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!

Photo by Filipe Furtado on Unsplash

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.

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!
Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

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 http://postgradproofreader.co.uk/ 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.