were professors of big labs with lots of experience. Some of the attendees were business people who are quite easy to talk to. Still, the majority were high ranking scientists that just spoke to each other.

As a student, it was quite interesting to see how the system works, as far as networking, it was one of the least valuable events I have attended. This is because I don’t really have anything to offer the other attendees. The professors can offer to collaborate on projects or talk to business people to try and get funding. I, however, could only provide questions. My fellow students and I spent most of our time talking to each other, which wasn’t too bad.

There were three days of lectures and one 16 hour excursion that included a tour of a winery followed by wine tasting amid a European heatwave. From the talks, I probably understood around 20% of the subject matter. This is not unusual as there were quite a few different disciplines involved, but this obviously makes it hard to stay interested. I noticed a lot of the higher-ups tended to leave for days at a time to avoid this. As this was my first international conference, I was told that it would be best to stay for all the talks. I ended up doing a lot of work on one of the many projects I have going on, so it wasn’t a complete waste.

We, me and my girlfriend, decided to take some holiday before the conference and explore Berlin. I would say that of all the places I have visited, Berlin was the most liveable. It is the perfect size for commuting via bicycle and has everything one would need. We ended up taking a bicycle tour that cost £16 for 3.5 hours which was fantastic, and it took us around all of the highlights. I could not recommend this enough if you ever visit. The rest of our time we spent mooching around shops and parks as any good tourist worth their salt would do. We also went to this bar that is at the top of a tower block looking over Berlin zoo; It was free to enter, and you could see the monkeys!

After our three days in Berlin, we took the train to Prague, which is a fantastic Journey that meanders along the river Elbe. The journey was relatively slow, taking four hours in total; taking advantage of the relatively cheap train fairs in Europe, we travelled in first-class which would have been unthinkably expensive in the UK.

When we arrived in Prague, we only had a couple of hours before our next train, so we didn’t do much exploring. I had been before, so I wasn’t too bothered about exploration, and we were perfectly happy to sit in a restaurant and avoid all of the rampaging stag dos.

Finally, we had another train journey, this one only two hours, to our final destination in Olomouc – the second biggest city in the Czech republic.

I may have an unpopular opinion here, but for me, cities are fine for a weekend visit and no longer. After that, they start to feel very generic. See the map of a generic city below

Generic foreign city

As a holiday I would give it a 5/10, as work I would also give it a 5/10. If I have my way, I will only attend another conference if it is in a destination that I really want to go to. My suspicions about it not being worth it was mostly accurate – and I was there with six other lab members, so we did a lot of drinking. The conference itself was very well run, and I don’t want you to get the impression that I thought it was terrible itself. It was the opportunity for me that was 5/10.

keeping it short – 84

This one is going to be short, partially because I want to write with brevity and partly because I really do not feel like writing at the moment.

This is a disciplined writer. I would definitely be doing anything else right now. I have just returned from boxing, and my morning coffee is wearing off.

On Friday night, after work, the rest of the lab group and I went for a ‘couple’ of drinks in the senior common room. As all nights that start with a couple of drinks do, this one went well beyond. It has been so long since I have had a hangover that it has manifest itself in a completely different way in which I am used to.

Usually, after a good session, I will get home and have a 50/50 chance of being sick. Then I can’t sleep very well, and all that remains is me feeling very tired until the next night. This time things were different; there was no sick feeling, but an altogether new experience. My brain felt as if it was two or three times too big for my skull. I had never had this sensation before, so it was quite the experience. On reflection, I would choose this over being sick.

As soon as the throbbing head went away, it was business as usual: no sleep. It has been so long since I have had a hangover that the way in which they manifest themselves has changed. I wonder what will happen next time?

As for the day-to-day, this week, I spent a lot of time writing. By writing, I actually mean, trying to write. I am trying to get my first thesis chapter in place. In approximately five hours, I produced a measly 150 words which were of low quality. Just one of those days? I would be the first to admit I don’t have the writers mindset, but what is much easier to admit is that I certainly do not have the academic writers mindset.

