Make your­self clear: Joe Moran’s tips for bet­ter aca­demic writ­ing

Whether by ac­ci­dent or de­sign, schol­arly prose can be ver­bose and ob­scure. Joe Moran of­fers his top 10 tips for mak­ing aca­demic writ­ing a plea­sure to read

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Joe Moran is pro­fes­sor of English at Liver­pool John Moores Uni­ver­sity and the au­thor of First You Write a Sen­tence: The El­e­ments of Read­ing, Writ­ing…and Life (Vik­ing).

Aca­demics are of­ten ac­cused of writ­ing un­read­able, jar­gon-laden prose. This is un­fair. In my ex­pe­ri­ence, aca­demic writ­ers are al­most never wil­fully ob­scure, and write per­fectly well. But it is true that aca­demic writ­ing can feel un­con­ge­nial and ef­fort­ful to read. We don’t do it on pur­pose. Most of us would love to write in a more invit­ing way. But how to do this?

Here are some tips I have picked up, through trial and er­ror, over the years. I hope they will not sound too preachy. I start from the premise that we are all guilty: I have com­mit­ted all the “sins” listed be­low, and no doubt will con­tinue to do so.

1 Ra­tion nouns

Aca­demic writ­ing is nouny. In par­tic­u­lar, it tends to overuse a cer­tain kind of ab­stract noun called a nom­i­nal­i­sa­tion. A nom­i­nal­i­sa­tion takes a verb or ad­jec­tive and fos­silises it in­side a life­less noun, of­ten by adding a suf­fix such as ity, ism or ation. Terms such as ma­te­ri­al­ity, bipedal­ism or glo­cal­i­sa­tion are use­ful be­cause they pack a lot of in­for­ma­tion into one word. But they also trap ver­bal en­ergy in­side them, turn­ing dy­namic pro­cesses into static, taken-for-granted things. He­len Sword, di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for Learn­ing and Re­search in Higher Ed­u­ca­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of Auck­land and au­thor of Stylish Aca­demic Writ­ing (2012), calls them zom­bie nouns be­cause they “lum­ber across the scene with­out a con­scious agent di­rect­ing their mo­tion”.

Be wary also of fuzzy meta-nouns, words not for ac­tual things but for the cat­e­gories into which they fit, like is­sue, con­cept or no­tion. The same goes for noun strings, such as sup­ply chain re­source is­sues or web­site con­tent de­liv­ery plat­form, in which all nouns but the last re­tool as pseudo-ad­jec­tives.

All those man­age­ri­al­ist terms, such as teach­ing ex­cel­lence frame­work and work­load re­source al­lo­ca­tion user in­ter­face, should have taught us that no good ever comes of nouns strung to­gether. Noun-stuffed lan­guage has moved so far from the ver­bal vigour of speech

that it has lost all sense of a voice speak­ing to an au­di­ence. It feels in­ert, self-prov­ing and stale.

2 Use strong verbs

How do you breathe life into sen­tences clogged with nouns? Use verbs. Dis­in­ter the verbs buried in nom­i­nal­i­sa­tions and bring them back to life by re­verb­ing them. Un­spool the noun strings, restor­ing the proper links be­tween the nouns – by adding verbs.

Keep an eye on weaker, link­ing verbs such as to be. Too much to be prob­a­bly means that you are re­ly­ing on wordy set-ups like what is cru­cial here is and it could be said to. Or you are writ­ing is ap­pli­ca­ble to or is in­dica­tive of when you could be sav­ing words by us­ing stronger verbs like ap­plies and in­di­cates. Strong verbs give a sen­tence life and im­pe­tus, driv­ing it to­wards its full stop.

3 Avoid long noun phrases

Here is a com­mon ma­noeu­vre in aca­demic writ­ing. Take an ac­tion with a strong verb: Roo­sevelt re­fused Churchill’s of­fer to meet. Now turn it into a long noun phrase: Roo­sevelt’s re­fusal of Churchill’s of­fer to meet. And now sol­der that phrase to the rest of the sen­tence with a weak verb like re­sulted or led.

Sen­tences start­ing out with long noun phrases like this are a chore to read. The phrase be­comes a mo­tion­less word clump that puts the reader on hold un­til she has un­picked it all and got to the sen­tence’s driver, the main verb. Keep the sub­ject of the sen­tence short (prefer­ably one or two words) and ar­rive more quickly at the verb.

