By Susan Carter
We know that one outcome of the successful thesis is a fully-fledged researcher who has been accepted as an insider into their research community. How can doctoral students demonstrate through their writing that they are insiders? Berkenkotter and Huckin (1995) found that reviewers of 441 submitted conference abstracts had four criteria for acceptance or rejection. One was the sense that the author projected ‘an insider persona’.
Reviewers liked abstracts whose authors accurately portrayed relevant literature, used the right terminology but also sounded as though they would deliver a publishable paper. Thesis writers want that same sense in what they submit: a thesis should seem publishable, and is stronger when the writing has a confidence to it.
Here are some quite simple practical tips for gaining a sense of authority by writing more clearly.
Clear succinct writing keeps readers engaged as well as happy. All readers, including examiners, grow disgruntled when they feel they must wade knee deep through a quagmire of prose to extract its meaning. It is really worthwhile revising writing weeks after a ‘final’ draft with the purpose of simplifying it by cutting it back. Here is an example.
- The research team initiated an approach that would allow them to utilize known facts from literature at the same time as they employed constructivist theory as the lens to interpret what they found in the literature.
- The research team applied constructivist theory to facts from literature
- The research team interpreted facts in literature through a constructivist theory lens.
The sentence in Point 1 is grammatically correct, but cluttered. Point 2 simplifies it. Then Point 3 focuses more accurately by changing ‘applied…theory’ to ‘interpreted literature.’ The change tells the reader that theory was not simply applied as an academic exercise but for the purpose of interpreting literature—the most important action was interpretation.
Spend time choosing the most precise words throughout. When words are too broad and general, the reader loses traction on exactly what is intended.
- Replace broad general nouns with the most precise specific noun. For example, ‘education’ ought not be used to mean different aspects of education. If a thesis covers classroom practice, cognitive processing, national or institutional systems and social interactions with teaching and learning, those terms should be used consistently. Using one word, education, for each different aspect will lose the reader in a fog of vagueness. Consider whether words or noun phrases are too broad and fine tune for accuracy.
- Sharpen up verbs: replace neutral verbs with accurate verbs. E.g., ‘X affects y’ might be X undermines/problematises/weakens, or complicates, or improves/enhances, or…? Authors will probably trim prose where using an accurate verb saves writing another sentence to say what the neutral one meant, but most importantly, they bring it all into sharp-edged focus for the reader. Writing has a better sense of an author who is in full control.
Make use of syntactical rules to get clarity by applying the principles governing how simple sentences work to complex sentences.
- The most important ‘character’ (can be a thing, chemical etc. but is the prime agent) in sentence is in the grammatical subject place
- Most significant action of the sentence is in the main verb place
- They are as close together as possible
George D. Gopen and Judith Swan (1990) demonstrate this succinctly and clearly. This is a really powerful tip; you should click on this link if you are not certain you know how syntax works, and I recommend that you do anyway for a short, helpful and sweetly written article.
Two more tiny tiplets
Remove words expressing insecurity about whether the aims have been met. So
‘This section aims to describe historical events leading up to the phenoma’ should be simply ‘This section describes historical events…’ Words like ‘tried, hoped, attempted to’ should also be removed if they merely express anxiety, and only used in the rare case where there is description of a change of methods: ‘we tried this, and when it didn’t work, we chose this other way of working.’
When complex statements are expressed in the negative, readers are obliged to do a double-take to understand them. Compare the following—and I confess that I actually wrote the first sentence before realising just how awful it is to read.
- The mind cannot cope so comfortably with either the fragmented presentation of information that free floating independent sentences provide, or the seamless flow of unbroken information that long prose passages provide, as it can with ideas packaged into paragraph size chunks.
- The mind copes more comfortably with ideas packaged into paragraph size chunks than with either the fragmented presentation of information that free floating independent sentences provide, or with the seamless flow of unbroken nformation that long prose passages provide.
Personally, I enjoy tinkering with the mechanics of language with the aim of clarity. The tips above are approaches that I routinely use in my own revision of writing. How, though, can we show doctoral students the pleasure in this labour?
Gopen, G. G., & Swan, J. A. (1990). The Science of Scientific Writing, American Scientist, 78(6): 550-558.
Berkenkotter, C., & Huckin, T. N. (1995). Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication: Cognition, Culture, Power. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.