26 March 2020
26 March 2020
When cutting words, most of us start by pruning here and there, trimming away the ones we do not really need. Or rather, most people start by pruning unnecessary words. (See what I did there? I just cut the word count of that sentence by more than half.) Selective pruning is a good approach, which makes writing clearer as well as more concise. However, sometimes you need to fell a whole tree. It can be painful, when you’ve struggled to complete a draft, to sacrifice an entire paragraph or section. But an essay is not a document you brandish to prove you did your research — it’s a focused answer to a question. So if a paragraph does not absolutely, definitely belong, put away your secateurs and bring out your axe. Sometimes, felling a tree is what the whole landscape needs. It lets in air and light, and life.
12 March 2020
It’s easy to miss word repetitions, sentence structures you overuse or punctuation errors. The ‘find’ function in Microsoft Word (control+F on a PC or command+F on a Mac) offers an invaluable shortcut for eliminating unhelpful writing tics. If you know apostrophes trip you up, search for them and check every single one is correct — or look for particular words, such as ‘it’s’. Clusters of ‘ofs’ or too many words ending in ‘ion’ or ‘ment’ are sure signs you’re using too many nouns instead of active verbs. For example, you could amend ‘Mwangi was responsible for the introduction of an innovative system’ to ‘Mwangi introduced an innovative system’. Variations on the ‘it is . . . that’ sentence structure waste words and can become an irritating habit. Compare ‘If you know that it is apostrophes that trip you up’ to the original phrase above. You can catch your own bad habits by making and using a checklist every time you edit your work. Your readers will appreciate the effort.
27 February 2020
When you have a first draft of your undergraduate essay or report, you’ll want to check the structure. Are some sections too long or too short? Are they in the right order? Is anything missing? What you need is a bird’s eye view — and this is difficult to get from reading through your work on the screen.
Fortunately, there’s a better way. If you’re working in Word, it’s called the Navigation Pane. On the View tab, select the Navigation Pane checkbox. The Navigation Pane opens on the left and lists all the headings and subheadings in your document like a table of contents.
But first, you’ll need to assign each heading a Style (Heading 1, Heading 2, etc.). The headings will then appear in the Navigation Pane, and you can drag a heading up and down the list to re-order the corresponding text in the document. If you are not using headings, you can create some as temporary place-markers to describe the content of each section. Once they’ve helped you shape your work, you can delete them.
30 January 2020
Miniscule pinprick of black — there’s not a lot to a full stop, but to your reader’s brain it can be like oxygen. We write sentences in order to hand our reader a piece of information, a unit of meaning. When we write a sentence that contains not one point, but two or three, or even four, our poor reader never gets the chance to process that initial point before another barges into their mind — a sense of suffocation soon follows; so find the place in over-long sentences where your first point has been made and insert a full stop.
Let’s try that again:
When we write a sentence that contains not one point, but two or three, or even four, our poor reader never gets the chance to process that initial point before another barges into their mind. A sense of suffocation soon follows. So find the place in over-long sentences where your first point has been made and insert a full stop. It will let your reader breathe more easily.
13 June 2019
I recommend to my students that they keep a folder for any material they are unable to incorporate in their assignment — interesting (but irrelevant) sources, single paragraphs or entire sections. The materials might be relevant for another piece of work, helpful for developing ideas for a dissertation or useful for revision.
30 May 2019
If you’ve ever got this kind of feedback for one of your essays, it can be a bit of a blow. You’ve tried hard to meet the expectations of your assessment criteria by including content you thought was necessary, but something about the way you’ve written the essay doesn’t quite fit the bill. What does ‘not academic enough’ mean?
The paragraph you have just read includes some language that is not appropriate for academic writing. The tone is informal, using expressions we might use in conversation with a friend. Notice the clichés (bit of a blow, fit the bill) and the contractions (‘you’ve’ instead of ‘you have’).
So how is academic writing different? In general, academic writing is more formal. One way you can achieve this is through the use of suitable verbs. Academic writers generally use powerful, single-word verb forms instead of phrasal verbs (verb + preposition). For example, instead of writing ‘bring about’ change, you could say ‘effect’ change’; instead of ‘wipe out’, you might use ‘eliminate’.
For more examples of the difference between appropriate and inappropriate academic language, this is an excellent resource:
‘Using Appropriate Words in an Academic Essay’ (NUS)
4 April 2019
Do you often start sentences with the words ‘This is’? If so, you might be making your reader sweat, while missing a chance to underline or refine the point you’re making. When you write ‘this is’, your reader is often forced to try to remember whatever it was in the last sentence you were talking about.
So remind them. This . . . what? This belief, this breakthrough, this reappraisal, this campaign, this experiment, this opportunity . . . You need to figure out precisely what you were talking about and then tell the reader in one single, crucial word. This is about more than just reminding the reader. (Actually, that sentence should be, ‘This technique is about more than just reminding the reader.’)
When you add a word between ‘this’ and ‘is’ you force yourself to reimagine, in an abstract way, the underlying nature of whatever it is you are describing. And that little move towards a higher-level evaluation of what it’s really all about, is the very essence of academic thinking.
21 February 2019
When I’m writing fiction, I only recognise what a story is really about when it’s very near completion. Only then does it become clear that it’s about ‘control versus letting go’, for example, or ‘security versus freedom’. I realise I need to go back and find the places in the text where these tensions arise, and explore them more deeply.
This can apply in academic writing in the arts, humanities and social sciences, too. Try the following exercise with your essay, dissertation or thesis. Identifying opposing elements in your work can expose underlying conflicts and reveal potential themes.
I used this exercise on my own doctoral thesis, which explores parallels between the mythic archetype – or classic story arc – and the creative process. I quickly noted down the following ‘opposites’ in these paradigms:
Studying the list, I noticed that these opposites might be further aligned by the typical qualities of masculine and feminine, or yin and yang:
I realised that the protagonist’s journey through a story and an individual’s creative process both swung between these two poles. This informed the conclusion of my thesis.
At a writing workshop for artists and writers, I asked them to consider opposites within their own work in progress. Participants identified contrasts they hadn’t previously been aware of: movement and stasis; smooth and rough; child and adult. These tensions triggered ideas that enabled them to develop the central theme of their work.
If you try this exercise, it might help you identify hidden tensions that reveal a theme. You may then want to ensure that you have highlighted these tensions within the work itself.
Yet academic writers frequently make their text hard to read by seeding it liberally with abstract nouns. These are nouns that express an idea, quality or state rather than an object you experience with your senses. ‘Transportation’ is an abstract noun. ‘Buses, coaches and cars’ are concrete nouns; you can touch, see, hear and smell them – I haven’t tried tasting.
Here’s an example:
The deposition of fish scales in the geological record over the last 1,600 years shows that sardine populations off the US West Coast have exhibited fluctuation – natural cycles of abundance each lasting some 50–70 years.
If we turn the abstract nouns into verbs, the sentence becomes shorter, more readable and no less convincing:
Fish scales deposited in the geological record over the last 1,600 years show that sardine populations off the US West Coast have fluctuated in natural cycles of abundance each lasting some 50–70 years.
Replacing abstract nouns with their equivalent verbs often injects energy into a sentence and usually makes it more readable. Why not try this when you next edit your work?
8 November 2018