4 Count your prepo­si­tions

Aca­demic writ­ing likes to build up those long noun phrases by link­ing words with prepo­si­tions, as in “the x that needs to be read as lo­cated in an am­biva­lence around” or “the re­con­fig­u­ra­tion of x to pre­clude the pos­si­bil­ity of x”. When prepo­si­tions come thick and fast like this, the sen­tence turns into an ar­rhyth­mic rat­tle­bag of words. It just inches side­ways, crab-like, un­til it stops.

Prepo­si­tions are small, harm­less-look­ing words that cause un­told con­fu­sion be­cause they have so many roles. In limp writ­ing, prepo­si­tions shift in­vis­i­bly from ex­plain­ing lit­eral re­la­tion­ships to im­ply­ing metaphor­i­cal ones. Prepo­si­tions like as and with hint at con­nec­tions with­out mak­ing them clear.

A glut of prepo­si­tions also makes for dull sounds and rhythms – and prepo­si­tions are hard to weed out be­cause they are so small that they be­come in­vis­i­ble, like the dan­ger­ously ver­sa­tile of. Aca­demic writ­ing loves of phrases like in terms of, the role of or the process of. Too many ofs in a sen­tence means

that you are sta­ple-gun­ning nouns to­gether with too few verbs. Prepo­si­tions are a bad way of stitch­ing up long sen­tences be­cause they nei­ther con­nect phrases clearly, like con­junc­tions, nor separate them clearly, like punc­tu­a­tion. They are the worst of both worlds.

5 Curb the sub­or­di­nate clause

Aca­demic writ­ing likes to put the el­e­ments of a sen­tence in hi­er­ar­chi­cal order, by us­ing lots of sub­or­di­nate clauses. If this is the case, it says, then that may also be the case. Although that might be the case, so might this.

Sub­or­di­na­tion is an es­sen­tial part of sub­tle, lay­ered writ­ing. But long runs of sub­or­di­nated sen­tences feel leeched of life, their mo­tion halted by hi­er­ar­chy. They muf­fle the beat­ing heart of writ­ing, the sub­ject and main verb, with rid­ers and pro­vi­sos. A sen­tence gets its thrust by mov­ing from sub­ject to ac­tion; de­lay­ing or in­ter­rupt­ing this through­line.

Sen­tences filled with sub­or­di­na­tion are try­ing to spell out all the links be­tween the clauses. But they are more work for the reader, who has to think ahead and back to un­pick all the whiches, whens and thats. Erich Auer­bach, in his book Mime­sis, notes that “he opened his eyes and was struck” has more force than “when he opened his eyes, he was struck” or “upon open­ing his eyes, he was struck”. Of­ten, just set­ting clauses along­side each other, with­out sub­or­di­nat­ing one to the other, strength­ens the con­nec­tion you are try­ing to make.

So don’t start too many sen­tences with although, since or be­cause. Start with the main clause, fol­lowed by but or so. The reader will see the key point be­fore its qual­i­fi­ca­tion, and be grate­ful.

6 Use short words

Short words tend to be con­crete and paint clear pic­tures in the reader’s head. They also vary the vowel sounds and add to the num­ber of stressed syl­la­bles in a sen­tence, so that each word seems dis­tinct from its neigh­bour. Us­ing short words cuts down on schwa. Schwa is that lit­tle, in­dis­tinct sound in un­stressed syl­la­bles – such as the a in above or sofa. It lurks es­pe­cially in long words like nor­ma­tiv­ity and mo­nop­o­li­sa­tion. When you re­move al­most all a vowel’s en­ergy, schwa is what’s left.

Us­ing short words means that you are less likely to re­peat word ker­nels, the sounds that live in­side words. Un­in­tended echoes of pre­fixes and suf­fixes like con, ess or ation make for stodgy, schwa-sod­den prose. Aca­demic writ­ing’s clanki­est sounds come from its tate verbs, like ne­ces­si­tate and fa­cil­i­tate, and its shun nouns, like eval­u­a­tion and func­tion. The critic Richard Lan­ham calls such writ­ing “mum­ble­s­peak” be­cause its sounds are so samey. The quick­est cure for mum­ble­s­peak is shorter words.

7 Keep sen­tences short

Read­ing a sen­tence places a bur­den on your short-term me­mory be­cause you must hold all the dif­fer­ent parts of it in your head un­til the full stop brings them in to land. Chains of long sen­tences, even when they are clear and co­her­ent, are off­putting to even the most at­ten­tive reader. Af­ter about 25 words, a sen­tence is get­ting into its third or maybe the se­cond phrase af­ter a main clause. The reader’s me­mory starts to feel the strain.

