Simplifying text: Three rules for making academic text easier to read

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By James Hartley & Guillaume Cabanac

It is commonly thought, although not necessarily true, that technical and academic texts are difficult to read. In this blog we outline three rules for simplifying such text. Our aim is to show that applying such rules makes it easier to write clearer prose.

The first rule is easy.

RULE 1: If a paragraph is too long split it in two.

A general guide about paragraphs is that they should convey one idea, usually expressed ih the topic sentence. But certainly paragraphs that run over a page of typescript are probably too long, and much can be achieved by breaking up the text. Here is an excerpt from an early draft of one of our papers:

Refereeing submissions for their suitability for inclusion in an academic journal can be a tortuous business for all concerned. As illustrated by Paglione, et al. (2015) debates about the problems inherent in managing peer review are leading to a growing number of initiatives to make the process easier. There are numerous discussions about the value of ‘open’ and ‘blind’ submissions, ‘open’ and ‘blind’ reviewing, ‘post-publication peer reviewing’ and training for referees. In this paper, we concentrate on describing the method of peer review used by the British Journal of Educational Technology (BJET), and how new technology allowed us to explore it systematically. BJET has an unusual review process as it uses “peer choice”. Here a panel of volunteer referees is maintained by sending regular requests for reviewers to join. Currently the reviewers on the panel come from all over the world, and typically take between 7-21 days to review a submission. ‘Peer-choice’ has an advantage for the editor in that he does not need to select different individual reviewers for every paper received, and an advantage for reviewers in that they choose to review papers on topics that they feel most comfortable with, or would indeed like to read.

Now consider what happens when we split this paragraph into more meaningful groups (as in the final version of our paper). Here we separate the first (introductory) part from the detail.

Refereeing submissions for their suitability for inclusion in an academic journal can be a tortuous business for all concerned. As illustrated by Paglione et al. (2015), debates about the problems inherent in managing peer review are leading to a growing number of initiatives to make the process easier. There are numerous discussions about the value of ‘open’ and ‘blind’ submissions, ‘open’ and ‘blind’ reviewing, ‘post-publication peer reviewing’ and training for referees. In this paper, we concentrate on describing the method of peer review used by the British Journal of Educational Technology (BJET), and how new technology allowed us to explore it systematically.

BJET has an unusual peer review process as it uses “peer choice”. A panel of volunteer referees is maintained by sending regular requests for reviewers to join. Currently the reviewers on the panel come from all over the world, and typically take between 7-21 days to review a submission. ‘Peer-choice’ has an advantage for the editor in that he does not need to select different individual reviewers for every paper received, and an advantage for reviewers in that they choose to review papers on topics that they feel most comfortable with, or would indeed like to read.

RULE 2: Long sentences can be split into two (or more)…

The same principle of conveying one idea at a time also applies at sentence level. Consider this sentence taken from a blog by Dunleavy, Bastow & Tinkler (2014), and reproduced here with permission of the authors.

Every social science must handle an inescapable tension between knowledge advanced by the reductionist tactic of focussing down on simple processes and the recognition that all social processes operate in complex, multi-causal environments where, in the latter case hundreds of thousands of influences interact with each other to shape any given social or behavioural outcome, and where the same outcome can eventuate through multiple diverse causal pathways.

An example of applying Rule 2 to this sentence leads to:

Every social science must handle an inescapable tension. Knowledge is often advanced by the reductionist tactic of focussing down on simple processes and the recognition that all social processes operate in complex, multi-causal environments. In the latter case hundreds of thousands of influences interact with each other to shape any given social or behavioural outcome, and where the same outcome can eventuate through multiple diverse causal pathways.

Rule 2 also makes the text easier to follow. The principle is similar to that of Rule 1: a sentence, too, should contain just one idea, and the more complex a sentence the more difficult it will be to read.

RULE 3: Examine each sentence in turn to see if you can delete two (or more) words from each one.

Next is an example of the application of Rule 3. This piece of text is taken from the initial draft of a recent article (Hartley, 2014). Now, when thinking about our third rule, we have printed in bold some of the words that might be removed:

Ten years ago I published a paper with virtually the same title as the one above in which I reviewed the findings of over 30 studies on structured abstracts. Here I wish to comment on the developments in the research since that time and the use of structured abstracts over the last ten years.

