Six academic writing no-nos – and how to avoid them

The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency towards pomposity and abstraction’  Helen Sword

This sentence is true – and dire.

Thankfully, Professor Sword, Director of the Centre for Learning and Research in Higher Education at the University of Auckland, created it purely to highlight the horrors of overcomplication. But it does serve as a salutary example of what can go wrong when we write.

Being an expert in your academic field is not the same as being an expert in how to write about it.

Add to that the widely-felt pressure to ‘publish or perish’. To be successful, a paper must meet exacting journal standards and then stand up to scrutiny by experts in the field. This can make simply starting the task deeply daunting, let alone pushing through to completion.

Writing makes us vulnerable. While that may create connection in the nurturing context of an amateur writers’ group, in the rigorous environment of The Academy it can be searingly painful. When Professor Sword asked a number of successful academics to describe their response to criticism and rejection of their work, the words they chose were telling: ‘wounded, stung, thrashed, pierced, burned, shocked, beaten up, crushed, whacked, gutted, knocked back, trampled’.

In light of this, it’s clear to see why some academics start believing themselves incapable of producing the quality of writing required to meet their career goals.

But this is precisely the time to press in rather than slacken off.

Writing is a craft to be honed, not an innate gift to envy in others. It’s possible to develop a distinctive, cogent and compelling voice by devoting time and attention – and avoiding these six pitfalls along the way:

  1. Assuming that good writers are born not made

Believe this and you’ll overlook the many formal and informal opportunities available for improving your academic writing. It’s a surefire way to make minimal progress. Instead, seek out courses, masterclasses, books and blogs on the subject (see links below). Read writers you admire, and refine your writing to reflect the strengths you value in them.

  1. Neglecting the basics

The foundational building blocks of your writing – syntax, punctuation, grammar – must be firmly in place. But we all have blind-spots. That’s why working with a professional editor can serve as a useful relationship. Their experienced, objective eye will pick up any persistent errors or quirks that creep into your writing, allowing you to eliminate them in future.

  1. Being overly complicated

When the ideas you’re exploring are complex, you might assume the writing should be too. Extended sentences packed with sophisticated and obscure terms must surely impress a discerning reader. But think again. William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Non-Fiction (1976) , cuts to the chase:

‘…the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb which carries the same meaning that is already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what – these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur, ironically, in proportion to education and rank.’

  1. Sticking to the rules

Many how-to guides set out specific writing schedules. But what happens if they don’t fit the unique shape of your workload or pattern of working? Attempts to adhere rigidly to a formula often end in discouragement, and discouragement has a habit of seeping into your writing and stalling it. Instead, focus on cultivating realistic and productive habits of mind. Prioritise discipline, persistence and flexibility over abortive efforts to fit someone else’s rules.

  1. Focusing on frustration

Negative attitudes to the process of writing are common – but draining. How do you choose to describe your writing to yourself and to others? Try a different approach. Stop being disappointed when a first draft isn’t perfect, and celebrate the fact that drafting and redrafting represents progress, not failure. Take pride and pleasure in what you produce and the process that made it possible, as Sword explains:

‘I realized that I tended to describe my writing process as fiddly, finicky, and laborious — words redolent of incompetence and frustration. By shifting to different metaphors — sculpting, crafting, shaping, polishing — I have learned to rework my own narrative, recognizing perceived weaknesses as core strengths.’

  1. Going solo

In contrast to teaching or attending a conference, writing seems a solitary activity. But isolation saps energy and confidence. Avoid that trap by seeking out opportunities to write with others, exchanging early drafts, being generous with your feedback, and finding people who will do the same for you. Share your experiences and feelings about writing. Nurture what Sword calls the ‘social habits of collegiality and collaboration’ and you’ll boost the quality of both your writing and your professional relationships.

The happy irony is that working hard on your writing will make it seem increasingly effortless to your reader – and they will remember you for it.

Further reading:

Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, Helen Sword, Harvard University Press

Rachael Cayley’s Explorations of Style

Finding Your Voice as an Academic Writer (and Writing Clearly)

University of California Berkeley: A Quick Guide to Writing Resources

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Jo Mitchell
Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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