Writing tips and tricks 2: reader-centric writing at the micro level

Last week I posted about creating a reader-centric HDR thesis on the macro level—abstract, introduction, chapter and section-level writing techniques to help your examiners track your argument and absorb your ideas as easily as possible. However, reader-centric writing isn’t just a macro-level skill. For your thesis to be as good as possible, you need to think—and write—reader-centrically at the micro level of sentence structure and word choice as well. Three of the best tools I know for doing this are: defaulting to the active voice, creating strong carrier sentences for integrated quotes, and using everyday English wherever possible to express your ideas.

Seems like a lot of fuss for something only a few people will read, I know. But remember: if you’re writing a thesis, you’re not just a scholar, or a researcher, or an experimenter. You’re also a writer. This is how writers think about their work. Welcome to the club, and have fun!

1.Use the active voice wherever possible

In academic writing, we’re still trained to default to the passive voice, for many reasons: because it creates a more objective tone, because it avoids using I/we, because it sounds more professional, and so on and so forth.

The problem is that very few of these are good reasons for using the passive voice.

Passive voice is hard to read. It muddies the verb and buries the lede; it makes sentences longer and more difficult to parse; if there’s too much of it in one place, it puts your reader to sleep. And when you’re writing a thesis, you need your examiner to be awake, alert and absorbing ideas as smoothly as possible! So while there are certainly good reasons to use the passive voice sometimes—to foreground a key idea, or manage a long list written in sentence form, or express an idea that can’t be written any other way—even in academic writing it should never be the default sentence structure. Every time you edit a piece of your own writing, reserve one pass to look for passive voice sentences and see if you can recast them in the active voice.

Don’t worry about sounding too subjective or emotive; you can use your word choice to ameliorate that issue. And your examiners will thank you for the easier read. Trust me on this one.

2.Frame integrated quotes in carrier sentences

Integrated quotes are a hugely important part of your thesis; unlike block quotes, they can contribute to your argument as well as illustrating key points. It’s therefore very important to make sure that they genuinely are integrated with the rest of your writing, and that your examiner is never left staring at a quote and trying to figure out exactly how it connects to the sentence they just read.

You can achieve this by framing every integrated quote in a carrier sentence. This is a short—or not—sentence in your own words that ‘sets up’ the quote, explaining why it’s relevant or how it connects to your point. The simplest example of a carrier sentence is the author/source type (eg ‘As Attebury argues in Strategies of Fantasy, …’), but there are all sorts of variations on the theme. If you’re feeling confident you can even site the carrier sentence after the quote, like a speech tag in fiction! The most important thing is that wherever you put it, it’s in the same sentence as the rest of the quote, and it gives the quote context and connection to the rest of your writing.

3.Simplify your vocabulary

Every field of academia has its technical vocabulary—and its jargon, which is not quite the same thing—and in your thesis you of course have to show your mastery of that vocabulary. However, the acid test of any idea is not whether you can rattle off the jargon on cue. It’s whether you can explain your argument and the evidence that supports it clearly and accurately using a lay vocabulary, supported as and when needed by the technical language of your field.

Jargon’s a great comfort blanket for the thesis writer, but it obscures your meaning and makes it harder for your examiners to absorb your points. Take a deep breath, steel yourself, and throw it out. Aim for straightforward, moderately formal, everyday English that lets you integrate your technical vocabulary smoothly where needed and state your ideas clearly when that’s what you need instead. Your examiners will find it easier to identify your argument, process your logic, and integrate your evidence—and they’ll probably genuinely enjoy reading your writing too. As everyone who’s ever marked undergrad essays knows, when it comes to assessing someone’s work, readability matters.

For those looking for more specific information about building these skills, here are my four best-loved resources:

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. 2nd ed. New York: WW Norton, 2010. Print.

This book is marvellous. It rejects the idea of writing as a mystical gift and reframes it as a technical skill—a series of ‘moves’ that anyone can learn to deploy. It’s practical, deeply useful and well-organised. If your university library doesn’t have it, it should.

Kane, Thomas S. The New Oxford Guide to Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Print.

This may be getting a little dated now, but if you want a resource that can help you break down sentence structure and rebuild it from the ground up, wrangle your paragraph organisation and order your evidence, there’s not much that can beat it.

Orwell, George. ‘Politics and the English Language’. wikilivres, 28 December 2016, http://wikilivres.ca/wiki/Politics_and_the_English_Language. Accessed 13 March 2017. Web.

The original and the best. Don’t just read it for Orwell’s points about language and jargon; read it for his use of language. It’s the best possible demonstration of his point.

Sword, Helen. Stylish Academic Writing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.

This includes some great practical tips for both avoiding jargon and creating fluent, readable academic prose.

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