Writing like you drive
This and the following section discuss sentence-level composition, the kinds of things that many people associate with “writing.” Writing guides, especially those targeted at college students, offer excellent advice on sentence construction and word choice. However, many student writers get hung up on sentence-level expression, thinking that only elegant, erudite sentences will earn top grades. Or worse, some students assume that they’ll never produce strong papers if they do not already have some kind of inborn gift for wordsmithing. While it is true that some people can produce extraordinarily elegant and graceful prose, it is also true that anyone can learn to write effectively in ways that will persuade and satisfy readers. Producing and reading elegant writing is a pleasure, but what really matters in academic writing is precision.
Focusing first or only on sentence-level issues is a troublesome approach. Doing so is like driving while looking only at the few feet of the road right in front of the bumper. Experienced drivers instead take in the larger scene and more effectively identify and avoid potential hazards with ongoing course corrections. Writing well is like that. When you’ve put in the time and effort to take in the bigger picture of your analysis, most of the micro-scale moves happen automatically. That is, if you have a well-developed thesis and a carefully sequenced argument organized into cohesive and coherent paragraphs, many of the sentence-level issues take care of themselves. It’s easier to write effective sentences when their purpose is clear. You’ll still have to edit for clarity, concision, and mechanics, but if the thinking process behind the writing is well developed, editing shouldn’t be a huge chore. It can actually be a satisfying part of the process. One common metaphor notes that a good edit is like the last twist of a camera lens that brings the whole picture into focus.
One approach that often leads to a difficult writing process and a clunky result is the pursuit of “academese”: an effort to write in an ornamented and “scholarly” way. As Michael Harvey explains1, the desire to sound more academic might prompt a student to write “To satisfy her hunger for nutrition, she ate the bread” rather than simply “She was hungry, so she ate the bread.” It is true that a lot of academic writing is laden with unnecessary jargon, but the culture is shifting among scholars to favor plainer language and insist on clarity. Your professors are much more likely to find a self-consciously highbrow writing style tedious than impressive. As the saying goes2, any fool can make simple things complicated; it takes a genius to make complicated things simple.
This section was written to help you see those habits for yourself and, most importantly, how your readers experience them. If you’ve fallen prey to habits of academese, this chapter should help you develop a more straightforward writing style, one well-suited to nuanced thinking and effective communication. And while you should not think of sentence-level wordsmithing as some kind of abstract, enchanted virtue, you need to understand that clarity and concision are more than aesthetics. Convoluted or wordy prose may contain some insightful or intriguing ideas, but if you can render those ideas in clear and concise prose, then you will inevitably develop those ideas even further in the course of writing. Unclear and bloated prose isn’t just tedious to your reader; it’s a needless obstacle to your own thinking.
One of our professors’ primary reasons for assigning writing assignments is to evaluate how thoroughly we have digested the assigned reading material and lectures. They are not as interested in our ability to write Shakespearean prose as they are in our ability to absorb information, wrestle with it until we can comprehend it, and then convey that understanding logically in writing. This is why writing assignments often start something like, “Drawing on Locke’s narrative …” or “Given what you’ve read about Darth Vader’s aversion to democratic governance … .”
It is important to note that this process presupposes that we actually read the assigned readings and take notes during class lectures and discussions. Unsurprisingly, the hardest writing assignments I have had in college were the ones for which I was least prepared. I can try my darnedest to write beautifully, but if I have not put in the necessary time to actually read (and reread) the assigned material, I will have nothing meaningful to say and my professors will see straight through my bloviating.
That being said, the writing process is actually a highly effective exercise for digesting material and developing a cohesive argument. Often it is not until I start writing that I realize the holes in my thinking and the areas that I need to go back and study more thoroughly. This chapter provides many great practical pointers for editing our papers in order to produce clear, refined arguments and should be returned to frequently.
The best way to achieve clarity and concision in writing is to separate the drafting process from the revision process. Highly effective writers routinely produce vague, tortuous, and bloated drafts, and are happy to do so. It usually means that they’re onto an interesting idea. Similarly, writers often write the same idea three or four different ways as they’re getting their thoughts down on paper. That’s fine. In fact, that’s better than fine because each repetition helps to develop key ideas and alternative approaches to the argument. A snarly first draft is often a great achievement. One just needs to take the time to develop relevant ideas and make them clear to the reader. For that reason, the following section is written as though someone has already cranked out a very rough draft and is now in the process of revising for clarity and concision.
Revising for clarity: who did what to whom?
What makes a complex line of thinking easy to follow? The tricks of cohesion and coherence, discussed in 4.1, are a big help. Williams and Bizup offer another key point. They explain that readers experience writing as clear when the “character” of a sentence is also its grammatical subject and the key “action” is a grammatical verb. They provide this fanciful example:3
Once upon a time, as a walk through the woods was taking place on the part of Little Red Riding Hood, the Wolf’s jump out from behind a tree caused her fright.