The term ‘structured abstracts’ has now become common-place, and there is now no real need to define what is meant by it. Such abstracts typically contain subheadings and sections – such as ‘background’, ‘aim(s)’, ‘method(s)’, ‘results’, and ‘conclusions’. Occasionally there are more subheadings – such as ‘sample’ and ‘limitations’ – and occasionally there are fewer.

Structured abstracts were introduced in to medical journals in the mid-1980s and since then, their growth has been phenomenal – they can now be found in several science and social science journals as well as medical ones. Furthermore, conference abstracts are now often submitted, distributed and published in a structured form.

These superfluous words in bold can be removed, making the text more succinct and easier to read.

Concluding remarks

These three examples have not been faked or chosen because the techniques happen to work. We have been surprised by the effectiveness of our simple rules. Removing overly long paragraphs, sentences and superfluous words makes text easier to read. Why? Well, applying these rules produces shorter sentences and clarifies what it is that we, as authors, wish to say.

Perhaps, dear reader, there are other techniques that you have found useful for making academic text easier to read? We would be grateful for your comments!

About the Authors

James Hartley is Emeritus Professor of Psychology in the School of Psychology, Keele University, UK. (j.hartley@keele.ac.uk) He is well-known for his book Academic Writing and Publishing: A Practical Guide (Routledge, 2008).

Guillaume Cabanac is Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toulouse 3, France (Guillaume.cabanac@univ-tlse.fr). He and Prof. Hartley are frequent collaborators.

References

Dunleavy, P. Bastow, S. & Tinkler, J. (2014). The contemporary social sciences are now converging strongly with STEM disciplines in the study of ‘human-dominated’ systems’ and ‘human-influenced systems’. LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog, 20 January 2014. Short URL: http:/bit.ly/1mzJodJ

Hartley, J. (2014). Current findings from research on structured abstracts: An update. Journal of the Medical Library Association, 102, 3, 146-148.

Paglione, L. D. & Lawrence, R. N. (2015). Data exchange standards to support and acknowledge peer-review activity. Learned Publishing, 28, 309-316.

 

Supporting graduate student writers: Research, curriculum and program design (2016).

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This book review is written by guest Susan Mowbray, Western Sydney University. The book seems highly pertinent to our community, so we thank Susan for alerting us to it with her detailed critique.

Supporting graduate student writers. Research, curriculum and program design. (2016). Edited by Steve Simpson, Nigel. A. Caplan, Michelle Cox & Talinn Phillips. Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press.

Supporting graduate student writers captured my attention as I have recently taken on a literacy support role with our Graduate Research School. The idea for the book was conceived at an invited colloquium on graduate writing support in 2014 and the result of the editors’ labours arrived via the University of Michigan Press in March this year. The book is organised in three parts. Part 1: What do we know/need to know? broadly covers supporting graduate research. Curriculum is dealt with in Part 2: Issues in graduate program and curriculum design. How to acclimatise students to the contemporary university is the focus of Part 3: Program profiles. Within the three parts, 14 chapters detail issues, concerns and/or initiatives in graduate education with 11 providing insights into North American contexts and the other three presenting perspectives from Canada, Sweden and Australia. The most striking aspect of the text for me is its explicit advocacy, and example of, cooperation and collaboration amongst members of the international graduate education community. Caplan and Cox are co-founders of the online Consortium of Graduate Education and this book exemplifies their commitment to actively sharing and building knowledge and engaging with members of the global doctoral education community. I found myself nodding in agreement with many points in each chapter and dog-earring multiple pages to return to later to think and read more about the information being shared. Continue reading

Too many words? Trim and style or slash and burn?

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By Claire Aitchison

There has been an outcry in my neighbourhood over the butchering of municipal street trees. On a morning walk as I pondered the motivations and skills of the tree cutters, I saw a parallel with the dilemmas writers face when their words have grown too lush, too vigorous for their context.  IMG_0758 In such situations, often drastic measures must be taken, but let’s face it: you don’t want a final product that looks like an amateur has hacked at it, leaving your precious work lopsided, denuded or simply ruined.

