How to make your writing sing

If you’re an academic, you are also, by proxy, a writer. Academics lives are full of words. Emails, feedback to students, grant applications, papers, theses – all of these require the careful placement of the one word next to another. As Prince once (almost) said, if you put the right letters together, you make a better day. And if it’s good enough for Prince, it’s good enough for the rest of us mere mortals.

However, while we university types are educated up to the eyeballs in our particular topics, we’re not often taught much about writing itself. Sure, we might have had an undergrad lecture about writing essays which follow the funnel structure, but other than that, we’re left to sink or swim. Which, given how much of our lives we spend trying to communicate complex ideas through the written word, is perhaps a bit of an oversight.

Humans have been communicating their ideas through writing since ancient times.

Photo by Kyle Smith on Unsplash.

With that in mind, here are some of PGPR’s top tips for creating words which stand out.

1. Read

Every writer also needs to be a reader. Fiction writers are experts in their genre, reading everything they can get their hands on by the writers they admire. The same counts for academic writing. Read as many papers and books in your field as possible. Spot what works and what doesn’t. Try to use the best techniques in your own writing.

Additionally, two great how-to books that can help every writer are Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style and Stephen King’s On Writing. I’m sure there are other great books on writing which haven’t been written by someone called Steven, but those are a great starting point.

2. Plan

That funnel structure lecture you sat through in undergrad was actually pretty useful. Good academic writing should always follow a structure. This might feel boring, but it makes it easier for others to read, which should always be your aim. Think carefully about the points you want to make. How you order those points will influence how the reader digests your ideas, so plan carefully before you start.

A good plan is worth its weight in sticky labels!

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3. Write tight

As we’ve said in a previous PGPR blog, a key tenet of writing is to ‘omit needless words’ (Strunk, 2007). Effective writing is concise. We all write in longer sentences when we’re drafting something, so look back over your work and get rid of those filler words (‘that’ ‘very’ ‘really’) which aren’t needed.

Another tip for writing tighter prose is to avoid repetition. We all have favourite phrases which we use over and over again without even noticing. Try to spot yours and find new ways of phrasing. This will keep the reader’s attention.

4. The Curse of Knowledge (Pinker, 2014)

This concept, which Steven Pinker discusses in detail in The Sense of Style, is especially relevant to academics. When we’re an expert in any topic – be it phenomenology, attribution theory or fuzzy logic, it can be easy to forget that our readers don’t share our knowledge. This can mean we don’t provide essential explanations, leaving the reader lost. This is a tough nut to crack, but if you ask for feedback from a non-expert friend or colleague, they will be able to help you spot the holes that need filling.

A good friend will always help you out of a tight spot!

Image by Anja🤗#helpinghands #solidarity#stays healthy🙏 from Pixabay

5. Read your work aloud

You might feel like a bit of wally doing this, but it is super helpful. There’s something about reading aloud which helps you spot the awkward clauses or overly long sentences you might otherwise have missed. You could read to a friend or family member, or just to yourself in your locked office – whatever you choose, release your words into the ether and you’ll spot lots of areas to improve.

6. Impactful words should be at the start and end of sentences

This is a neat trick. If you are using words which pack a punch – and let’s hope you are – try to place those words at the start or end of the sentence, and your writing will immediately improve.

Let’s look at an example. Perhaps you’re writing up some qualitative findings from your fascinating study about eating tasty cakes. You’ve drafted the following sentence:

It was reported that the chocolate cake was the most delicious out of all of the options.

The three best words there, I think we can all agree, are ‘cake’, ‘chocolate’ and ‘delicious’. At the moment, while there’s nothing technically wrong here, those words are a little lost. Our hacky human brains might therefore jump over them, in our rush to skip to the end.

What might work better?

Most delicious, reported participants, was the chocolate cake.

The chocolate cake was reported to be the most delicious.

Chocolate was found to be the best flavour.

There is no one right answer. When you’re faced with a sentence like this, play around. Is ‘best flavour’ a more impactful way of saying ‘the most delicious’? Several needless words were omitted in the edited versions. Which sounds best to your ear?

Keep an ear (or two) out for those unnecessary filler words.

Photo by Kyle Smith on Unsplash

7. Employ PGPR

If all this sounds like far too much hard work, just get in touch with PGPR via the form below. We’ll be happy to help your writing be the best it can be.

Using anthropomorphism in academic writing

It’s not uncommon to read “this study concludes…” or “these findings suggest…” in academic writing. I would hazard a guess that nearly every researcher has used similar phrases at some point in their career. You may well have used them yourself and thought nothing of it. However, these ubiquitous and seemingly innocuous phrases cause quite a stir in certain circles.

