In the first of a two-part blog post, PhD student and AuthorAID mentor Rachel Strohm shares her top tips on academic writing
Writing for publication is one of the most common activities in a scholar’s professional life – but often one of the most challenging. However, anyone can be a better writer if they work on expressing themselves clearly, and edit their work after writing. Improving the quality of your writing and editing also strongly increases your likelihood of getting an article accepted for publication.
Here are my top five tips on how to write clearly.
1. Use simple language
Many people feel that ‘real’ academic writing ought to include a lot of long words and complex sentences. In general, though, using long or obscure words makes it more difficult for the reader to understand what you’re saying.
The point of an academic article is not to show off your excellent vocabulary, but to give a clear summary of your excellent research findings. Look through the last paper you wrote and try to find words that could be replaced by simpler synonyms. Similarly, try to cut long sentences in half. If you’ve got a long sentence joined by a semi-colon, it will almost always be easier to understand if you split it into two separate sentences.
2. Be concrete
Many authors write in extremely general terms when introducing a topic at the beginning of their paper. For example, it’s common to come across sentences like: ‘I argue that democratic quality in Africa is rising because of increased civil society engagement’. But what is ‘democratic quality’? How do you define ‘civil society engagement’, and how do we know it’s increasing? And where in Africa, specifically?
A better strategy is to try to give your readers a vivid mental image of what you’re talking about. For example, instead of the generic sentence example above, you could say: “I find that the percentage of Kenyan citizens who went to a community meeting about fighting human rights abuses has increased by 20% since 2008. I also find citizens who attend these meetings are 15% more likely to contact their MPs to ask them to address human rights abuses. This shows that Kenyan citizens are using democratic institutions to try to solve problems in their communities. That is to say, democratic quality is rising because of increasing civil society engagement.”
Now, this is four sentences instead of one! But it also tells the reader exactly what you’re discussing – and it sounds much more interesting than a generic paper about ‘civil society engagement’.
3. When you’re organizing your paper, group related ideas together
This issue comes up fairly often in literature reviews. For example, an author might have one paragraph on Rwanda’s civil war, move on to a discussion of transitional justice after the war, and then add another paragraph on the war itself. It would make more sense to put the second paragraph on the war immediately after the first one.
Similarly, if you’re recounting the history of a country or a specific policy or programme, make sure that you give the reader a clear chronological accounting of the events you’re describing. This will also help you to catch instances where you might be able to group related ideas together.
4. Don’t repeat yourself
This is one of the most common problems I see. People often write an interesting sentence, then repeat the same idea, phrased slightly differently, later in the same paragraph. Re-read your most recent paper and try to see if there are any repeated phrases you can remove.
Repetition is a particular concern for the concluding section of a paper. Many authors repeat their introduction almost word for word. It’s more interesting to use the conclusion to discuss future research questions that spring from your paper. This also shows that you’ve got lots of good research ideas beyond the ones you’ve discussed in your current paper.
5. Write a clear and compelling abstract
The abstract is your chance to get readers interested in your idea. The most important tip I can give here is to clearly state your research question and your findings up front.
Here’s an easy format for the abstract. The first sentence should be your research question. (Or, if it’s necessary for the reader to understand your question, add one sentence before that providing some context for your question.) The next sentence or two will summarize the existing scholarly consensus on the topic, and explain why this leaves some important issues unexamined. The next sentence should summarize your research methods. The final sentence should include your research findings.
Read Rachel’s top tips for editing your academic writing next week in Part 2.
Rachel Strohm is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also a co-founder of the Mawazo Institute, a non-profit which helps East African women launch careers as scholars and policy experts. She has been an active AuthorAID mentor since 2015.