An academic’s guide to writing well

Scholarly prose can be verbose and unclear, and can obscure the point you are trying to make. Joe Moran offers his top 10 tips for writing well

October 4, 2018
Owl with pen nib as beak
Source: Alamy

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 over-long 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.

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).

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Limber up your write brain

Reader's comments (6)

Really struck by one of the opening sentences of your introduction: "Then I look at it and say it aloud, to see if it sings." I explore the music/words connection in 'How Writing Works: From the invention of the alphabet to the rise of social media.' I wish I could write like you though!
Whatever the audience you are writing for, try reading what you have written aloud. If you run out of breath the sentence is too long! If you were explaining whatever you have to say to an intelligent non-specialist in that area, how would you go about it? Aim for that kind of lucidity, especially in introductions and conclusions.
I refer you to my THE article "Clunky writing is proof positive of lazy thinking", published June 2 2006. You can find it with Search (the magnifying glass icon at the top of the page). The social aspect of bad academic writing is discussed in D.G.Myers's "Bad Writing", published in 1999. It can be found on the internet.
Helpful article in terms of what NOT to do, although written with its own linguistic, slightly impassable jargon for the non English scholar. It would be great to see some examples of what GOOD writing looks like, rather than just what not to do.
Your comment has made me go to my bookshelves and among the philosophy books (for philosophy is often weighed down by unreadable abstraction and endless footnotes) I would recommend for good style John Searle's Minds, Brains & Science, Thomas Nagel's What Does It All Mean?, and Rom Harré's The Philosophies of Science. Also, of course, anything by me!
Regarding point #10, it is reviewers who are likely to try to pick holes in what we have to say, and because of whom the connectives (point #9) are required. It would be lovely to assume that reviewers would stop to think about how two ideas are related, but experiences teaches that it is safer to spell it out. Often, reviewers will preface a request with a remark to the effect of "I understood what you were saying, but it might be clearer to others if...".

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