A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? – George Orwell, Politics and the English Language
What are you Trying to Say?
Research writing is motivated by what you seek to bring across the goal line of your reader’s mind. The whole point of academic writing is to share what you already know to others who do not. Your goal should be to translate as best as possible the image in your mind into a form which will convey the same in others. The “what” or “content” of your writing should serve to coordinate all your writing; and, as is the purpose of the research phase, this content ought to be strictly clarified before you begin writing to avoid digressions and distractions (which signify concealment of the ‘what’; perhaps because there is very little ‘so what’ to begin with). This means that you do not dabble in unnecessary ambiguity. If it can be said simply, without any level of ‘generality,’ then say it as such. You should aim to leave your reader with a clear impression of what they have gained from reading your article. And if you must deal in ambiguity (since you describe something complex), be honest about that which you do not know.
Formulaic does not Always Mean Clear
Writing consists of an endless variety of linguistic tools which have been crafted to communicate an endless variety of perceptions. It is tempting to limit and connect these endless options with the standard pretenders: thus, therefore, subsequently, consequently, with regard to, concordantly, henceforth ad infinitum. These are all fine and good when used to enunciate the placement of a point in your argument (i.e. that point a hence means point b). But if your point is itself evident in its orientation, then the repetition of the orientalia is not necessary (just say: point A period. Point B). Please spare your reader this repetition and simply go straight into your point without (henceforth) forcing a potentially artificial logical connection.
Transparency is Akin with Simplicity
Do not use words you do not fully understand. The purpose of good academic writing is to make the complex, intelligible. Weave your stories with a nauseating amount of qualifiers and your reader will lose sight of the object in the endless strings you attach to it. Heavily use of loaded jargon such as “institutional isomorphism” and your writing will similarly bemuse the uninitiated. Always begin using complex terms with a concise definition and, if possible, shove your complex information through familiar (but not overused) turns of phrase and analogies, i.e. instead of “isomorphism,” try “tendency for institutions to conform with one another.” Do not, however, use this as a replacement for words invented to describe the nuance of a complicated situation. Communicating nuance likewise requires nuance in the communication tools themselves. But do aim to relate nuance and sophisticated statements (like “isomorphism”) to more readily understood analogies or language wherever possible (e.g., “institutions are like bodies of water, when joined they seek to rise to the same level”).
While you should still remain wary of being too formulaic, parallels in your speech can often aid your readers ability to remember what you are saying (hence the epic poem tradition prior to writing). Particularly when crafting lists, use consistent structures and tenses to achieve a straightforward rhythm. Use parallelism selectively, however, too much consistency can create homogeneity. Below is an example of parallel and unparallel writing:
This research follows four distinct phases: (1) establishing measurement instruments (2) pattern measurement (3) developing interventions and (4) the dissemination of successful interventions to other settings and institutions.
This research follows four distinct phases: (1) establishing measurement instruments (2) measuring patterns (3) developing interventions and (4) disseminating successful interventions to other settings and institutions.
Variety is the Vitality of Language
Suppose all words were of the same length and rhythm, if speech were truly monotone repetition. If this were true, our language would be useless since separate meanings would be unable to designate something unique. The heart of communication is drama: that the variety of your speech and argument is constantly distinguishing something new, thus showing itself as animated, thoughtful, and lucid writing worth the pursuit of your readers’ eyes. This rule applies to the variety of rhythm, sentences, words, and content (Narayan, 2012). Be wary, however, of having more variety in your speech than in the thought behind it: that is melodrama.
Learn from the Mistakes of Others
Find a writer who annoys or bores you (even if it is us). Pay attention to failures in their writing and make a note not to do the same.
Do not Over-Cite or Rely on Quotations
Citing is important, both to the vocation of social science generally and your understanding specifically. But as we have discussed in the literature review section, it is imperative that you show your reader that you are also present alongside other thinkers. This means that you need sections in which your argument stands alone without the leading strings of other authorities. The same can be said for your voice when writing, ensuring that it is not mere imitation or direct quotation, but is capable of demonstrating a unique judgment.
You also do not want to over-rely on quotations to make your point. For qualitative evidence, careful use of block quotations is important, so long as those quotes are also carefully analyzed. These quotations, however, have little place in the literature review.
Rewriting and Revision
In addition to the other revision tips stated, consider completely rewriting important sections of your paper without replicating the first draft. We know… how tedious! However, rewriting after a first draft can help articulate the point more cleanly and notice what was not working in the prior draft. It also will provide you a point of comparison for which to reflect on your first draft.
- Have I clearly expressed what I wanted to say?
- Am I asserting my voice?
- Am I making claims that are difficult to substantiate?
- Are there dead-weights in my sentence structures
- Are my sentences used in the negative?
- Am I using the passive voice too much?
- Are my sentences expressed in the simplest way possible?
- Do I need to split a sentence into two to make it clearer?
- Is the “to be” verb making my structures too complex?
- Am I using parallels in my sentence structures?
- Have I said something avoidably ugly?
- Is my writing too formulaic?
- Have I repeated myself unnecessarily?
Orwell, G. (1946). Politics and the English Language. Horizon.