When drafting an essay or research paper, it can be tempting to write more than you need. But journal editors often complain that papers lack clarity, due to too many words and clauses being strung together.
Long, convoluted language is a major impediment to text comprehension, and nowhere is comprehension more important than when communicating research findings. Read on for some top tips to make your writing more concise.
1) Stick to the script
It is not uncommon for people to write as they think, hoping that ideas will emerge as they type words onto the page. But to write concisely, it is better to think before you write. Have a plan about what you are aiming to say - within your paper, but also each section, paragraph and sentence. What are the key points you want to make in your ‘Discussion’? What are the main findings of your paper? Once you have identified your main message, stick with it and write no more than what is needed to convey it.
2) Avoid repetition
Redundant words and sentences are best avoided in academic writing. Not only does repetition waste precious space under strict word limits, but also makes papers sound lazy and insubstantial. Make sure that each section of your manuscript covers everything you need to say, then move on. Although there will be some degree of overlap between sections such as your abstract, discussion and conclusion, there is no need to describe your methodology again in the ‘Results’ section.
3) Cut out sentence fillers
One of the biggest challenges of concise writing is cutting out words already on the page. But it is a necessary step to making your writing more concise. Be ruthless and aim to eliminate anything that does not contribute to your message. Pay specific attention to adverbs and adjectives, and also the beginning of sentences (also called lead-ins) which can often be unnecessary or inefficient. Compare the following sentences:
If you find yourself writing papers, aim to be concise (inefficient lead-in)
Aim to be concise when writing papers (more efficient rephrasing)
4) Consider using the active voice
Writers are often advised to use the active voice (e.g. ‘the authors found a significant relationship between two factors’) over the passive (e.g. ‘a significant relationship was found between two factors’). The main argument is that the active voice helps make a point quickly and in a more straightforward way. This is often true. However, bear in mind that there is still a place for the passive voice in scientific writing - for example when there is no clear subject-verb relationship.
5) Review your work
When spending too long on the same task, it can be easy to lose sight of the big picture. In academic writing, this means getting lost in irrelevant details that obstruct your main message. Give yourself the chance to work on your paper in several sittings. A fresh perspective can help you distinguish what is essential from what is redundant. A different pair of eyes can be even better, so why not ask a friend or relative to have a read?
Don’t forget that writing (and publishing) an academic paper is of little use if it is not properly understood. So make sure your message is delivered as simply and concisely as can be. Resist the notion that using very long and complex sentences is proof of subject expertise. This will serve you well in your writing career.
About the author
Mélodie is an Applied Linguist at Writefull.