Writers regularly face the need to prune their text. This can arise because of word count restrictions, or because authors recognise they need to control sloppy or verbose writing that leads to tiresome and unbalanced texts. Continue reading

A life in review: Writing tasks that academics do that we don’t talk about

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This guest post is from Sue Starfield, professor in the School of Education and the Director of the Learning Centre at UNSW Australia. Sue’s interests include tertiary academic literacies, doctoral writing, writing for publication and identity in academic writing. If you enjoy this, you may like these related posts.

It struck me recently that I spend large amounts of my everyday academic life carrying out reviews of various sorts. Besides the ongoing feedback I provide to my doctoral students on their writing, usually through ‘track changes’, I do many other kinds of reviews. Quite a number of these are quite high stakes such as examining a doctoral thesis or reviewing a book proposal for a publisher for example. Yet it is difficult, if not impossible, to gain access to exemplars of these kinds of texts.

Hyland and Diani (2009, p. 1) noted that “what academics mainly do is evaluate”. As Langveldt and Kyvik (2011, p. 199) point out in their examination of the multiple roles researchers play as evaluators in the course of their academic lives, these roles often have a gatekeeping function as researchers “provide or deny access to opportunities for fellow colleagues to do research, to publish research, and to get tenure or promotion”. But if these review/evaluation genres are not publicly available, how then do doctoral students as early career academics learn to write them? Continue reading

Is dropping out failure? Je ne regrette rien

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By Claire Aitchison

In a world of spiralling credentialism where employers require ever higher qualifications, and institutions compete to recruit and keep doctoral candidates, it’s easy to see how students and supervisors can feel pressured to keep students enrolled. But what if you decide that doctoral study isn’t for you?

Recently I met up with a former student and in conversation she reminisced about her time as a doctoral student. Despite the many challenges she had experienced, she said how much she had enjoyed herself, especially the intellectual stimulation and sense of purpose she had as a doctoral scholar. She told me how she still loved her topic and wished she could have completed. I understood all of that – but then she went on to say she deeply regretted dropping out of her PhD.

This took me by surprise, because, all those years ago, when she contacted me about withdrawing she was so definite and had already made the necessary arrangements with the Grad School. Continue reading

A rally call against outsourcing graduate writing support

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Here we have reblogged the first of a three part series on outsourcing graduate student writing support. Although situated in a North-American context, the discussion raises important issues for institutional writing specialists, doctoral students, supervisors and consultants everywhere as cash-strapped institutions increasingly combine with entrepreneurial markets to provide writing support to doctoral scholars. The posts are written by Shannon Madden and Jerry Stinnett in response to an article in College Composition and Communication.  We don’t necessarily endorse all the arguments they advance (how could we, since at least two of the editors at DoctoralWritingSIG occasionally work as consultants?!) but we do think these issues deserve attention.  We hope you find the series stimulating. 

Empowering graduate student writers and rejecting outsourced mentorship

By Shannon Madden and Jerry Stinnett

In this 3-part series of installments on the WCJ Blog, we reject the outsourcing of graduate writing support to inexpert consultants in the private sector and call instead for university stakeholders to attend more systematically to the needs of graduate student writers.

As faculty members and former graduate students ourselves, we like many others have experienced the need for more writing support at the graduate level (see also Caplan & Cox, 2016). Very often, graduate students across the disciplines receive little feedback on their writing projects or instruction in advanced genres even though coursework, conference presentations, job applications, and theses and dissertations are all grounded in specialized disciplinary communication practices (Carter, 2007). As a response to this problem, Daveena Tauber’s (2016) recent article in College Composition and Communication offers a model for private writing consultation as a way to support graduate students as they navigate advanced writing tasks. Tauber advocates expanding the definition of successful academic employment to include writing consulting as a means of helping graduate student writers succeed in the university and of relieving the “job crisis” facing Ph.D. students in the humanities.

While Tauber’s approach attends to some of the problems facing graduate student writers, her model also exacerbates many of the same issues it purports to mitigate. Continue reading

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