I will get through this PhD, I won’t be the worst writer ever to get one, but I now know that I need to go down the more industrial/engineering route as that is where my passions are. It just so happens that they also pay a lot more.

Do you think that it is possible to be a certain kind of writer? Are writers generally good at all things writing, or do people tend to specialise?

Anyway, while I leave you mulling over that thought, I am going to do some coding!

Growing pains – my views on growing an audience

I have noticed that a lot of people have been asking for advice on how to grow their blog over the last few weeks. I am not sure why that all of a sudden people seem to be asking me this.

Maybe I have passed a certain threshold of followers that has given me blogging credibility and people now see me as someone who knows what they are doing?

What I think has happened, is that many people have started blogs in January and seen that it is very difficult to actually get anyone to look at your work. So, they have started to do what any practical person would and are trying to gather information as to how to build an audience.

Well, I will address this again, but only briefly as I have addressed it many times. The first thing you need to understand is that after you put up your post on WordPress or any other platform, there will be a brief window of time where it is visible in a public space – e.g. reader. After this, it gets buried by everyone else posting stuff.

If you are writing about stuff that is of general interest, a post about how adjectives work, for example, there is a chance of getting some traffic via a search engine, but it will be tiny. I wrote about nouns once and now if you type ‘thematically meandering’ into google on the first page is that post – I have no idea why.

Presumably, if that post is high on googles rankings you would expect that post to be viewed more than others: it isn’t.

So, you’re not likely to get many people who stumble upon your blog; you’re going to have to go out and get people!

Marketing isn’t a massive Industry by happenstance. Read their work, comment on it, like and share etc. They may do the same for you, and you can grow from there. What I am trying to tell you is that it is a lot of work to build an audience, and you should probably spend a decent portion of your time marketing.

I attended a course once that was part of a scientific program, it had a lady there talking about social media and influencing – so we could better communicate our work. She said you should spend around 10 % of your time on marketing, and after this year of blogging, I tend to agree.

The Utopian dream of writing a blog post with your coffee in the morning, posting it online and having everyone read it and even make money from it is an utter fantasy! And we should all be embarrassed to have even thought like this.

It is no less passive than any other form of employment, and it is a lot of hard work! Sorry to ruin your fantasy, but isn’t that always the way?

Normal programming will resume next week.

Update: I will add useful links here as and when I find them.

19/8/19 – I have realised that people have been re-posting their old posts. When they appear in the reader feed they often have hundreds of likes and comments. I had no idea how they are doing this until now. They use a plugin for WordPress that automatically re-posts for them. However, there is a way to do this manually. If you look at any of your posts and then click on the ‘document’ tab and look at the bit where it says ‘status and visibility’ you can see when it was published and change it to a time in the future. Then it will be re-posted at that time. Here is a link as to why you might want to do this.

Go here for all your WordPress search engine optimization needs

Fiction vs Non Fiction – 83

For the last couple of years, I have been very good at making time to read. I have read around 40 books in the last year and a half, 95 % of which are non-fiction. When I started reading voraciously, I really enjoyed it; however, I have found that with non-fiction there are diminishing returns as a lot of material is repeated in slightly different ways.

Most of us are creatures of habit, and tend to read about things we enjoy. The problem with this is that over-time you end up reading the same things over and over. I tend to only read around science and finance, with the occasional biography thrown in. Whenever I have tried to read fiction It always becomes an endurance challenge rather than a pleasure.

The books never seem to capture me; I tend to resent them whilst reading them, and I always think that I could be doing something more productive with my time. I persevere with it because it seems that everyone else loves reading fiction and maybe I could enrich my education by reading some decent books.

So far, with the exception of George Orwell’s 1984 that I listened to the audiobook of, I have not found this to be the case. For me, non-fiction is infinitely more valuable. However, I didn’t get to where I am today by giving up so easily. I have decided to give the classics a shot. Partly because they should be good, and partly because they are feely available, and therefore, only a loss of time if I hate them.