Many writ­ers ig­nore the so­lu­tion star­ing back at them: add a full stop and start a new sen­tence. The full stop is the writer’s fail­safe and the reader’s friend, the giver of clar­ity and re­lief. It turns the words that pre­cede it into a self-suf­fi­cient whole and brings the thought to rest. How­ever pleas­ing a sen­tence is to read, its full stop, which de­clares that all the pars­ing is done and that we can now draw men­tal breath, comes as a re­lief. The reader has been lib­er­ated, briefly, from the work of read­ing.

When your ar­gu­ment is com­plex, it is cru­cial not to sad­dle your reader with over­long sen­tences, so that she can ex­pend her men­tal en­ergy on the ideas. There is no ev­i­dence, how­ever com­fort­ing its dis­cov­ery might be for those of us who find it hard to be easy, that dif­fi­culty in writ­ing is a mark of pro­fun­dity. More of­ten, long sen­tences are just over­grown grave­yards where un­con­vinc­ing ar­gu­ments are con­ve­niently buried.

8 Vary sen­tence length

There is noth­ing wrong with long sen­tences per se. Av­er­age sen­tence length, not some ar­bi­trary max­i­mum, is what counts. Long sen­tences are fine so long as they bump up against short ones. And when you vary sen­tence length like this, your writ­ing mag­i­cally fills with life and voice.

Writ­ing gets much of its rhythm from its full stops – or, more pre­cisely, its ca­dences. A ca­dence is what comes in mu­sic, speech or writ­ing at the end of each phrase. The reader hears a drop in pitch, a death-re­mind­ing fall, even if it sounds only in her head. This fall­ing ca­dence sig­nals that the sen­tence is done. Var­ied sen­tence length makes for var­ied gaps be­tween the full stops and thus var­ied ca­dences. This lets the writ­ing breathe and sing.

Short and long sen­tences also do dif­fer­ent things. Short sen­tences make key points or re­cap them. Long ones stretch out a thought and take the reader on a men­tal tour. Short sen­tences im­ply that the world is cut and dried. Long ones re­store its ragged edges. Vary your sen­tence length and you mir­ror the way the mind works, veer­ing be­tween se­duc­tive cer­tainty and hard-won nu­ance.

9 Cut con­nec­tives

Be­tween ev­ery sen­tence there is a tiny gap, marked by a full stop and a space, over which the logic must leap. If the gap is too wide, the sen­tences are cast adrift from each other and the reader flails around in a sea of un­re­lated thought. But if the gap is too nar­row, and the link be­tween the sen­tences cum­ber­some, your reader is be­ing spoon­fed a con­nec­tion she could have made on her own. Sen­tences need some space and si­lence be­tween them so that the reader can see the full stop and hear its sat­is­fy­ing click.

Aca­demic writ­ing links its sen­tences up too care­fully. It does this with lots of con­junc­tive ad­verbs, such as in­deed and there­fore, and lots of meta-com­ment like I want to sug­gest that. Of­ten you don’t need these tran­si­tions. The reader has al­ready spot­ted that you’ve said one thing and are now say­ing some­thing else. Writ­ers who write it is to this ques­tion that we now turn think they are help­ing their reader, but they are just giv­ing her more words to read.

Don’t un­der­es­ti­mate a reader’s abil­ity to as­sume an in­nate unity in a group of sen­tences and to fol­low un­aided the un­fold­ing thought. Where the reader needs help, light con­nec­tives such as yet and so will link up thoughts bet­ter than heav­ier ones like nev­er­the­less and there­fore. The word but can of­ten be cut, be­cause the sub­stance of the sen­tence makes the caveat clear enough. But us­ing but to start a sen­tence is, what­ever any­one else tells you, fine. It is usu­ally clearer and surer-sound­ing than an about-turn how­ever half­way in.

10 Re­mem­ber that writ­ing is a gift

Of­ten aca­demic writ­ing is too wa­ter­tight, too neu­rotic about purg­ing it­self of in­con­sis­ten­cies, too eager to in­oc­u­late the writer against the shame­ful dis­ease of naivety. We worry that our read­ers will be pick­ing end­less holes in what we say and for­get that we are try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate with them.

Writ­ing is as driven by ego­tism as any other hu­man act. But in the end it should be an act of gen­eros­ity, a gift from writer to reader – the gift of telling some­one else what you have learned or seen. In order to pass on that gift, it is some­times bet­ter to sound slightly less clever than you are.

Cut the reader some slack by clear­ing your prose of con­tin­ual nit­pick­ing. Good writ­ing in­volves care­ful thought but also a will­ing­ness to say what we think and risk be­ing ex­posed for our art­less­ness. It is done with a cold eye but an open heart.

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