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