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Your writing might be correct—but is it interesting?


Academic writing represents a big portion of my editing business. And while the vast majority of my academic clients are delighted with the changes I make to their work, I have had one or two ask me why I changed things that weren't "wrong." These clients were still happy with the edits, but couldn't understand why they were necessary. They had never considered whether their writing style was, well ... interesting.

Maybe they thought (and maybe you’re thinking), “Who cares if it's interesting? Academic writing is never interesting!”

I disagree. True, it might never be riveting, edge-of-your-seat, sci-fi thriller interesting, but the best writing—even at the highest, most complex level of academic thought—is intriguing, compelling, fresh, and varied. It invites readers to keep reading, rather than forcing them to trudge through it like wordy molasses.

Most importantly, it's the kind of writing that stands out to a journal editor (you know, the one that's been wading through said molasses all morning, perusing submissions?). Publishing is becoming ever more competitive and important for academics, so why not do everything you can to ensure that your paper is that breath of fresh air in a swamped editor's day?

With that in mind, here are some general tips I use to "freshen up" dull, lifeless writing:

  • Keep paragraphs compact and focused. Anything beyond half a page (double-spaced) usually starts to feel lengthy.

  • Similarly, for the most part, keep sentences compact and focused, especially when you're finding it difficult to be clear and specific (that feeling means you're in danger of coming across as vague, or rambling). Break this rule only occasionally, in the interest of variety.

  • Become aware of the words you habitually rely on (we all have them!), and do a Control/Command + F search to make sure you’re not overusing them. Therefore, thus, hence, however, important, major, and significant are some of the most common culprits in academic writing, and substituting them is easy.

  • Don’t start sentences with the same adverb more than 2–3 times per page if you can help it. Compare “However... However... However...” and “However... Yet... However...”—already slightly better with one quick (but strategic) substitution.

  • Use a thesaurus (likely online) to avoid repeating yourself. A quick search for “however synonyms" will lead you to the alternative in the example above. [Warning: Double-check your chosen substitute in a dictionary as well; you don’t want to end up misusing a word.]

  • Every good writer knows that the strong and straightforward active voice is ideal (“Jim kicked the ball”), but don’t follow that ideal so closely that your sentences are all the same. “The ball was kicked by Jim” is just fine if it means breaking up a string of five sentences with an identical structure.

  • Give your reader some credit: only say something in the same way once or twice tops. You want to be clear but you don't want to be repetitive or patronizing. Even your most important points don't need to appear 6 times in a 30-page paper.

  • I know I've said it before (and will continue to say it ad nauseam) but read your work out loud. If doing so bores you silly, that's a problem.

Remember that all of these steps should be done in the editorial stage, after you're done writing. Always get your ideas down first, then polish. Or better yet, why not get in touch and have me polish them for you?

-CSP


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