Grammatically, the subject of the first part is “a walk through the woods,” and the verb is “taking place.” The character, though, is obviously Little Red Riding Hood and the action is walking. A much more straightforward version—“As Little Red Riding Hood walked through the woods”—makes the character the subject and the action the key verb. That example goes out of its way to be silly, but consider this example from a website offering free college papers:4
Another event that connects the colonist and the English together is the event of a hated King in England trying to take away freedom and go back to the old ways. The idea of how much power the King had struck Parliament. After that, the Parliament and the people made the King sign the Magna Carta, which limits the amount of power the King has. The Magna Carta also affected the rights of the American colonies. It practically took away all relationships between the King and the colonies. After the relationship was broken, America broke off from England.
Apparently, the author is claiming that the colonists (in the 1700s?) pushed back against the power of the English crown in a manner similar to the Parliamentarians in 1215 (after having apparently been “struck” by an “idea” of “how much power the King had”). Grammatically, the subjects are an “event” and an “idea” rather than the characters, colonists, the king, and Parliament. The third sentence is refreshingly straightforward in structure (though vague on details). The fifth and sixth sentences are fairly straightforward, but also incredibly vague: the Magna Carta predated the American colonies by at least 400 years5; how does that document relate to the American Revolution? The last sentence essentially says that after the relationship was broken, the relationship was broken. If the author were to rewrite the passage to make the grammatical subjects match the characters, he or she would be prompted to clarify what exactly the king, the Parliament, the English populace, and the American colonists did (and to whom), something which the author of the above passage may not actually understand. This example illustrates how clarifying “who did what to whom” for the reader also makes writers clarify it for themselves. Writing clearly involves thinking clearly, and clear rigorous thinking is why your professors assign you writing in the first place.
While the Magna Carta example is comically bad, here’s one that is more or less logical but would still benefit from greater clarity:
IgE-dependent allergic hypersensitivity reactions such as allergic asthma and food allergy involve mast cells which are typically regarded as troublesome cells as a result. Further, the allergic sensitization-processes also involves a role for mast cells. Recent findings show that their functionality is not only pro-inflammatory, but can on the contrary have suppressive or immunomodulatory effects in allergic inflammation.
The above passage isn’t a terrible slog, and it’s fairly clear that the whole passage is about mast cells. But here’s a version of the same passage—the real version as it were—which demonstrates that the passage feels a lot clearer when mast cells, the “characters” driving the narrative, are also the grammatical subject of the sentence and the referent for the key verbs:6
Mast cells are typically regarded as troublesome cells due to their prominent role in IgE-dependent allergic hypersensitivity reactions such as allergic asthma and food allergy. Further, it seems that mast cells are also able to play an additional role in the allergic sensitization-processes. Recent findings show that mast cell functionality is not only pro-inflammatory, but can on the contrary have suppressive or immunomodulatory effects in allergic inflammation.
Both versions of the passage are consistently about mast cells, but the second version makes that consistency much more obvious to readers as mast cells are the main character of every sentence. That clear consistency allows us to devote more of our brain power to recalling technical terms (like immunomodulatory) and comprehending the key ideas. That makes it both easier and more interesting to read.
To further illustrate the principle, let’s take a nicely straightforward passage and rewrite it so that the characters are objects (rather than subjects) and the actions are nouns7 (rather than verbs). Here’s the nicely clear original:8
What most people really feel nostalgic about has little to do with the internal structure of 1950s families. It is the belief that the 1950s provided a more family-friendly economic and social environment, an easier climate in which to keep kids on the straight and narrow, and above all, a greater feeling of hope for a family’s long-term future, especially for its young.
In these two sentences, the character is a belief rather than a person or thing. However, the passage is still clear to the reader because it keeps the character consistent and explains what that character does (creates nostalgia) to who (people at large). Imagine if the author wrote this instead:
People feel nostalgic not about the internal structure of 1950s families. Rather, the beliefs about how the 1950s provided a more family-friendly economic and social environment, an easier climate in which to keep kids on the straight and narrow, and above all, a greater feeling of hope for a family’s long-term future (especially for its young) are what lead to those nostalgic feelings.
This second version says substantially the same thing, but it’s tedious to read because the character changes abruptly from “people” to “beliefs” (which works against cohesion) and one has to get to the end of the sentence to learn how these beliefs fit in. The key point is this: one of the best things you can do to revise for greater clarity is to recast a passage so that the characters are the grammatical subjects and the key actions are the verbs.
