How Simple Language Can Improve Academic Writing

authors header image

Explore Services for Academics

Writing isn’t easy. It’s an art that takes a great deal of practice to pull off effectively. Academic writing can pose a particular challenge since it’s more formal and follows certain conventions that don’t necessarily apply to other types of writing. 

However, many academic authors equate formality with long sentences, obscure vocabulary, and convoluted structures. They integrate such elements into their writing because they believe it makes them appear more intelligent and impressive, but the opposite is often true. Good writing, in academia and elsewhere, is clear, concise, and engaging, using vocabulary appropriate for the target audience and guiding readers smoothly through the pages. You don’t want them reaching for a dictionary at every sentence—that’s poor communication.

Obviously, you also don’t want to simplify your academic writing too much—you need to find the middle ground. To help you strike the right balance in your paper, we’ve listed five ways to improve your academic writing and communicate your ideas clearly and concisely. If you have a manuscript in need of editing or proofreading, contact our team of professional academic editors.

How can you simplify the language in your academic paper while still keeping it formal and authoritative? 

1. Avoid difficult words

In academic writing, it’s impossible to escape specialized terminology. Omitting certain technical terms could affect the precision of your work or muddy the message you’re trying to convey. If you’re writing for an expert audience, you can safely assume your readers will know the jargon of your field. In case you’re targeting a more general audience, you can explain any essential technical terms in clear, plain language. 

In general, it’s best not to use a complicated word when a simple one will do. Save the jargon for when it’s needed and substitute technical terms with easier words wherever appropriate. Any overly complicated terminology you use should be tightly linked to your field—there’s no need for obscure vocabulary from other domains. For example, we can easily substitute a word such as “prevaricate” with a more common word such as “lie,” “mislead,” or “deceive.”

2. Be concise

Aim to use fewer words whenever possible. You want the idea you’re communicating to be clear, not lost in a long sentence. That’s not to say all your sentences should be short and choppy—your writing won’t flow well then, and that’s an entirely different problem. However, when you use longer sentences, all the words in them should be there for a reason. 

Scrutinize any overly long sentences for filler words. If you can remove words from a sentence without affecting its meaning, do so. You also want to consider whether you can express the same idea in fewer words—for example, there’s never any reason to say “due to the fact that” when “because” exists. 

Take the following sentence as an example:

This study aims to examine how social media affects cognitive development.

Removing “aims to” does not change the meaning and can make for a more direct sentence:

This study examines how social media affects cognitive development.

That said, make sure you’re not taking the trimming too far. Removing words or changing phrases can affect the nuances in your sentences, which can have a major impact on your overall work. Any changes you implement should leave the nuances intact. Also, be skeptical of the suggestions Microsoft Word’s “conciseness check” tool offers as the algorithm seems to have no concept of nuance.

3. Avoid long strings of nouns

Academic writing should be formal, but you still have to make it understandable. Using many consecutive nouns clutters a sentence and makes it hard to follow. Sometimes, long strings of nouns may be unavoidable, but generally, you should be able to break them up, even if that requires restructuring the entire sentence. Use verbs and prepositions to split a string of nouns to improve readability (minding the context of the phrase, of course).

Here’s a long noun string:

Frontline worker safety policy development

Here’s the phrase after breaking up the noun string:

Developing policies for the safety of frontline workers

4. Keep verbs near their subjects

Just because a sentence is grammatically correct doesn’t automatically mean it’s easy to understand.  For example, if the subject and verb are separated by a long clause, it may be difficult for the reader to grasp what the subject is doing. 

Here’s a sentence where the subject and verb are separated:

The researchers, in an effort to more accurately describe the ecosystem, added 20 species to the field checklist.

Here’s a revised version that keeps the subject and verb close:

The researchers added 20 species to the field checklist in an effort to more accurately describe the ecosystem.

Be careful with this, however, because it’s not as simple as it may seem. While it’s important for subjects and verbs to be placed close, it’s even more important for relative clauses to be as close as possible to the part they’re modifying. Separating a relative clause from the noun it modifies will cause even more confusion than a subject and verb far apart, as you can see in the examples below.

Here’s a sentence with the subject and verb separated by a relative clause:

The subjects, who had been isolated from one another throughout the experiment, separately filled out the questionnaire.

Here’s that sentence with the subject and relative clause separated:

The subjects separately filled out the questionnaire, who had been isolated from one another throughout the experiment.

5. Use the active voice

The active voice, which is the default structure in English, is direct and easy to understand, which makes it fundamental to clear writing. This doesn’t mean you can never use the passive voice—it certainly has its place, even if some may try to persuade you otherwise. The problem is that the passive voice was traditionally the default in academic writing, leading to vague, bland, and even potentially confusing writing. A mix of passive and active voice is fine, and which one is most appropriate will depend on what needs emphasis in a sentence.

Example of passive voice: 

Russia was invaded by France in 1812.

Example of active voice:

France invaded Russia in 1812.

The list we have compiled is not exhaustive, but it does contain some of the simplest tips for making academic writing clearer. Taking up these suggestions is a great first step to improving the readability of your manuscript and elevating your academic writing. If you want to have your work polished by a professional, get in touch with our academic editing experts.

Explore Services for Academics