How to Improve Your Academic Writing
Do you work in the humanities or social sciences and want to improve your writing style but don't know where to begin? Are you overwhelmed by the number of writing manuals out there? Then look no further! Here are some tips to get you started (and maybe help you finish that chapter you've been working on).
This post is part of a series that provides practical information and resources for authors and editors.
Writing good academic prose is neither a science nor an art: no one is born with the ability to write clearly, and there are no tried-and-tested rules that guarantee the desired result (let’s call this result clarity). More than anything else, writing good academic prose is a craft: it’s something you learn from others and develop a feel for by practising (and failing a few times). About half of what follows are things I have learnt by reading the great prose of others; the rest are tricks that help me write clearly and hopefully engagingly enough for you to read this through to the end.
Before the promised writing hacks, though, let’s get a few things out of the way. To be a good writer you have to be a good reader and a good editor. Good writers are perceptive readers; they understand how texts work and can take a step back from them, including from texts they have written themselves. If you want to write better prose, start by reading more prose, and thinking about what you like reading and what you don’t.
“To be a good writer you have to be a good reader and a good editor.”
Write something down, only so you can go back and read it later with your editor’s hat on. Most of the good writing you’ll ever do will, in fact, be rewriting. Good writers are unsentimental editors; they have the patience to go through their own words again and again, the ability to put themselves in their reader’s shoes, and to take leave of big chunks of their own painstakingly crafted text at a time (a process also known in the context of fiction-writing as ‘killing your darlings’).
The good news: there are some things you can do while writing to make editing your own prose easier and more effective, and to make your writing better in the long run.
1.) Plan, plan, plan! Create a mind map (outline, sketch, whatever you want to call it!) of your argument before you start writing. Write What am I trying to say? on a post-it and stick it on top of your screen so you force yourself to ask this question thirty-five times a day. It will hopefully remind you to stop and rehearse what you want to say in your head first before typing anything up.
2.) One of the most helpful (and yet most underrated) tools in a writer’s arsenal: the humble full stop. Use it. Keep your sentences short. Not too short, of course — you do not want to sound robotic or force the reader to pause too often– but just short enough for your reader not to have to go back to the beginning of your sentence looking for the subject they forgot by the time they got to the end of it.
3.) You do not necessarily need ‘connectors’ at the start of every sentence. (See how I introduced this bullet point? No ‘moreovers’, no ‘furthermores’, no ‘in additions’! Now wasn’t that fun to read?) If you do use connectors such as ‘however’, ‘thus’, ‘therefore’, ‘nevertheless’, etc., make sure you are using them to indicate real relations of causality or contrast, and not just as fillers.
4.) Always write with an online dictionary open in a tab on your browser. Just having it there will make you a better writer by osmosis.
Just kidding! It probably won’t, but it will remind you to double-check the usage of words you’re thinking of using (especially, but not only, if you’re writing in a language other than your own). An online thesaurus can also come in handy on days when you can’t find the right word for the life of you.
5.) Another note on word choice: avoid jargon as much as you can. To paraphrase the second of George Orwell’s ubiquitous rules for writing (‘never use a long word where a short one will do’): Never use a pretentious word where a perfectly mundane one will do. Do you really mean ‘positionality’ or is the word you need really just ‘position’? Will saying ‘person’ instead of ‘subject’ detract from your argument, or perhaps merely distract from it? If specialist terms are necessary, make sure you explain your usage of them. (If you can’t explain how you’re using a word, it has to go). There are different sub-genres of academic texts, some of which require you to show mastery of the language of your discipline more than others. In other words: jargon is at home in a doctoral dissertation, but often cumbersome in a monograph or a contribution to an edited volume, both of which address a broader readership than your advisor or dissertation committee.
6.) While we’re still on the topic of knowing your readership: do not assume that your reader is familiar with the people, works, or concepts you are discussing. Readers of academic texts are well-educated and usually very intelligent people. But only a handful of them will be actual experts on your topic. Give your readers context on the people, places, and times you’re writing about (unless you’re writing about really, really famous, or infamous, people. There’s no non-awkward way, and no real need, to introduce Jesus, Hitler, or Albert Einstein in detail).
7.) An age-old, well-known, but vastly underused writing rule that will almost automatically and effortlessly help you write clearer, elegant, more readable, and ultimately better prose that will not immediately cause your reader a perfectly avoidable headache: Use adjectives and adverbs judiciously!
8.) Reread the above point and mentally bracket all adjectives and adverbs. See? Much easier to follow. The next piece of advice follows on from there: reread each paragraph as you go along before moving on to write the next one and make sure the transition between your paragraphs is clear and makes sense.
9.) I find that it generally helps to picture someone you really respect (a supervisor, colleague, friend, or student) as your reader while you write. You’re not writing for yourself, so you need to make sure your writing communicates what you want it to. In fact, it may be good to picture two very different readers: one whose opinion you really value – and judgment you fear (e.g., a supervisor or examiner), and another whom you need to take by the hand (e.g., an undergraduate student). It’s not an easy balance to strike, writing a text that is complex and easy to follow. But picturing your readers as concrete people helps. If you can get some of these people to read your text once it’s done and give you feedback on it, even better.
10.) Be careful when attempting wordplay or irony in a language that you do not feel 100% comfortable in. At best, it will seem flippant, at worst, it will confuse your reader and muddle your meaning.
11.) Good: Passive and nominal constructions are to be avoided if possible. Better: Avoid passive and nominal constructions if possible. I’m going over well-trodden writing-manual territory here: if there’s an active verb you can use, use it. (It might also help you dispense with an adverb or two, see above). Some people fear that active sentences will reduce the complexity of their argument and make their writing sound simplistic. This is unlikely. Take it from an editor: simple sentences will only make your text clearer. Bear this in mind while writing, but also while editing: watch out for passive constructions when going through your text again—they’re often easier to spot with fresh eyes than when you’re in the thick of it).
12.) Many writers will contort their sentences in awkward ways to avoid using the first person. I think you can use ‘I’ before resorting to an impersonal construction that is a pain to read. Don’t overdo it, though: you don’t need to keep telling your reader what you will argue, or constantly assert your own views. Personal anecdotes are rarely appropriate in works of criticism. And please steer clear of ‘we’. It’s not impossible to use it gracefully, but it’s hard.
13.) Finally: Take some time off from your text and return to it. Your inner editor is a shy genie, if you will. It needs some time to come out—and will not do so while your inner author is still ‘on’. Give it a rest, go read something else, and then roll your up sleeves and get ready to really do some writing.
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[Title image by Hannah Olinger via Unsplash]