To be successful, an academic book or research paper first
needs to be well written.
and style - the keys to good writing
Whether you are self publishing, using the
services of a
traditional publisher, or a hybrid between the two, the quality of your
writing, the style you use, and your use of English grammar will play a
major part in the way your book is received. There are two principal
sides to any piece of writing, the content
and the container. The content is what you
are writing about, the container
is how you write – and it should go without saying that if the
container is unattractive, i.e. badly written, poorly checked, or in an
inappropriate style, the content will be less visible....and maybe less
Most writers want readers to read more than the first few pages or
paragraphs of their book; to ensure that they do, and to encourage them
to read on, a book must be writtent in a language that
is easy to follow, and appropriate. What does this mean for
academic texts, and indeed for writing in general? To find out, read
guide below is not
concerned with a book's content. It looks at the three critical
linguistic parameters of any piece of writing, in order of importance:
style, and vocabulary.
1 - GRAMMAR
It ought to be self-evident to any writer
that the correct use of grammar is vital. And correct use of grammar
does not just meen using a built-in grammar checker or running a text
through an online tool. Automated checkers are far from 100% reliable,
particularly when it comes to evaluating sentences that express complex
or technical ideas. They are one tool in a writer's arsenal, but not
the only one.
More important than automated
grammar checkers is the writer's command of English grammar in the
first place. From understanding such basic things as distinguishing
betweeen there, their
to correct use of punctuation and word order, not to mention tenses, it
is advisable for the writer to not just know about
but also understand
the essentials of English grammar.
All writers should possess at least one, if not more, reference
books that can be quickly and easily turned to
in order to
check out points of grammar and expression as the writing progresses.
- For a compact reference
with clear explanations and lots of examples, a good recent book is
Rossiter's Descriptive Grammar of English,
which covers all the essentials of English grammar (e-book and print).
- For a more substantial work
that goes into English grammar in far greater detail, Swan's Practical English Usage is a good
choice (print only).
2 - STYLE
To illustrate the question of style, just compare these three
- Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, the tragic story of two
young people who fall in love.
was the author of Romeo and Juliet, the play in which he recounts the
story of two young people who embark on an amorous adventure
which leads to a tragic conclusion.
- Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, which is about two
young lovers who come to a sticky end.
three sentences provide us with the same information, but they do so in
different ways. The first example is brief, understandable, and to the
point. The second is long-winded, using twice as many words as the
first sentence, but providing little more real information. The third
is catchy, but is in a style more appropriate to casual speaking than
In academic or technical writing,
content is paramount. Or to rephrase the last sentence, "content is the
most important consideration" . This rephrasing is deliberate, as it
again shows how choice of words can affect the clarity of a sentence. "Content is paramount
is a clear, neat expression... just as long as the reader understands
the meaning of paramount
"Content is the most
is an expression that avoids
using a word that some readers may not understand, but in doing so
requires more words to do so.
Looking back at the three examples above, some writers
books or papers may imagine that the second version is in a more
academic style, because it uses more words, and more erudite words such
as recount, embark
This is not true: the expressions "academic style" and "long-winded
style" are not synonymous, and adding extra superfluous and more
"erudite" words does not make a sentence easier to read, but harder.
If there is one common requirement that often has a devastating effect
on academic writing, it is the need for texts or papers to have "at
least xxx words" or at least a certain number of pages; this is an open
invitation to useless verbosity, as if the length of a paper or book
was somehow an indication of its quality. The two are completely
unrelated, and authors publishing their own work should always remember
People have written whole books on style in academic writing. While
these may be of interest to copy-editors and PhD students with
demanding supervisors, they are superfluous to the needs of most
writers who have a basic understanding of English grammar, and of what
"style" is all about. For them, it is sufficient to remember, and then
apply, a few simple principles.
- Observe the rules and standards of contemporary English
- Keep your writing as clear as possible, avoiding verbosity
and over-long sentences.
- Make sure that successive sentences are clearly related to
each other, so that readers follow the flow and the argument.
- Write in a style that is appropriate to written English,
not in the style of casual conversational English.
And that's it.
3 - VOCABULARY
It should be obvious from the paragraphs above on style, that questions
of vocabulary and style are very much interlinked, when it
comes to academic writing.
discipline has is specific vocabulary, its "jargon". Now while the term
jargon is often used in a pejorative sense, its primary meaning is not
pejorative. Jargon is just the essential technical or domain-specific
vocabulary which is used for writing or talking about a discipline,
and its use may be required in any type of academic writing.
However writers need to balance their use of jargon in function of
their intended readers. While some academic texts are written solely
for the benefit of specialists, others may target learners or students,
and others may be aimed at a more general readership including those
will not be familiar with the specialist jargon. A writer's use of
jargon must therefore take account of the intended readership, with the
rule being to avoid using words that readers will not understand.
This indeed is the number one rule of all academic writing. Avoid terms
that readers may not understand, since they cannot contribute to the
legibility of what you are writing.
Academic or technical writers who understand and apply the rules and
principles set out on this page should be able to produce books and
papers that are easy to understand by any reader with the technical
Academic writing should be
clear and to the point. Its aim is to allow readers to understand the
content, and to show that the writer is competent in their field. Its
aim is not to demonstrate the writer's command of erudite vocabulary
and ability to write long complex sentences.
Footnote. More on style.
A Descriptive Grammar of English
has a very understandable section on style, section 4.8, which
has more examples showing how the same message can be
expressed in different styles from the very formal to the very
informal, along with explanations to demonstrate the features that are
characteristic of different levels of style.
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