My students sometimes feel that applying the principles1 of clear writing conflicts with them developing their own personal writing style.
We can resolve this conflict if we think about our stages of learning. I particularly like using the ancient Japanese concept of Shuhari.
How does the ancient Japanese concept of Shuhari relate to modern day academic writing?
Shuhari describes the stages of learning from beginner to master:
'Shu' 守 means 'Follow'
'Ha' 破 means 'Digress'
'Ri' 離 means 'Transcend'.2
Or more simply: "Follow the rules, Break the rules, Make the rules."
When you first start learning a skill, you must "follow the rules."
After you are comfortable with these rules, you can move to the second stage: "break the rules," where you question the rules to understand how and why they work.
Once you have truly mastered the skill, you can "make the rules" or go beyond the rules. The rules are within you, but they do not limit you.
I think of this third stage as "being at one with the rules"--you no longer think consciously about them, but you use them freely as you have mastered them completely.
So how do you develop your own academic writing style?
First, you look at the stage you are in (and recognize that there is nothing wrong with being in SHU). If you are in SHU or HA, you are not ready to develop your own style yet. You must first learn these principles deeply -- internalize them-- before you can choose to digress or transcend.
We need to take the time to learn and understand before we can break out.
Developing your own style happens in RI. Try not to skip steps.
You might wonder if you even need to get out of SHU to write well academically. I am not sure you do. Maybe trying to move through the stages of learning is not the goal in academic writing. If you can write well by following the principles exactly3 then why digress? Maybe it's enough to just clearly communicate your research.
What if academic writing stays heavy and opaque-- are we ready to accept the consequences?
consequences of bad writing
When ideas and research results are difficult to understand, it hurts all of humanity. It creates barriers rather than breaking them down. It prevents us from working together efficiently to tackle the hard problems of our age.
How can we work together to reverse climate change and find cures for cancer if we cannot even understand each other easily?
If we accept that clarity is paramount when communicating research, then why is some academic writing still so hard to read?
why is some academic writing still so hard to read?
It may be because researchers don't know how to write clearly or because they believe that they have no choice.
ReallyWrite was created to help solve the first problem (they don't know how to write clearly), so let's talk about the second (they believe that they have no choice).
Hard-to-read academic writing comes from blindly following "rules"
Even though we talk about the importance of clear writing in class, early-career researchers still look at me with big eyes when I lead them to a logical structure for their text. They exclaim: "But I thought I wasn't allowed to do that!"
Not allowed? Says who?
I think that academic writing is so hard to do well partly because young academics erroneously think they have to conform to countless random "rules"--many of which only serve to make their writing harder to understand.
It's hard enough to figure out this whole writing thing, but what if you also have to follow a bunch of random, mostly unstated "rules"?
When people talk about "academic writing," I wonder what they mean. Do they mean the random "rules" that are sometimes still imposed on young, unsuspecting PhD students? Or do they mean, fundamentally, the writing that we do to share our research?
Photo by Anna Shvets
Have you heard these "rules" before?
Use this kind of word. (latin!)
Don't use that kind of word. (germanic!)
Only this many sentences per paragraph are allowed. (5-15)
Don't start a sentence with these words. (But, Yet, For, So, Because...)
Vary your vocabulary. (otherwise you will be boring)
Avoid the passive voice.
Use only the passive voice.
Do you feel like your hands are tied, trying to conform to countless random "rules"?
And how does following these "rules" help us to write more clearly?
The "rules" are NOT rules and they limit your options
Thinking about academic writing in terms of "rules" is disempowering. It takes away your ability to reason about the best structure for your situation. And worst of all, it limits your options.
If your options are limited, how will you ever be able to create a really clear text?
In my experience, researchers find the "rules" constraining and illogical. Many academics are even putting their power and influence behind the push for better academic writing by publicly questioning their logic.
Many former conventions are no longer conventions. Some never were.
For example, researchers have been writing in the active voice since the invention of research. Choosing to write in active voice is not revolutionary.
Most journals explicitly ask authors to us we and active voice, to avoid jargon, to explain terminology clearly, to think of their reader and to strive to write accessibly.
The following quotes come from the guidelines for authors in Nature journals1, emphasis mine:
Clarity of expression is needed to achieve the goal of comprehensibility.
Nature journals prefer authors to write in the active voice ("we performed the experiment...") as experience has shown that readers find concepts and results to be conveyed more clearly if written directly.