They are just two examples of anthropomorphism: incidences where the author attributes human characteristics to inanimate or nonhuman objects or concepts. Under APA 6 guidelines, academics would be chided for implying that their data had the power of speech – how can data say anything? Anthropomorphism was to be avoided at all costs.

It can be tempting to give human qualities to anything and everything!

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And logically, rationally, this makes sense. Data, findings, “the study” – all these things lack agency. Research doesn’t think, explore, or conclude; researchers do! Active verbs belong with people, not abstract concepts or inanimate objects.

If you are only now learning of these particular guidelines, you may be groaning, rolling your eyes, and wondering if you have to go back through your entire dissertation to awkwardly juggle clauses and remove agency from “the study”. If you’re writing in the first-person, this is fairly straightforward. What was “this chapter describes…” becomes “in this chapter, I describe…”.

However, whilst first-person writing is an increasingly popular choice for qualitative researchers, not all supervisors, examiners and journal editors will accept this format…a topic for a whole other blog. De-anthropomorphising sentences in the third person is possible, but it can lead to some verbose and awkward phrasing. For example:

This research explores the impact of dog ownership on people’s happiness.

Could become the slightly wordier:

In this study, the researchers explored the impact of dog ownership on people’s happiness.

Or the clumsy, back-ended passive-voice version:

          In this research, the impact of dog ownership on people’s happiness was explored.

Every dog has its data
Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

Perhaps you’re wondering what all the fuss is about. Surely this is pedantic in the extreme; we know that it’s the researchers, not the research, who are doing the exploring, describing and suggesting! Anthropomorphism is a useful and engaging stylistic shorthand which can facilitate clarity and conciseness, rather than create confusion. It’s unlikely that we will read “the study suggests…” and go away thinking “gosh, that study has acquired the power of speech! And isn’t it remarkably articulate?”

And to an extent, it seems the APA style guide finally agrees (or should that be “the authors of the APA style guide agree” …?)… to an extent. Under APA 7 guidelines, the rules around anthropomorphism have been relaxed, meaning your study can now be allowed to speak. Only a little, though, and only under strict circumstances. There are limits to the active verbs which can be ascribed to non-human entities. For example, it’s now fine to state:

The data suggests…

The findings indicate…

The table presents…

Some phrases which might be acceptable (but use with caution):

This chapter describes…

The questionnaire assessed…

But definitely steer clear of:

The study concluded… (this suggests that there is one objective conclusion to be drawn from the data).

The literature claims… (this suggests that from a whole body of literature on a given topic, one unified view can be drawn).

Whilst there is arguably room for clarification around these new guidelines, I wouldn’t hold out hope for a comprehensive list of suitable verb-subject pairings. A good rule of thumb may be to question why you’re employing anthropomorphism – does it clarify your writing (perhaps by avoiding long, awkward sentence structuring), or does it muddy your intended meaning? If you spot anthropomorphism in your writing, is there another way this could be phrased? While there is no longer a blanket ban on anthropomorphism in APA, it’s generally good practice to reflect on your writing, and what you may be implying by employing this device.

You can read more about the changes to the rules here.

Sometimes it’s a case of moving the pieces around.
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If this all feels overwhelming, or confusing, or you’re not sure where to start, then there’s always help available. Get in touch with us about your writing concerns! Whether it’s specifically about anthropomorphism or more broadly about APA style, we’re happy to provide expert guidance and friendly support. Just fill in the box below to contact us, and we’ll get back to you ASAP.

Six steps to the perfect discussion section

You’ve passed ethics, recruited participants, collected your data, analysed and written up your findings – phew! What a marathon. The hard work is basically over, right?

Well, sadly not, because there is one more hurdle to jump; the dreaded discussion section.

This is where you compare your work to the existing literature. Sounds simple, but this can be the hardest chapter to write. I have a theory (entirely untested, I should point out) that these chapters are especially hard for women, who have generally been socialised not to brag about their achievements, something you definitely need to do here.

Read on for six tips on how to leap over this final hurdle and write a devastating discussion.

1. Read around your findings

You will already have done plenty of reading for your lit review, but before you start writing, do some more, especially if you are doing qualitative work. In quantitative research, you shouldn’t discuss any papers you haven’t already bought up in your intro, but this is not the case for qualitative explorations, where the researcher will have been expecting the unexpected. Now that you have your unexpected findings, search for similar papers and make notes on the relevant points.

