Without discrediting the merit of academic investigation and the findings you’ve produced, at the heart of a PhD is a goal to make the examiner happy. Clear, concise writing is an important component of achieving that goal.
Concise writing is easier to read and easier to follow but is something that many PhD students struggle with. We academics aren’t known for our clear writing. Perhaps that’s why there’s a misconception in academia that the more complicated the sentence the better, as if our intellect is judged on the basis of the length of our words, or whether we are using colourful language.
Why though? If so many other academics get away with bad writing, why do you have to put the effort in to improve the clarity of your own work? Simple: the person reading your thesis doesn’t know what’s about to come. You do, so for you, it’s obvious.
Recently, someone asked on Quora for examples of well written academic texts. Read this response from a university professor and thesis examiner and you’ll see why all of this is important:
“Far and away the best piece of academic writing I’ve had the pleasure of reading is Andrew Tridgell’s PhD thesis/dissertation ‘Efficient algorithms for sorting and synchronization’.
Things that make it so good are that is uses clear, concise language, making it easily accessible to those not familiar with the topic; it uses a strong, first-person voice throughout, eschewing academic pomposity; and overall it succeeds in making what could be a dry, technical topic into something interesting.
Basically, it’s the opposite of a large proportion of academic writing, which tend to obfuscate the research rather than illuminate”
In this guide I talk about seven easy ways to make your writing clearer and more concise.
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Each week we send a short, thought-provoking email that will make you think differently about what it means to be a PhD student. Each is designed to be read in thirty seconds and thought about all day.
1. Edit ruthlessly
Authors generally follow the following mantra: write first, edit later. They get the words on the page and then go through line by line and remove as many of them as possible.
You should do the same. When you’ve finished writing, edit ruthlessly. However, make sure that you don’t lose the meaning. Instead, you’re aiming to remove the words that add nothing to the text or, put differently, do not take anything away from the meaning when you remove them.
Let me show you what I mean:
You see how, even though sixteen words have been removed, the meaning hasn’t changed? What has changed is the way the passage reads. It flows more beautifully.
This kind of copyediting can dramatically improve the readability of your writing. Plus, it frees up valuable words. It’s an important, albeit difficult, skill to learn.
Your PhD thesis.
All on one page.
Use our free PhD structure template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis.
There is a tendency to think that, once you have written your first draft, all that’s required is a simple edit. Sometimes, though, you’ll need to undertake a more serious, hardcore edit. You might need to turn one chapter into two, or completely rewrite an entire section.
How do you know when this kind of heavy-duty edit is required? You have to ask yourself whether the draft serves its intended purpose. In each of the lessons in section one, we developed a series of checklists and questions that the reader must be able to answer when they finished reading each chapter. When you read through your own work, keep these in mind, as they’ll inform your understanding of how drastic your edits need to be.
If the draft diverges from the intended purposes, you may need to edit drastically. Don’t be scared of cutting words; your primary concern is with making the right point as clearly as possible.
2. Vary your sentence length
Having sentences of varying lengths is a great way to improve readability and clarity.
Let’s see why:
The benefit of varying sentence length is self-evident: mix up your sentence length if you want to keep your reader engaged. It makes your words sing.
3. Don’t make promises you can’t keep
Phrased differently, do what you say you’re going to do. If you spend your introduction saying, ‘I will do a, b and c’, you’d better make sure the text that follows actually does a, b and c. If it doesn’t, you are misleading the examiner. This won’t just confuse them, it’ll shatter your credibility. They’ll think you’re scatty.
We can extend this – don’t make claims that you haven’t backed up. This is something I see all the time with PhD students I work with – a bold claim with no supporting evidence or references. Your examiner won’t appreciate this and, worse still, it’ll confuse them.
What’s more, you’ll need to make sure you stay on point. Clearly lay out your argument (we’ll focus on this in the next lesson) and then make sure that everything that follows is related to it. Again, refer back to the previous lessons and ask yourself whether each chapter does what it is supposed to and whether or not it does anything it isn’t. Anything irrelevant, superfluous or contradictory can be deleted or moved elsewhere.
Going further still: don’t over-promise on your contribution. The chances are that your contribution is small and specific. That’s fine. Don’t feel the need to overstate it by claiming you are doing something you aren’t. It’s dishonest; the examiner will see straight through it.
4. Spend time in the reader’s head
One thing that good writers spend a lot of time doing is imagining things from the reader’s perspective.
You should do the same. Try to understand what your reader/examiner is likely to know already before reading your thesis and, just as importantly, what they aren’t likely to know. This will have an impact on how much detail you go into in particular sections.
Is a particular theoretical idea common knowledge in your field? Does your examiner come from your field? No need to spend too long talking about its every detail. Be concise, move on.