We have also found that using several adjectives to qualify one noun in highly technical language can be confusing to readers. We encourage authors to "unpackage" concepts and to present their findings and conclusions in simply constructed sentences.
Many papers submitted for publication in a Nature journal contain unnecessary technical terminology, unreadable descriptions of the work that has been done, and convoluted figure legends. Our journal subeditors and copyeditors edit the manuscript so that it is grammatically correct, logical, clear and concise. They also ensure that manuscripts use consistent search terms and terminology that is consistent with what is used in previous articles published in the journal. Of course, this process is assisted greatly if the authors have written the manuscript in a simple and accessible style, as the author is the best person to convey the message of the paper and to persuade readers that it is important enough to spend time on.
We ask authors to avoid jargon and acronyms where possible. When essential, they should be defined at first use; after first use, the author should use pronouns when possible rather than using the abbreviation or acronym at every occurrence. The acronym is second-nature to the author but is not to the reader, who may have to refer to the original definition throughout the paper when an acronym is used.
write clearly for each other
They are not asking you to write accessibly for the layperson, they are asking you to do it for your fellow scientists!
Do you ever dare to ask "why?" when you are told you just have to do something a certain way?
It's entirely understandable that a young researcher may not feel brave enough to question. Doing a PhD can make you vulnerable. Often, young researchers don't dare to question because they don't know enough about writing to know that they can question. They also don't know what questions to ask.
However, when researchers learn about all the options that are available to them, they can develop the courage to question these "rules" more.
What if, instead of blindly following "rules," you could understand how writing works?
What if you could understand the options you have and how they affect a reader's understanding, so that you can make informed choices that fit your situation?
Maybe we are still blindly following these "rules" because we have all, collectively, forgotten why we do academic writing? Maybe we need a reminder that the purpose of academic writing is to communicate our ideas and research results as clearly as possible.
And we are free to use the most logical word, sentence structure and tool in our arsenal to achieve that goal.
Can we all agree to write about our research as clearly as possible?
After all, life puts enough obstacles in our path. Let's not create more of them.
Some people talk about "academic writing" and "academic style" as if they are something special-- as if the only articles that can be published are articles that copy the style of previous articles.
But why, oh why, would you copy someone else's choices?
And if you want to copy, could you choose to copy something that you yourself found easy and enjoyable to read?
Maybe the writer you are copying had no idea what they were doing. Maybe they just threw something together to get it published and be done. We can't know what was in the writer's mind.
Choose what to copy
We can learn to write well by copying the style and structures of good writers, professional writers1.
But most academic writing is not written by professional writers. Most academic writers have little writing experience and no formal writing training before they start churning out papers: most academic writers are amateurs.
By all means, copy the styles and structures of great scientific writers: Stephen Hawking, Bill Bryson, Steven Pinker, and Yuval Harari, to name the first few that come to mind. But, please, take care in copying anything from any other random article you've read.
When did academic writing morph into something separate from simply communicating knowledge?
What are "academic writing" and "academic style"?
Wouldn't your research be more impactful if you decided for yourself how it can best be presented?
That would mean letting go of "should" and "have to" and making your own decisions based on the ultimate purpose of "academic writing."
"Academic writing" is
the writing that we do to communicate our ideas and research results as clearly as possible to an international community of interested readers (other scientists)2
"Academic style" is
a professional style that gives all relevant information about the research as clearly and accurately as possible. This style should be accessible to international researchers who all have to read in a foreign language (English).
And why do we do academic writing?
To help move our field forward of course! To learn. To share information. To collaborate and discover.
Can we all agree to write about our research as clearly as possible?
After all, life puts enough obstacles in our path. Let's not create more of them.
Comparisons require parallelism, so lay out the groups and the differences between them in parallel structure. You cannot compare apples and oranges. Go as far as to line up each parallel part on top of each other to help you see the relationship:
Surgery is recommended for high-risk patients, while
therapy is recommended for low-risk patients.
Less experienced writers often think they have to use the word "compare" in a comparison ("in comparison with" and "compared to/with") and they often end up with a relationship that is at best vague and at worst nonsensical. Most of the time you can avoid the word "compare"2 completely because is it unnecessary and wordy.
Challenge: USE THAN
Don't use the word compare by default. Show the comparison using than.3
If you are comparing within a single phrase, there are a few basic comparison structures, all of which use than:4
A is more/less/higher ... than B.