I find it helpful to start a new document listing each of my key findings, and to make notes of any existing findings which confirm, contradict or add to my own, along with a note of which paper the new findings have come from. Include the key findings from the key papers from your intro or lit review on this list as well. You might want to highlight findings which back yours up in one colour and those which don’t in another. This list document comes in really handy once you start to write.

Immerse yourself in the relevant reading

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

Look for work from the same or similar methodologies to you, as well as work from other areas. Find and read papers that are cited in useful studies.

Top tip: if your university doesn’t have access to a paper you need, email the author, or look for them on ResearchGate or Twitter. They will probably be happy to share their work with you. (I am always happy to share my papers, just get in touch via the form below to ask.)

2. Think about format

The format of your discussion section should mirror that of your findings. This helps your reader to logically follow your train of thought; especially vital if your reader is a PhD examiner, for whom you want to make life as easy as possible.

Start with your first finding. Briefly recap it. A common problem I see with PGPR clients is that they spend too much time reminding the reader of findings. The findings chapter is the one before the discussion; try to trust that your work is interesting enough that the reader won’t have forgotten it already.

Think carefully about your format before you start writing
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Here is an example of a recap from a discussion section in my PhD, which was about the experience of living with and being treated for renal failure:

Seven of the participants talked about the impact that ill health made on their lives. Some found that ill health was a wearing intrusion, dragging them down and restricting them. Others had found ways to come to terms with living with their chronic conditions.

Following this, you might want write a brief summary of the existing literature, after which you can start comparing your work to what’s out there already.

3. Look for areas where your research confirms other findings

The next step is to demonstrate how your findings concur with existing work (if they do). This is where the list document you made earlier will come in useful. Look for findings that are similar to yours and tell the reader about those similarities. If you don’t have anything on your document which backs up your findings, have another look, just to be sure. However, don’t force similarities if they’re not there.

How similar does your work look to existing work?

Photo by Chan on Unsplash

4. Look for areas where your research builds on existing work

This step is similar to the previous one but can be trickier. Your work might appear to contradict existing work. Novice researchers may panic that this means their findings are ‘wrong’. However, is there a reason your findings are different from Professor Big-Brain’s? Did you speak to different participants? Has the political climate shifted? Perhaps participants reacted differently to you – an Asian female – than to Professor Big-Brain – a white male. If further research would be beneficial, point that out.

Perhaps your findings add a new dimension to a model or set of guidelines. If so, clearly demonstrate this and give yourself a gold star.

You might have an entirely novel finding – something no-one has found before. Again, check the literature carefully so that you can be confident you’ve not missed anything, but if so, use clear language to tell your reader that you have found something new and important. Don’t be shy about this! These are the kinds of findings you might include in bullet points about ‘what this adds to existing research’ when you’re submitting papers for publication.

Don’t let your brilliant new ideas sink without trace  

Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash

5. Think carefully about what your reader needs to know

PGPR clients’ discussion sections are often overly long. We don’t need every detail of the papers you’re comparing your work to. Consider your examiners or the reviewers of your paper as you write. These people tend to be overworked as it is – and reviewing/thesis examination is extra work which they have to fit into their busy day. Do they really need to know exactly how many people Dr Finickity interviewed, or do they just need to know what those participants experienced?

Here is another example from my PhD, demonstrating a succinct comparison:

Several participants talked about a loss of freedom via the restrictions placed on them by their illness, either in terms of being too fatigued to live life to the full, or in terms of more practical concerns such as diet restrictions. Authors of previous qualitative work on ill-health have found similar themes. The restricting impact of ill health in terms of both social life and diet spoken about by Charlotte is reflected in findings by King et al. (2002), in which dietary restrictions and ill health were both found to have a major impact on the diabetic renal patients.

6. Ask PGPR for feedback

Discussion sections are difficult – but the PGPR team has plenty of experience writing, marking and examining these chapters. We are happy to offer feedback on how to get your discussion chapter just right, so fill in the form below if you would like some extra support.

Top tips for formal academic writing

The world of academic writing can be a terrifying place, full of tricky rules and customs. If you’re a student working on an essay, thesis or paper, you might have been told that the writing you’ve poured your heart and soul into is too informal. This vague bit of feedback isn’t much use on its own. But fear not, the Post-Graduate Proof-Reader is here to remove the mystery with some tips which will allow your words to rub shoulders with the greats.

You don’t have to be scared of academic writing any more!