Alternatively, is your examiner from a different discipline? Are there certain things you take for granted but someone outside the discipline may struggle with? Go into a little more detail. It’ll help them follow along.
One of your main jobs when writing is to make the reader’s job as easy as possible. To do that, you need to know what they already know and what they need to know.
5. Write as if you’re already a Doctor
The job of a thesis isn’t just to showcase your study to the reader. It’s to show your reader that you’re worthy of calling yourself Doctor. This doesn’t discount the importance of the study, you can’t have one without the other, but it does have an important implication:
You need to write as if you’re already a Doctor.
Put as much effort into writing your thesis as you did in designing and carrying out the research. Speak with an authoritative voice and convince the reader that you know what you’re doing. Speak with conviction and stand by your decisions. Don’t get lost in the authors.
In other words, find your voice.
One effective way of doing so is to write as often as possible. What’s more, the act of writing itself is an excellent way to clarify your own thoughts and give order to what which, when in your head, is disordered and lacks coherence.
Of course, to find your voice you need to have something worth writing about. This is an obvious piece of advice, but one worth stressing. The more clearly you understand what it is you are trying to say, the more easily you will be able to get that across clearly and concisely.
There are two dimensions to this though. Most importantly, clearly, is your skill as an academic and researcher. It’s your knowledge and the intellectual artefacts that you carry. But there’s also an understanding of what goes where in the thesis, of knowing the purpose of each section and knowing how to structure it accordingly. The lessons in section one of this course will help you in this regard.
6. Spend time reading
It makes sense that to become more adept at writing in English you should read good examples of its use. Yet we often overlook it, primarily, I think, because we spend all day reading for our PhDs. We don’t often stop to explicitly seek out well-written prose, poetry or academic text and read it mindful of what makes it so well-written in the first place.
So, with that in mind, spend time each week reading well-written journal articles or book chapters. Carefully consider how they have been written.
When you read these texts, ask yourself
- How have they structured their introduction? Can you understand the article/chapter just from reading the introduction?
- How have they structured the article as a whole? Have they discussed things that aren’t directly related to their argument?
- Do they use long sentences with lots of commas or do they keep their sentences short?
- How do they conclude?
Thinking carefully about these things will help you understand your own writing. How do you introduce your argument? How do you structure your introduction? How does that compare? Is there anything you can learn?
7. Avoid pompous academic writing
We all know what this is. That awful, pointless way that we academics write when we’re allowed to. It’s the pretentious ‘look how many long words I can use’ approach to writing.
When we talk about pompous academic writing, Judith Butler comes to mind. She’s a big deal in her field (and beyond, in fact) and teaches at Berkeley. However, she is also famous for her impenetrable writing. So much so that she won a prize for having the worst academic writing of 1999, awarded by the journal Philosophy and Literature.
Here’s an example:
“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.” (Judith Butler (1997) ‘Further Reflections on Conversations of Our Time’ Diacritics 27(1) pp. 13-15)
Yes, that’s one sentence. No, I have no idea what it means either.
Whilst this is an extreme example, I’m sure you can recognise this kind of academic pomposity all around you.
To avoid falling into this trap, you can do three things.
1. Use the simplest words you can get away with.
When you are editing your work and you come across a pompous or unusual word, ask yourself whether the meaning would be retained but the readability improved if you used a more typical word instead.
2. Use the word ‘I’.
If your institution and supervisors/advisers allow, use the first person pronoun ‘I’.
3. Imagine if you were reading aloud to a group of non-academic friends.
Would they understand the words you use? Would they laugh at you for being pompous?
Make sure you don’t take this too far though. You don’t want to write too informally. You certainly don’t want to be writing in slang or colloquialisms. What’s more, taking complex ideas, terminology and language and ‘dumbing it down’ is not only really laborious, but it is also extremely reductive, meaning that you risk stripping away important meaning. Instead, the emphasis is on avoiding jargon and being pompous for the sake of it. Remember, you want to make the reader’s job as easy as possible. The reader wants you to convey complexity, but they don’t need you to be pompous while you do it.
Summary: How to write concisely
In this guide we have focused on quick ideas you can incorporate into your day-to-day PhD writing. We learnt the importance of writing concisely and looked at seven tips you can use right now:
1. Edit ruthlessly.
2. Vary your sentence length.
3. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
4. Spend time in the reader’s head.
5. Write as if you’re already a Doctor.
6. Read well-written articles.
7. Avoid the pompous academic trap.
There’s certainly more to writing concisely than these tips. Indeed, you could spend a lifetime mastering the art. However, the aim here has been to provide you with skills that you can incorporate easily and quickly in a way that respects the limited time and resources you have available.
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