Skip to main content

Three ways to improve your academic writing

· 4 min read
Taylor Krohn

Better writing

Academic writing can and should be clear and easy to read.

In my experience, academic writers only need a few strategies to drastically improve the quality of their text. Will you start using these strategies?

Three ways to quickly improve your academic writing

Let's break the cycle of long, complicated, hard-to-read prose. How do you write about your research clearly? It takes effort and focused attention, but if you understand a few basic ideas, it does not have to be so hard.

Form matters

Most higher education is focused on content, not on form, yet the form that the content takes determines its accessibility and its impact.

To improve your writing, learn these three strategies first:

  1. Use parallelism everywhere
  2. Use precise verbs instead of zombie nouns
  3. Use the (given to new) information flow principle

Strategy 1: Use Parallelism

Parallelism means consciously giving your sentences the same structure. It is so ingrained in the English language that native speakers use it without thinking. But while parallelism is easy for native speakers of English, it is challenging for non-native speakers.

Parallelism is absolutely required in lists:

We administered 10 mg of this drug intravenously, then performed a CT scan 72 hours later.

Having these cultural characteristics means that this group is relatively unaccepting of power differences, values its individuality and input, and prefers to solve conflicts through negotiation and relationship building.

These differences could be due to the temperature, pressure, or volume of the sample.

Parallelism is absolutely required in contrasts (and can help you cut down on unnecessary words):

To err is human, to forgive divine. 1

This measurement increased in group A but remained stable in group B.

Parallelism can be used in many other places as well, for example, to reduce wordiness or to emphasize ideas.

To improve life here, to extend life there, to find life beyond. 2

Strategy 2: Use precise verbs instead of zombie nouns

One of the most important choices you can make is which verb to use. Most academic writing is laden with vague, heavy, jargon-sounding nouns and empty verbs. Change these zombie nouns back into verbs and your writing will spring back to life.

Here's how:

One study showed an improvement in quality of life after surgical repair of the injury.
In one study, quality of life improved after the injury was surgically repaired.

Initial treatment for this disease is conservative.
We initially treat this disease conservatively.

Overflow of liquids and other substances is less likely to occur.
Liquids and other substances are less likely to overflow.

Strategy 3: Use the (given to new) information flow principle

What is this? Most people have never heard of it. Yet, good writers use it all the time.

Information flow

Readers expect to see certain kinds of information in certain places in a sentence: familiar information in the beginning and unfamiliar information at the end.

  • Familiar information refers to information that is already in the reader's mind. It always goes first: in the topic position.
  • Unfamiliar, new information refers to information that the reader has not yet seen. It moves the argument forward. It goes second: in the stress position.

Look at every sentence and determine whether the beginning of your sentence contains information that was in the reader's mind just before they started that sentence. If not, choose to start with something that was in the reader's mind and make a new sentence.

When you first start applying given to new, you will notice that your sentences become a bit repetitive. That repetition is a necessary first step to creating a logical order. Once you have applied given to new everywhere, you should be able to look at the sentences again and see where they can be combined and excess wording can be cut. The final draft will not be as repetitive as the initial draft!

Hang in there! It is possible to apply given to new everywhere, consistently. If you stop using it because you can't figure out how to do it well, you are doing yourself, your readers, and your students a disservice.

Good luck using parallelism, verbs, and given to new!

Interested in more content like this?

Footnotes

  1. Alexander Pope

  2. NASA Mission Statement