A Guestblog by Ms. Glenna Jenkins, Expert on Peerwith since March 2016
You have checked the journal guidelines, written your outline, and meticulously drafted each section of your paper. You have read and revised and re-read and re-revised. Now what? This blog post addresses some of the issues I commonly see in academic papers. They include:
- Passive voice
- Run-on sentences
- Missing or incomplete information
- Missing connections between paragraphs and/or sections
- Use of subjective language
- Lack of connection between paragraphs and sections
- Pronouns that are difficult to identify
Active versus passive voice
In active voice, the subject of the action leads the sentence. This technique focuses the reader’s attention on the subject being discussed. It also makes the writing clear, concise, more direct and easier to read than passive voice.
Passive voice: A board of financial advisors was established by the University of British Columbia.
Active voice: The University of British Columbia established a board of financial advisors.
Passive voice: In 1853, the Galapagos Islands were studied by Charles Darwin.
Active voice: In 1853, Charles Darwin studied the Galapagos Islands.
Note that, in each case of passive voice, the sentence is awkward and wordier. To detect passive voice, note whether the subject of the action follows the word ‘by’.
Passive voice is used when the doer of the action is either unknown or unspecific (politicians often use passive voice when sidestepping an issue), or when the writer/presenter wishes to emphasize the action rather than the doer of the action (newscasts are often presented in passive voice).
Example: The Canadian coastguard vessel the Pierre Trudeau was sent to the Northwest Passage to rescue six whales trapped in ice.
In the above case, readers don’t need to know that skipper Wayne was at the helm. However, if there were scientists aboard and their task was to investigate why and how the whales became trapped, then readers will need to know this. Add these scientists and give them a role and the sentence is now in the active voice.
Example: Marine biologists Smith and Jones travelled on the Canadian coastguard vessel the Pierre Trudeau to discover how a pod of whales became trapped in ice in the Northwest Passage.
This leads us to our next topic.
In Eight-step Editing, Jim Taylor notes that any sentence that is longer than twenty words is a calculated risk in terms of losing your readers (Taylor, 2012), like this one—at thirty-six words—most likely did. The following sentence would work much better:
Using sentences longer than twenty words risks losing your readers.
A rule of thumb is to read each sentence aloud. If you have to take a breath before reaching to the end, then it is probably too long. One way to shorten a sentence is to redraft it, and use fewer words, as was done above. Another way is to split the sentence in two.
Run-on: This study aims to evaluate rates of unemployment for older workers compared to those of younger workers and to assess other socio-demographic factors that are associated with unemployment.
Better: This study aims to evaluate rates of unemployment among older workers relative to younger workers. It also investigates other socio-demographic factors associated with unemployment.
Another effective writing technique is to follow one or more long sentences with a short one. This emphasizes the short one.
Many economists consider the theories of Keynes to be both revolutionary and relevant, even today. However, many disagree.
A discussion on run-on sentences naturally leads to other matters of writing, such as wordiness, circumlocution, redundancies, poor sentence construction, and weak verbs. These all contribute to unnecessary clutter.
In On Writing Well, William Zinsser tells us, “writing improves in direct relationship to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.” He then notes that, when you examine your writing, you will find that a surprising number of words serve no purpose.
Keep in mind that readers of academic papers are busy people; therefore, these papers must be clear and concise. This means using as few words as possible without taking away from the intended meaning. It also means assessing every word used for the amount of weight it carries.
Zinsser advocates eliminating 50% of every first draft. This seems extreme, especially for educated writers. However, most good writers will delete large portions of a first draft. I advocate doing a word count after the second draft and then cutting a further 20%.
Eliminating repetitions cuts down on clutter. This is easy. Simply go through your paper and note where there are repeated words. Try not to use the same noun or verb twice in the same sentence. Using a thesaurus helps here. However, be sure that the alternative word chosen still meets your intended meaning.
Another way to cut down clutter is to be sure that sentences, passages, and paragraphs are not repeated. Go through your paper and highlight them. Then decide on the one section where they would best fit.
Other instances of clutter are not so obvious. They include sentences that circle around points instead of being direct; wordiness; redundancies; the use of “there” and “it”, followed by the verb “to be”; and the use of other weak verbs. These should all be avoided.