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  • No abbreviations

You may find you’re using more shorthand than you realise. You’re sadly unlikely to be encouraging your readers to BYOB to your essay – but you may well be using eg, ie or etc. These are not good academic language, so always make the following substitutions:

eg = for example

ie = such as

etc = and so on

The only exception to this is acronyms. If you’ve defined a term with an acronym the first time you use it, use that acronym each subsequent time. For example: In this thesis, I have used interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA). Smith devised IPA in the mid-90s…

  • Hedging your bets

Research is a tentative world. Experiments are flawed. Some results are replicated, others are disproven. When you’re analysing qualitative data, there is often room for another interpretation. As such, it can be hard to know when you can confidently state that such-and-such a finding is bona fide or when you should be more cautious.

Think about your subject matter, as this will help you decide on your tone of voice. Let’s look at an example from some hypothetical qualitative findings. If a participant you’ve named Emma says:

I finally had to accept that I needed dialysis, and that made me really depressed

you can afford to be bold in how you phrase your interpretation. You don’t need to say ‘It appeared that the thought of dialysis distressed Emma’; she’s telling you in clear and unambiguous language that she was depressed, so it’s fine to state that as a fact.

However, Emma might go on to say:

Although the ward was chaotic, the only company I had was the bleeping of the machines

This is more ambiguous, so reflect that by saying ‘it seems Emma felt isolated.’ You can apply the same logic to the rest of your paper; if an existing finding or theory is uncontroversial, report it as so. Hedge your bets with anything more ambiguous.

Be cautious when describing ambiguous findings – or you could fall into dangerous territory!

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  • ‘The model states…’ – or does it?

Remember that models, papers, theories and chapters are not sentient and cannot suggest, confirm or deny anything themselves. It is always the people who wrote or created those ideas who have the agency.

For example, ‘a recent paper agrees’ is not right, whereas ‘the authors of a recent paper agree’ is. ‘The ANOVA demonstrated’ is not right, whereas ‘our use of ANOVA demonstrated’ is.

This can be a hard one to get right but keep trying and it will become second nature. This article on the issue from Walden University is helpful if you want to read more about this.

*Note that in APA 7, the rules on anthropomorphism, as this rule is known, have relaxed. Check out our blog to read more about this.

  • Humanising language

It’s important for all academics – and especially psychologists – to use language in a way that is respectful of people and mindful of diversity. For example, rather than the unwieldy ‘he or she’, use ‘they’, which is not only neater but also makes space for people who identify as non-binary.

Always state a person’s humanity before other identifying factors, especially factors which might be stigmatising. So rather than ‘HIV patient’, you should say ‘person living with HIV’. ‘Participants’ is a better word than either ‘subjects’ or ‘patients’ as it implies an active rather than a passive stance.

Not only is language like this better for humanity, it is also in line with British Psychological Society (BPS) guidelines and the standards of most journals where you might be sending your work.

Share the love by using language which puts people first

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  • Hire PGPR

If all this feels like far too much like hard work, don’t worry – just get in touch with us via the form below, and we can do all the heavy lifting for you.  

Six Reasons You Should Work with a Proof-Reader

Finally, you have finished writing your paper and it’s ready to check over before you submit it. Well done!

Now you want to make sure that it’s absolutely perfect so you feel confident to send it off to a journal or your supervisor.   

Have you ever considered working with a professional proof-reader to get your fabulous paper looking flawless? Here are a few reasons why you might want to do just that…

1. Proof-readers are trained to catch tiny little details that you might just miss, even on the second or third read-through.

Before you decide to proof-read your own work, ask yourself:

Would you notice if you accidentally type two spaces instead of one?

What about getting the full stop in the right place in every single reference?

Does Microsoft Word notice that you have typed ‘affect’ instead of ‘effect’?

Mistakes like this reduce the quality of your article. You might have created the greatest piece of research known to humankind (we know you have!), but errors like this will make your paper seem unprofessional.

2. Automatic grammar checkers do not replace the eyes of a professional proof-reader.

You might want a robot to do your housework, but do you really want one checking your beautiful, human research?
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Algorithmic programmes such as Grammarly can sometimes pick up if a sentence does not read well, but they usually just check for grammatical or spelling errors. And quite often, such programmes get it wrong.

To make sure your paper has an impact, clarity is vital. Proof-readers can consider how your sentences, paragraphs and sections read as a whole, and advise you on any restructuring that needs to take place.

