5 Quick Writing Style Tips for Busy Academics
If you specialize in research-level nonfiction, you’re likely familiar with some of the basic rules for effective writing. You know it is not as easy as spilling all your data onto the page—you understand the importance of structure, organization, and flow. You are acutely aware that careless writing can be easily misinterpreted, and you’re precise in your choice of words. You know the importance of quoting as accurately as possible, avoiding clichés at all costs, and keeping your exclamation points in check.
However, there are other guidelines you might be overlooking. You have the idea, the insight, and the inspiration, but when it comes to the actual structure and style of your writing, devoting some extra time can make all the difference. No matter how ground-breaking your data is or how brilliant your insights are, they will not gain much traction if you fail to present them effectively.
You can break the rules for artistic or argumentative purposes, but you must first know them. Before you submit your article, thesis, or creative nonfiction piece, you should always run it through an editing process. Even if you have a firm grasp of the principles of great writing, you can still let a typo slip through here or there or overlook a vaguely worded sentence.
Here are some suggestions to get you started writing a fantastic paper. Once you’ve looked over your piece, get a quote for our proofreading and editing services and let the experts go through your text with a fine-tooth comb to see whether you missed anything.
- Take a closer look at your sentences and paragraphs. While there are no precise rules on paragraph length, you should aim for between 150 and 200 words. Remember that if you get too wordy, your readers might lose interest or just skim the long sections—shorter paragraphs are much easier to digest, even for people interested in your content. On the flip side, if the paragraph is too sparse, it may seem that your ideas are not fully fleshed out, so you want to avoid tiny paragraphs as well. However, short ones are a great way to add an element of suspense, so you may be able to break this rule depending on the context.
Similarly, your sentences should be interesting and varied in length. Mix shorter and longer ones to give your writing some rhythm, keep your reader engaged, and avoid repetition. A string of sentences of near-identical length and complexity impairs the flow of your text and risks losing your reader’s interest. Aim to include a topic sentence at the top of each paragraph, followed by the body, tokens, and wrap. Your evidence will act as the tokens, and your wrap sentence should conclude the paragraph and display what you have discovered since the topic sentence. However, don’t follow this structure so stringently that you impede the natural flow of your writing.
- Be faithful to your thesis. Every sentence should support your main idea or argument, and you should make sure that each paragraph does the work you want it to do. If a piece of text improves the understanding of your audience, keep it. Every word needs a purpose. If you have any doubts, don’t shy away from killing your darlings or cutting out parts that you love. Are you overcomplicating things? Analyzing something to death? Remove it! Stay with your central point.
It can be difficult for you, the author, to determine what adds enough value to your article to justify its presence, so it may be worthwhile to hand your draft to a trusted friend or colleague and ask for their input. Those with expertise in your field can deliver a professional opinion, but laypeople can also be useful in letting you know what the general public might struggle to understand in your paper.
- Use concrete and descriptive language. If your vocabulary and structures are too abstract, your arguments and research will not sound persuasive. Use words that best convey your ideas, not words that make you sound smart or boost your word count. Concise writing is convincing writing; plus, it is easier and more enjoyable to read.
One aspect of clear and concise writing is mastering voice, and since the passive voice is perhaps the most misunderstood grammatical device in the English language, let’s quickly go over it.
The passive voice is a grammatical structure that focuses on the recipient (object) of the action in a sentence, with the agent (subject) often omitted. Only transitive verbs (i.e., verbs that take an object) have a passive form. Here’s an example of a sentence in the active and the passive voice:
Active: I wrote an academic paper.
Passive: An academic paper was written (by me).
Note that the verb is the same (write)—only the form it takes differs. Despite what some people with no knowledge of linguistics might tell you, there is no such thing as an inherently “active” or “passive” verb—voice is the form, not the word itself. When they tell you to use “active verbs,” they probably mean descriptive verbs.
However, even if the advice to use “active verbs” usually has nothing to do with the active voice, you should default to using it in your writing. The passive voice does have its place—it is certainly not the devil that some make it out to be. That said, anytime you use it, you should have a clear purpose in doing so because superfluous use of the passive voice weakens your writing and can create ambiguity.
- Run a weather check on your language. This is to say that you should pay close attention to the fog index, visibility, and clarity of your word choices and style. If you are a little too caps-happy or like to bold, italicize, and underline for emphasis, try to let your words make the point for you. In fiction, these forms of emphasis can be warranted when you’re trying to emulate colloquial speech, but in nonfiction, you can usually achieve the same goal by tightening up your writing.
Also, use only strictly necessary acronyms and abbreviations to make your text as readable as possible, and be sure to define any abbreviations if you have even the slightest doubt that your readers will understand them. Abbreviations might look intellectual to you, but they could be alienating to your readers.
- Steer clear of being too verbose. If you are the type of writer who likes to impress readers with ten-dollar words, try simplifying your language so that your audience doesn’t start skimming and end up missing your point. Aim to be accurate rather than grand. Your readers will be far more impressed if you can communicate your complicated ideas effectively than if you know words they have to look up in the dictionary.
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