There are tons of sites for free, old books if you care to use google, but the one I have used is https://www.planetebook.com/ebooks/. I have downloaded a selection and put them on my kindle.

I started with Ulysses by James Joyce. I must admit that I have got sixty pages in and I hate it. The prose is written in such a way that I cannot believe anyone is enjoying it. The sentences are so verbose that it seems like the author is mocking me. It truly is the stuff of David Foster-Wallace’s wet dream.

I have now switched to ‘A tale of two cities’ by Charles Dickens – hopefully this will be more ‘my kind of thing’. I do not have any criteria for how I am selecting these classics, so feel free to recommend some. I guess my current strategy is to go with the ones I have heard of.

I realise that there is a very good chance that those who are reading this are writers of fiction, so to you I ask: why?

Why do you read/write fiction. For me, reading is a pursuit of knowledge, it is an activity that I have to put effort into to achieve. I wouldn’t say it was something I do to relax as it actually requires a lot of time and effort. Time and effort that I could be using to learn a new skill.

I cannot read before bed if I want to actually follow what the author is saying; at the end of the day I am usually far to tired to follow a story, so I normally do my reading first thing in the morning with a coffee. It is kind of like a warm-up for the rest of the day.

At the moment, other than 1984, I am not sure I could recommend any work of fiction over a non-fiction title.

If you had one book to recommend to convert someone like me to the world of fiction what would it be?

I read a lot as is required by my studies and I have to admit that from what I have read so far, the technical, dry, plotless manuscripts that make up scientific literature rate higher than the works of fiction I have read over the last few years.

Maybe I am just wired differently?

It’s not what you know… – 82

Writing early in the morning for a change. Usually, I am too groggy to write in the morning, but for some reason, I have woke early and feel primed for writing, so here I am.

It is the first week of data collection for a new trial; for me, this is where my free-time gets absorbed as I have to take measurements every 48 hours. The effect of this is that I have to work on Sundays for the next four weeks. It is not too arduous of a task as I would still rather do this than work a regular job. I just have to be more tactical with the activities I do over the one full day I have off.

The majority of the work during the first month of my trial is taking and editing images. I compare the changes In the colour of leaves over time so that we can pick up signs of senescence and degradation before it is perceptible to the human eye. This is easy in theory, but is very time-consuming in practice; with each image, there is a photographic standard of different colours. Each image has slight fluctuations in its colour, not perceptible to the eye in most cases, but still there. I have to go through all the images and adjust them so that the colour is captured the same in each image, which is a significant time sink. However, it is essential if you want to compare the colour accurately.

So far, it is one of the aspects of Image Analysis that I have not managed to automate, if anyone has any tips in this regard I am all ears. Manually editing each image in rawtherapee is quite the chore.

I joined a new club this week, one of the benefits of being at a University is that there is a club or society for anything you can imagine. There is even a lock picking society!

I joined the coding club for my school. I have been learning to code for several years now; initially, I decided to learn to code as a potentially useful skill that would look good on an application form, but it has become much more than that for me now. I am genuinely developing a passion for it, and If I had my time again, I think I would go down the computer science route.

I am hoping that being part of this club will provide new learning opportunities that would be difficult to do on my own. I went to the first meeting, and it was immediately positive. I met a couple of researchers that had built a robot to take images of their work; the only problem they had is they hadn’t figured out how to analyse the images, seeing as I have become pretty good at this an immediate connection was formed and they offered me the use of the robot! It is early days yet, and I can’t think of what I would use the robot for, but I will try my best to manufacture a reason as this can’t be missed!

I consistently dismiss networking as something I should be doing, but every time I engage in, it pays dividends. I would say that it is probably one of the most useful things that can be done with my time, but I certainly don’t enjoy it. As the old saying goes: “it is not what you know, but who you know”. Unfortunately, I find this to be all too true!

I guess the skill is learning which people are the best to connect with, and then turning up.