Tips for academic writing
Writing an academic manuscript can be daunting. There is a misconception that scientific papers must use either overly technical, or ‘flowery’ language. This misconception is probably driven by the fact that a lot of published papers do actually use overly technical and/or flowery language!
In order for research findings to be translated into practice, they need to be understood and appreciated by a wide audience. One the best ways to achieve this is by writing papers that are clear and concise. A well written paper makes the reader’s job easy, without ‘dumbing down’ the context.
While I’m certainly no expert, I have compiled a list of some tips I have found useful for good academic writing. I have to give credit to the former AusHSI director Professor Nick Graves who is a talented academic writer and has passed on a few of these tips to me:
- Just start! Procrastination is the enemy of writing. I find it helpful to remember that there is no such thing as perfection when it comes to writing; everyone will write in their own voice, and this is perfectly fine. Simply aim to communicate as clearly as possible. And as Jodi Picoult says: “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
- Use short words. Can you describe ‘utilisation’ as ‘use’? ‘Endeavour’ as ’try’? ‘Cognizant’ as ‘aware’?
- Vary your sentence lengths. This is probably the most useful piece of writing advice I’ve received. We’re often led to believe that long sentences are ‘bad’. But when used effectively, long sentences can develop tension and provide lively descriptions or communicate thorough investigation. Several long sentences running into each other is generally the problem. Short sentences can be powerful tools in your writing arsenal. They can show sudden events, summarise key ideas, or grab the attention of the reader. Short sentences often work well at the beginning and end of paragraphs.
- Write in the active voice. The active voice occurs when the subject of a sentence performs the verb’s action. It follows a clear subject + verb + object construct that’s easy to read and adds impact to writing. For example: “Monkeys adore bananas” or “We conducted a regression analysis”. This is in contrast to the passive voice, where the subject is acted on by the verb, e.g. “Bananas are adored by monkeys” or “A regression analysis was conducted”.
- Avoid jargon and acronyms. This is always a controversial one! To a reader outside your field, the use of jargon and acronyms can make your writing seem like a different language. In academic writing it’s almost impossible to avoid these things altogether, but being mindful can certainly help you cut back. If you are using a term that could be considered jargon, provide a lay definition when introducing the term. For acronyms, I like to use these general rules of thumb: no more than 3 acronyms per paper; no acronym necessary unless a term is mentioned at least 4 times and/or is overly lengthy to write out in full.
- Avoid brackets. Another controversial one! Unless brackets are being used as a convention in communicating results, such as reporting on p-values, odds ratios or confidence internals, they are generally a sign that you are communicating inefficiently. If you find yourself using brackets, consider whether you could rework the text to remove them and ideally cut down on the number of words.
- If it must be difficult, then help the reader. Sometimes complexity is unavoidable. If you find yourself using multiple sentences or paragraphs to explain a complex idea or relationship, consider drawing a picture. Figures or diagrams can often communicate complexity much more effectively than text.
- Include only what readers need to know, not everything you know. This comes down to considering your audience. What is relevant to them? The use of reporting guidelines via the Equator network provide a great basis for including what is necessary in an academic paper.