You’ve spent months toiling in the lab, you’ve wrangled with SPSS or IPA or FDA or one of those other acronyms that make your family’s eyes glaze over. Finally, you’re ready to write up your fascinating findings.
It’s one thing to bore the pants off your family, but how can you stop your audience’s eyes glazing over? How can you keep those examiners or reviewers or students turning pages?
Academic writing has a reputation for being dry and hard to struggle through, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I am the post-graduate proof-reader. I’m a qualitative psychologist and novel writer, and I’ve proofed more PhDs than you’ve had hot toddies, so I know how to make formal language sing. Here are my five easy fixes.
- Present your text professionally.
Align your work to the left. Justifying leaves unsightly spaces between words – spaces which, when I worked on magazines, we used to fill with unnecessary ‘buts’ and ‘whys’ and ‘therefores’. Do everyone a favour and hit align left. This simple step will make your eyes sigh with relief.
Inserting returns between your paragraphs is another stunningly easy fix which will have your examiners smiling. It’s easier to read text that’s spaced out than words which are crammed together.
- Break up those unwieldy sentences
Postgraduate work is brain-breaking stuff. Sometimes our ideas are complex and feel too big to be hemmed in by such bourgeois notions as short sentences. As you start writing, you might find that your ideas run on and on. That’s fine for a first draft, but always go back and try to divide those monstrous marathons up. Look for where you’ve used the word ‘and’. Can you delete it and start a sentence? Can you delete it? Start a new sentence? (See? It’s simple.) Your readers will thank you.
- Omit needless words (Strunk, 2007)
No matter what you’re writing – an epic poem, the great British novel, a paper on the latest discoveries about the phonological loop – William Strunk’s famous edict applies. Effective writing is concise.
Mistakes I see a lot include writing ‘all of the participants’ where ‘all participants’ would do; ‘appears to suggest’ where ‘suggests’ works well; or ‘For P1, the experience of rain was distressing’ where ‘P1 found the rain distressing’ is far more elegant.
- Avoid informal words
This one is a bit trickier as you have to learn which words don’t work in a formal environment. However, as with all writing – academic or creative – it helps to be specific. Don’t say ‘things’ when what you mean is ‘negative elements’. Avoid the word ‘normal’, especially if you’re talking about people, as it implies that some people are abnormal. And never use the word ‘very’. Your writing will sound stronger without it. Trust me!
For more on this topic, check out our top tips for formal writing.
- Employ the post-graduate proof-reader
If all this sounds knackering and you just want to get back to writing your next grant application or maybe even watching a bit of Killing Eve with your long-suffering spouse, fear not. Just get in touch with the post-graduate proof-reader and I can help you complete all these fixes and many more so that your academic writing becomes something to write home about.