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Academic Coaching & Writing

VIII. Write Clearly and Directly

Mar 14, 2011 by Caroline Eisner

In previous blogs, I have stressed that advanced academic writing requires that you use strong verbs, meaningful transitions, and citation that send signals to your readers about how to make their way through your argument. This week’s blog will cover a few more features of academic writing that will make your writing stronger. But to be clear, your ideas and your argument are the two most important elements of your work. Do not get hung up on “surface features”—spelling, grammar, mechanics, formatting—until you have fleshed out your ideas and argument, especially because if ideas or argument change, you will need to re-edit the surface features. Leave the surface features until everything else is finished or nearly finished.

If you edit for surface features and grammar while you are conceptualizing your ideas, you may lose your great ideas. Editing for grammar and mechanics may feel like productive work when you are stuck, but it is more than likely that you are stuck because you haven’t figured out your ideas. Once you do, you may need to reorganize or rewrite your argument, and therefore need to redo the grammar and mechanics at least once before you give your section or chapter to one of your readers. If someone returns your edited manuscript with grammar and mechanic errors noted, the reader didn’t really read your work for its ideas, perhaps because he or she may have become tangled in the surface features and could not get to your ideas. You want to spend dedicated time polishing your writing, but save that task for last.

However, once you are at the stage to work on surface features, be sure that you have succinctly identified and defined your topic’s key terms. These terms usually imply certain assumptions—unstated beliefs about life, history, literature, or reasoning— that you haven’t argued for but simply have assumed to be true. Your topic’s key terms should be clear in their meaning and appear throughout (not abandoned halfway) and they should be appropriate for the subject at hand.

A distinctive feature of academic writing style is choosing the more formal word over the less formal word. Even if you hear your advisors or readers use words and phrases like stuff, things, bunch, or a whole lot of, which would be inappropriate in academic writing, or elaborate metaphors and other vivid expressions to enliven their speaking style, these are inappropriate in academic writing. Choose words that are more formal in nature and more precise. For example:

  • good » considerable
  • got » obtained
  • a lot of » numerous
  • pretty good » encouraging
  • things that will happen » consequences

One of the hallmarks of academic writing is that conciseness counts. The examples above illustrate that using the more concise word is more appropriate in academic writing than the way you might say the same thing if you were speaking to a friend.


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