Saturday, April 2, 2011
A Dozen Remarks on Academic Writing
These comments have been developed over a period of years to help graduate students develop an effective academic writing style. They are by no means comprehensive nor are they exhaustive. Rather, these twelve comments represent a few tips that may prove useful to a few who are in the process of improving their writing skills.
1. Academic writing is quite different than writing fiction or essays for popular consumption. Academic writing typically involves the development and elaboration of a concept or the reporting of a study or series of studies aimed at exploring the efficacy of an intervention of some kind. The piece is about the concept or the study – it is not about you.
2. Keep the intended audience in mind. Typically, readers will be professionals, scholars or researchers who want to know about the concept or intervention being presented. As a consequence, the scope and purpose of the piece should be made evident at the beginning of the paper – in the introduction and usually in the first paragraph or page.
3. One can express complex ideas using short, descriptive sentences. Sentences that are long and that involve multiple dependent and independent clauses create a cognitive load on readers that is unnecessary and that is likely to detract from the purpose of the paper. As a general guideline, sentences should be relatively short – fewer than 30 or 35 words. It is generally desirable to express just one distinct thought in each sentence.
4. It is all too easy to introduce unnecessary distracters and ambiguities in a paper. One source of ambiguity is the use of multiple terms to refer to the same thing. When a new term is introduced, the reader is inclined to believe that a new concept is being introduced. Minimize the use of what you may regard as synonyms for a term because the reader may not regard those terms as synonymous. You can clarify terminology early in the paper and mention that others use different terms to refer to the concept you are elaborating, but then use one term uniformly after the initial definition and elaboration of that term.
5. Another source of ambiguity is the use of relative and personal pronouns such as ‘it’, ‘he’, ‘she’, and so on. In addition to creating potential ambiguity, relative and personal pronouns are a source of cognitive load as they create a need in the reader to construct the referent, which might not be as obvious as you think. Use a noun phrase to eliminate any possible misinterpretation and to minimize cognitive load in the reader. An exception might be the use of a relative or personal pronoun in a dependent clause in the same sentence.
6. Avoid praising your own work. Simply describe what was done. Rather than claim that your intervention was highly creative and innovative, simply describe the intervention and let the reader make such judgments.
7. Avoid exaggerations. Use of words like ‘all’, ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘impossible’, ‘proof’, ‘must’, and so on are difficult to defend. The reader is likely to start generating exceptions to such claims. Modest claims are typically more effective. Rather than claim that a study conclusively proves a point, a more likely conclusion is that a study suggests something of significance. Likewise, avoid multiple modifiers for a noun – rather than say, for example, “X was a highly articulate person” it is sufficient to say that “X was articulate.”
8. Cite the most credible and reliable sources for each of your major points. Rarely is it the case that one invents something altogether new. Rather, one may be building on the work of others to extend that work in some way. Failure to recognize the well known work of others will detract from the credibility of your own work. Moreover, while you may think that a certain point is obvious, if that point has been argued effectively by an established scholar, give that scholar the credit when making the same point.
9. Structure a paper so that it tells a story. Begin with the scope and purpose – tell the reader where you are headed. Then develop an organizational framework that builds up to the main point in a logical and coherent manner. Keep the focus on where you are headed, and remind the reader why you are covering specific topics along the way. Resist the temptation to tell everything you might know about related subjects – always stay focused on the major point(s) and resist telling the reader about everything you learned in the process of developing a concept or conducting a study.
10. Be sure you are familiar with the requirements of the publication venue and with representative pieces previously published in that venue.
11. Recognize that one cannot conduct a perfect study or a perfect conceptual framework. There are usually limitations and constraints. These should be recognized in the paper. Modesty and humility can be powerful allies in making your reasoning effective.
12. Recognize that one cannot write a perfect paper. Once you have a draft, have a colleague read it and provide feedback. You do not want simple praise at this point – you want constructive criticism that will help improve the coherence and clarity of the paper.