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Think like a writer

Cherise Saywell

Image credit: Brodie Leven

As you’re working on your doctoral thesis, do you think of yourself as a writer? When I put this question to participants in my workshops, surprisingly few claim a writerly identity, although they’re happy enough identifying as scholars, researchers, students and teachers. It seems logical to add ‘writer’ to this list, especially if you’re producing upwards of 50,000 words.

Academic prose should be readable

If you associate academic writing with authority and objectivity but not necessarily clarity or readability, please think again. Although academic writing is constrained by rules and expectations, you have choices available. Connecting with your writerly self can help you to recognise these choices. Try thinking about your writing in the way that professional writers do.

1 Read as a writer

We become better writers through reading, but writers read in a particular way. We switch on a part of ourselves that is attuned to the writing itself. When we read, we might be thinking, ‘I like how the writer does this’, or ‘I wonder why they chose to put it this way?’

If you find an author’s style particularly readable, try to work out how they achieve this. Is there something you could try in your own work? Similarly, if you read something you really don’t like, it’s important to identify why. Is it the sentence structure, the language or the tone? Is it too dry or unnecessarily abstract?

Look at this sentence:

It can be seen from Standing’s conceptualisation that across the Western world, class structures have been reshaped by the global financial crisis and economic uncertainty, and that a new social class has emerged, the precariat.

As I’m reading, I see that this sentence could be improved. There is a nominalisation — ‘conceptualisation’. The nominalisation (a verb made into a noun: ‘conceives’ to ‘conceptualisation’) is clunky and slows the sentence down. And there are too many words. Why make the audience read 35 words if 25 will do? Finally, I felt the sentence needed a clearer focus — who or what is the actor?

This version has fewer words and more clarity.

Standing’s class model identifies a new social group, the precariat, which emerged in the West amid the economic uncertainty of the global financial crisis.

If you wanted to keep ‘the precariat’ at the end of the sentence, where it is quite dramatic, you could try this version:

According to Standing, the economic uncertainty of global financial crisis reshaped class structures, resulting in the emergence of a new social group: the precariat.

2 Think about your reader

It can help to imagine your readers’ experience. Recently, a doctoral student expressed this succinctly: ‘I don’t want it to be a chore to read my thesis’. We know academic writing has to be formal, but it can still be engaging. Aim for a tone that communicates your positive, confident relationship with your research.

As a writer, I prefer using active sentences that identify the actor where it is helpful.

In the above examples, the two rewrites are active rather than passive. In the first, Standing’s model identifies. In the second, the financial crisis reshapes society with a clear consequence. In each instance, I’ve edited to make the sentence more readable. The ideas are no less complex, but the reader can engage with them easily without having to cope with an unnecessarily complicated sentence structure.

3 Line-by-line reading

I remember that it was revelatory as a writer to discover how much you could learn by careful line-by-line reading. You slow down and look at the words and sentences, and you ask yourself, ‘Is this the best way I could say this? How might I say this more clearly?’

This is a sentence from an early draft of this post:

There are many ways to strike a tone that will communicate your positive, knowledgeable, enthusiastic relationship with your research.

There’s nothing really wrong with this sentence. But when I read it again, I was bothered by ‘There are’. I wanted a more assertive tone. And ‘knowledgeable’ wasn’t quite right. A good substitution would allow me to cut another adjective too:

Aim for a tone that communicates your positive, confident relationship with your research.

When I learnt to think like a writer, I was excited by how my writing improved — how much more readable and precise it became. When you are a writer, every word matters.

4 ‘Kill your darlings’

This is one of the hardest lessons all writers learn. When we talk about killing our darlings, we’re referring to those words and phrases that are there to show off, those sentences that say, ‘Look at me, see what I just wrote? I want to give it special attention in the context of academic writing.

Do you use certain words and phrases because they make you sound impressive?

Look at this example:

Blended learning expands educational practices by utilising an online technological medium as a complement to face-to-face interaction in the classroom.

I don’t think the word ‘medium’ adds anything to the sentence. In fact, it complicates things because it implies that blended learning uses only one technological medium. It would better to just say ‘technology’. And you could substitute ‘utilise’ with ‘use’.

Blended learning expands educational practices beyond the classroom by using online technology in teaching.

Try cutting unnecessary words or replacing them with simpler and clearer terms. You might find it makes your style more elegant and readable.

5 Read your work out loud

Writers read their work aloud for sound and rhythm. This technique works for all kinds of writing. Try reading out your academic writing to check if it is coherent and well punctuated. Good, clear prose is memorable — and you want your readers to remember your writing for the right reasons.

10 June 2021

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