A has a more/less/higher ... than B.
More/fewer people did A than B.
A occurred more/less often than B.
The key to writing a clear comparison sentence is to think carefully about how the groups relate to each other and to make that relationship explicit.
Verbs are the lifeblood of sentences--they show us the relationship between two nouns. In a comparison, a verb, adjective, or adverb can often show a relationship more clearly than a noun.
Don't use unnecessary zombie nouns
Use verbs, adjectives, and than instead
These broader criteria are justified based on the more complex nature of biotherapeutics compared to small molecules
These broader criteria are justified because biotherapeutics are more complex than small molecules.
If the relationship is the same in both groups, don't use a synonym, use the same verb or adjective!
Method A is favorable, while Method B is desirable.
Methods A and B are both advantageous.
5. Put the comparison phrase in between the groups that are compared
The simplest structure to offer a reader is subject-verb-object (SVO). Follow this structure whenever possible in comparisons.
Group 1 - Comparative - Group 2.
Method A is faster than Method B.
Comparative - Group 1 - Group 2 - Comparative.
Compared to Method B, Method A is faster.
You might be thinking:
But if I was just talking about Method B, then I want to put Method B in the beginning of the sentence, so what is actually wrong with that sentence?
It is not ideal to break up SVO structure because a verb shows a clear relationship between two nouns: the comparison relationship5. You can put Method B in front and still keep SVO structure:
Method B is slower than Method A.
Here are two more examples that show why you need to keep the comparison relationship together.
In this sentence, I have to read all the way to the end before I find out what the two comparison groups are:
Free light chains have a shorter half-life (than what?), which allows them to more accurately assess immune activation than serum Igs
Free light chains have a shorter half-life than serum Igs, which allows them to more accurately assess immune activation.
This sentence is missing a comparison group:
Serum FLC (κ and/or λ) concentrations are higher (in what group?) than in healthy controls.
Serum FLC (κ and/or λ) concentrations are higher in group A than in healthy controls.
Challenge yourself to write a crystal clear comparison sentence in your next article! Good luck!
Smart, capable (mostly non-native English speaker) academics regularly struggle to make clear comparison sentences. I'm even talking tenured professors here (!) However, most academics don't even realize their comparison is not clear until someone points it out to them. I'd like to see more results presented unambiguously, hence this post. ↩
And all its forms: compare, compares, comparison, compared. An added benefit to removing "compare" is that you no longer have to wonder which preposition to use: "compared to?" "compared with?" Who cares? Just use "than!" ↩
Sure, in certain cases you can make an exception here, but in the vast majority of cases this rule applies. ↩
Replace the adjective in italics to fit your relationship. ↩
Sometimes you will. This is not a hard and fast rule. Most of the time you should try to keep the comparison together. ↩
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.
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:
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):
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.
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.
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!
You're deep in your research and you're excitedly writing a paper to share all the details with the world. But how can you make the biggest impact?
Most of us are so involved in our text that we forget to pay attention to the other player in this game: the reader. We find it hard to stop and think about where our reader is, what our reader is thinking of, and what our reader needs. Instead, we focus on ourselves: "What do I want to say here?" and "What do I find important?"
If you are only focused on yourself, you will not be seeking to communicate in a way that makes sense to your reader.
Many readers struggle to read academic articles. But you can make a difference by making your article easy to read and thus increasing its reach.
There is one basic way to improve your writing skills: shift your perspective.
As writers, you act in service to your reader. You are not the reigning monarch, you are the butler. You, the writer, do all the behind-the-scenes work to make sure your reader has an easy life. You hold the keys to the castle, you organize everything within it and, most importantly, you offer them what they need when they need it.
So when revising your text, remember to put your reader front and center and ask yourself this question for every decision that you make:
Will this change make it easier for my reader to understand my message?
When we are focused in on the details, it's easy to forget that this article is not for us, it's for others.
When you get feedback to "use more passive voice," ask yourself:
Will moving to passive voice here make it easier for my reader to understand my message?
If the answer is no, reject the suggestion and move on.
When you get the feedback that you "need to use jargon," ask yourself:
Will using this jargon make it easier for my reader to understand my message?
If the answer is no, reject the suggestion and move on.
When you get told that you should "use synonyms to make it less boring," ask yourself:
Will using different words to mean the same thing make it easier for my reader to understand my message? 1