Circumlocution can be avoided by being more direct. This often means also cutting down on wordiness and addressing redundancies.
Example of circumlocution in a sentence:
In spite of the fact that a large proportion of parents are at this point in time of the opinion that schools need trained professional nurses, there is a serious danger that funding for these jobs will be eliminated altogether in the not too distant future. [46 words]
Although many parents believe that schools need nurses, funding for these jobs may soon be eliminated. [16 words]
Circumlocutions in phrases:
a large proportion of = many
are in possession of = have
at this point in time = now
in spite of the fact that = although
in the not too distant future = soon
in the vicinity of = near
in this day and age = today
take into consideration. = consider
was witness to = saw
adequate enough = adequate
major breakthrough = breakthrough
big in size = big
of importance = important
bisect in two = bisect
still persists = persists
close proximity = close
plan in advance = plan
eliminate altogether = eliminate
total annihilation = annihilation
few in number = few
trained professional = professional
warn in advance = warn
violent explosion = explosion
(All of the above examples can be found in Einsohn, 2006, p. 386-7)
The expletive is a construction that uses “there” and “it” followed by the verb “to be.”
Using this structure weakens writing.
Wordy: There are many people who believe that the government is responsible for the high unemployment rate.
Concise: Many people blame the government for the high unemployment rate.
The most commonly used verbs are: to be, to have, to give, and to make. When combined with nouns, they can create long sentences. Replacing them with stronger verbs solves this problem.
Weak: It was stipulated in the quarterly plan that the department was required to do a thorough assessment of the changes that were made to service delivery.
Strong: The quarterly plan stipulated that the department must thoroughly assess the changes to service delivery.
Weak: Public affairs officers have, as one of their responsibilities, the resolution of any factual errors or misconceptions that could have an impact on public misunderstanding.
Strong: Public affairs officers must resolve any factual errors or misconceptions that could contribute to public misunderstanding.
(See, Peck, 2016)
Missing or incomplete information
Scholars are generally well grounded in their subject area. As a result, they may sometimes unintentionally leave out or gloss over information that could clarify certain facts or add more depth to their papers’ main discussions. This can occur when a subject is common knowledge for one specific population but not for another. For example, a paper on the North American Free Trade Agreement might mention the softwood lumber dispute but not give some background on it. Here, the author is assuming that readers will know about this on-going issue when, in fact, its origins date back so far that most Canadians have forgotten about it. Two sentences would clear this up for readers and give more context to the present negotiations.
Use of subjective language
Subjective language is emotive language. It is based on the writer’s personal values, beliefs, preferences and observations. Academic writing calls for objective writing. Here, the aim is to present the evidence and let the reader form his or her own opinions about whether it is interesting, important, obvious, misguided, or uninspiring, etc.
Examples of words and terms used in subjective language include the following:
- It is in my opinion that
- A misguided theory
- The results of this study are uninspiring
- Of course
- It is interesting to note
- One look at the results will show
- It would be better to use
- This is also true and obvious
- The literature includes many interesting articles
- An important fact
Pronouns that are difficult to find
This occurs when the pronouns “it”, “them” and “they” are placed at some distance from the nouns they are associated with. It also occurs when these pronouns are repeatedly used with no reference being made back to the nouns they are associated with.
Lack of connection between paragraphs and sections
Brief segues between paragraphs give the reading clarity and flow. Segues between sections alert the reader about the next topic or subtopic to be discussed. This technique is standard in good writing. It also helps the reader anchor subtopics to the main topic and follow the discussion more easily.
Addressing the above issues will make your paper more clear and concise. It will also mean that your editor can focus on other, less obvious issues. Perhaps he or she will also catch a few of the above items you might have missed. This will result in a much better paper and success in publication.
Einsohn, Amy, 2006, The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London.
Peck, Francis, 2016. Peck’s English Pointers:
Pinker, Steven, 2014, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Penguin Books, London, UK.
Zinsser, William, 2006, On Writing Well, HarperCollins, NY, NY.
Get in touch with Ms. Glenna M. Jenkins and request her assistance via her Peerwith expert page: http://peerwith.expert/glennamjenkins