Concision and grace
4.2 on introductions and conclusions notes the importance of concision, as those framing parts of the paper are often the most egregiously bloated. The general rule introduced there holds for any writing: every word and sentence should be doing some significant work for the paper as a whole. Sometimes that work is more to provide pleasure than meaning—you needn’t ruthlessly eliminate every rhetorical flourish—but everything in the final version should add something unique to the paper. As with clarity, the benefits of concision are intellectual as well as stylistic: revising for concision forces writers to make deliberate decisions about the claims they want to make and their reasons for making them.
Michael Harvey9 notes that fluffy, wordy prose does not necessarily result from an underdeveloped writing process. Sometimes it reflects the context of academic writing:
[M]any of us are afraid of writing concisely because doing so can make us feel exposed. Concision leaves us fewer words to hide behind. Our insights and ideas might appear puny stripped of those inessential words, phrases, and sentences in which we rough them out. We might even wonder, were we to cut out the fat, would anything be left? It’s no wonder, then, that many students make little attempt to be concise—[and] may, in fact, go out of their way not to be … .
Effortful thinking is something most people naturally try to avoid most of the time. It’s both arduous and anxiety provoking to go beyond existing knowledge and assumptions to venture into unknown territory. In some ways, too, the general structure of education conditions students to approach papers as blanks to be filled rather than open-ended problems to explore. When students actively avoid concision, it’s often because they want to avoid the hard thinking concision requires, they assume that writing is all about expressing opinions rather than undertaking a rigorous thought process, or they fear that they can’t adequately perform and communicate an ambitious analysis.
- Look for words and phrases that you can cut entirely. Look for bits that are redundant: (“each and every,” “unexpected surprise,” “predictions about the future”), meaningless (“very unique,” “certain factors,” “slightly terrifying”), or clichéd (“as far as the eye can see,” or “long march of time”).
- Look for opportunities to replace longer phrases with shorter phrases or words. For example, “the way in which” can often be replaced by “how” and “despite the fact that” can usually be replaced by “although.” Strong, precise verbs can often replace bloated phrases. Consider this example: “The goal of Alexander the Great was to create a united empire across a vast distance.” And compare it to this: “Alexander the Great sought to unite a vast empire.”
- Try to rearrange sentences or passages to make them shorter and livelier. Williams and Bizup11 recommend changing negatives to affirmatives. Consider the negatives in this sentence: “School nurses often do not notice if a young schoolchild does not have adequate food at home.” You could more concisely and clearly write, “School nurses rarely notice if a young schoolchild lacks adequate food at home.” It says the same thing, but is much easier to read which makes for a happier and more engaged reader.
Good parallelism can also help you write shorter text that better conveys your thinking. For example, Stacy Schiff writes this in her best-selling biography of Cleopatra12:
A goddess as a child, a queen at eighteen, a celebrity soon thereafter, she was an object of speculation and veneration, gossip and legend, even in her own time.
Imagine if, instead, Schiff wrote this:
Cleopatra was seen as divine when she was a child. She became the sovereign ruler at eighteen, and she became well known throughout the ancient world early in her reign. People speculated about her, worshipped her, gossiped about her, and told legends about her, even in her own time.
The second version says the same thing, but the extra words tend to obscure Schiff’s point. The original (“goddess as a child, queen at eighteen, celebrity soon thereafter”) effectively uses parallelism to vividly convey the dramatic shifts in Cleopatra’s roles and her prominence in the ancient world.
Reading with concision and grace in mind
There is less tolerance for academese than there used to be in scholarly communities; however, a lot of landmark texts were written in a time when there wasn’t such a high value placed on clarity and concision. In your studies, then, you will probably have to engage with important texts that violate almost all the advice given here.
Consider the following example from Talcott Parsons, a sociological theorist noted for both his intellectual force and utterly impenetrable writing style. In reading this passage, 13 imagine “ego” and “alter” as two people interacting:
Communication through a common system of symbols is the precondition of this reciprocity or complementarity of expectations. The alternatives which are open to alter must have some measure of stability in two respects: first, as realistic possibilities for alter, and second, in their meaning to ego. This stability presupposes generalization from the particularity of the given situations of ego and alter, both of which are continually changing and are never concretely identical over any two moments in time. When such generalization occurs, and actions, gestures, or symbols have more or less the same meaning for both ego and alter, we may speak of a common culture existing between them, through which their interaction is mediated.
Here’s a version after Guptill edited for concision using the three moves described above:
Reciprocity, or complementary expectations, depends on a common system of symbols. The symbolic alternatives for alter must be stable, in that they are both realistic for alter and meaningful to ego. That is, actions, gestures, or symbols must have a shared and persistent meaning for ego and alter even though ego and alter are in different situations and are constantly changing. When meanings are shared and persistent, we may say that the interaction between alter and ego is mediated by a common culture.