3. Proof-readers will pick up on anything that might be difficult for your reader to understand.

You have probably become so familiar with your research that it is easy to forget which points might not seem clear to your reader. If anything seems even slightly fuzzy, a professional proof-reader will query what you mean and help you to rewrite it in a way that will make sense to your audience.

4. Proof-readers will check your references and make sure you stick to your style guide.

You’ve slaved away over your APA reference list three times… but have you forgotten to italicise a book title? Or maybe you missed a comma after a full stop in the list of authors. Don’t let your blood boil over emboldened brackets! An eagle-eyed expert can check that everything in your references is in the right place.

The same goes for sticking to your style guide in the rest of your paper. Accidentally started a sentence with ‘37’ instead of ‘Thirty-seven’? No sweat! Your proof-reader has got it covered.

5. You will feel more relaxed when the paper is out of your hands.

You can be sure that after the proof-reader has finished, if they have no queries, the article is ready to submit. Working with a pro-proof-reader means you are not going to be marked down or rejected for formatting or language. So, that means no waking up in cold sweats worrying about whether you had formatted your literature review correctly!

Don’t you hate it when you have a nightmare about whether your paragraphs are too long?
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6. Proof-readers can help you express yourself more precisely if you struggle with English.

If you are dyslexic or English isn’t your first language, it can be difficult to express your ideas succinctly. This is where an expert proof-reader can really help. They can remove clunky phrases, cut sentences down, and replace words to make your paper read beautifully.

So, instead of tearing your hair out over the final readthrough, why not put your feet up and let the Post-Graduate Proof-Reader get your paper ready for submission? 

Get the superhuman eyes of a proof-reader all over your paper!

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How to get your qualitative study ready for publication in five easy steps

Are you a postgrad student with a comprehensive, beautifully written qualitative thesis? You know your research deserves to be read by a wider audience, but after looking at journal word lengths, you’ve realised you’ll need to cut your gorgeous study in half (or maybe even quarters) to be eligible for publication.

How on earth can this be done?

Don’t panic! This blog will outline five easy steps to help you cut your study down into a bite-sized, publishable piece without losing any of the nuance you’ve put your blood, sweat and tears into.

1. Select a journal Think about audience, word-length and style

Before you even start thinking about making cuts to your precious study, the first thing to get straight is which journal you’re writing for. Who is your ideal audience? Do they have a key publication? If so, that could be the one for you. Run a quick search through your chosen journal’s archive to ensure they are open to qualitative publications; it will be a waste of your time and theirs to send your gorgeous IPA findings to a publication which only deals with stats.

Wow your audience with your awesome findings
Photo by Wendy Wei on Pexels

Once you’ve found your ideal journal, search their website for their instructions for authors, and note down their word length and style guidelines. Some journals might ask for a certain number of pages rather than a word length. Most will have requirements for font, point size and spacing, which you will do well to adopt from the outset so you don’t get a nasty shock when it turns out you have to double space the article you’ve spent hours getting down to 30 singlespaced pages.

2. Re-read your study What are the novel points? What will be of particular interest to your chosen journal’s audience?

Once you’ve selected your ideal journal, go back and re-read your study. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to fit all the findings from a master’s or PhD study into one paper, so think about which findings are the most novel, or which will appeal most to the audience of your chosen publication.

3. Choose two to three themes Which would work as an individual paper?

Feeling overwhelmed by words? The Post-Graduate Proof-Reader can help!
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You might have to make some big choices at this stage. Have you got five themes? Perhaps there will only be room in this paper to present two of those. Don’t worry – it could be that you could put the other three into a second paper for another audience. Maybe there’s just one theme that you feel is really hard-hitting. That’s fine too – you can pull that out of the study and present it alone.

4. Re-write your lit review and discussion Tailor these to your chosen themes

Once you’ve selected the theme/s you want to focus on for this paper, you’ll need to tailor the introduction, method and discussion sections to fit. Which papers from your lit review are relevant just for these fewer themes? Add a short section in your method explaining that you have (for example) selected two themes from a wider project, and explaining why you’ve chosen to do this. You might also want to include some recommendations and reflections towards the end of your discussion section.

5. Send your paper to the Post-Graduate Proof-Reader

Your study should be looking much more like a publishable paper now. It will be shorter and more tightly focused towards a specific audience. Congratulations! But… you may still be a little beyond that elusive word limit. Could you make your points more succinctly? Perhaps you don’t need all those limitations you’ve humbly included in your discussion section! Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes is needed at this stage. Visit and I’ll be happy to help you get your piece down to the correct word length and help you share your fabulous research with the wider world.