The revised version is about 30 percent shorter, and it demonstrates how concision makes one’s points come through more clearly. You will almost certainly have to read works of authors who did not prioritize clarity and concision (or even cohesion and coherence), and that’s a drag. But knowing how wordiness interferes with clarity can help you distill essential meanings from challenging texts. In many ways, writing well and reading incisively are two facets of the same cognitive skill set.
Academic writing is not wholly utilitarian. An elegant and apt turn of phrase is satisfying both to write and to read. While you can’t often summon elegance out of nowhere, you can learn a few structures that are often pleasing to the reader’s ear because they harmonize what you’re saying with how you’re saying it.14 Here are two rhetorical tricks that you can use to reinforce your points.
- Balance. Readers often find balanced sentences and phrases pleasing. The Cleopatra example above (“goddess as a child, queen at eighteen, celebrity soon thereafter”) illustrates parallelism, which is one kind of balance: using parallel structures to convey a parallel idea. This parallelism not only helps Schiff be powerfully concise, it quickly and vividly conveys the idea that Cleopatra led a remarkable life. Williams and Bizup15 offer another example of an elegant sentence in which the two parts are balanced in their structure:
A government that is unwilling to listen to the moderate hopes of its citizenry must eventually answer to the harsh justice of its revolutionaries.
The same sentence with the parallel parts marked:A government that is unwilling to listen to the moderate hopes of its citizenry must eventually answer to the harsh justice of its revolutionaries.
The balanced structure and contrasting language reinforces the author’s either-or point: “listen” or “answer”; “moderate hopes” or “harsh justice”, “citizenry” or “revolutionaries.” The balanced structure adds rhetorical force to the argument.
- Emphasis. Read these sentences out loud, or imagine yourself doing so:
Version 1:But far and away, the largest weight-inducing food, out-stripping all others, was the potato chip.16
Version 2:But far and away, the potato chip was the largest weight-inducing food, out-stripping all others.The first version places a particular rhetorical emphasis on “the potato chip” because it comes last in the sentence after a three-part build-up. The second version says the exact same thing, and it isn’t hard to see that “potato chip” is the key part of the sentence. However, the rhetorical emphasis on “the potato chip” is somewhat weaker. This common rhetorical trick is to put the part you want to emphasize at the very end of the sentence.
These are just two rhetorical structures that scholars have identified. You can find others (Google “rhetorical device”) that you can bring into your repertoire. Most people can’t set out to write elegantly per se, and you certainly shouldn’t spend your writing time crafting elegantly balanced sentences that have little to do with your argument or analysis. But the more familiar you are with these rhetorical structures, the more often you can recognize and use them.
- Richard Lanham’s popular book () offers a well specified method for turning academese into clear, straightforward language. The Online Writing Laboratory at Purdue University offers a short handout about Lanham’s method.
- Several writing centers at colleges and universities offer good advice for spotting and avoiding clichés. The University of Richmond has a useful one.
- Rewrite these passages to make the “characters” the grammatical subjects and the key “actions” the verbs. That is, make them clearer.
- The scarcity of research funds for nutritional scientists means that offers by food companies to fund such research may be especially attractive. The implicit pressure to shape the language of the findings to avoid alienation between scholars and companies is worrisome to consider.
- While educational experiences are an obvious benefit of tribal colleges, the needs tribal communities have for economic development, cultural vitality, and social ties are also addressed by educational institutions.
- Take these straightforward passages and make them less clear without changing the meaning. Turn verbs into nouns and make subjects into objects.
- “Statisticians prepared to use spatial models need to keep the role of the models in perspective. When scientific interest centers on the large-scale effects, the idea is to use a few extra small-scale parameters so that the large-scale parameters are estimated more efficiently.”17
- “Social scientists will be led astray if they accept the lies organizations tell about themselves. If, instead, they look for places where the stories told don’t hold up, for the events and activities those speaking for the organization ignore, cover up, or explain away, they will find a wealth of things to include in the body of material from which they construct their definitions.”18;19
2 Variously attributed to Albert Einstein, E.F. Schumacher, and Woody Guthrie.
4http://www.termpaperwarehouse.com/essay-on/History-Of-Magna-Carta/82596. Let this example further demonstrate why you should never, ever even look at these websites.
5Encyclopædia Britannica, s.v. “Magna Carta.”
7 When you turn a verb into a noun it’s called a nominalization. For example, act > action, write > writings, or think > thought.
10 Especially, Williams, Harvey, and Lanham; see “other resources” for full references.
14 “Rhetoric” refers to how meaning is overtly or subtly built into the structure of language. In everyday language, we often use the word rhetoric to describe speech or writing devoid of substance, but that’s not what the word means. This section describes often used structures identified and explained by rhetoricians.