A good structure and flow of your paper have a direct impact on the effectiveness of your argument. But what if your hard-worked-upon draft is still far from clear? Well, this is why you don’t – or, at least shouldn’t – hand in the first draft! Each time, finish with some paragraph and sentence editing to improve your writing.
Here, you have to acknowledge that the aim of editing is to cut the clutter and make the writing more concise.
While scientists often do not know where to cut, students might not be even eager to do so, since meeting the word count is often a challenge in itself. If you feel like you are not strong enough to amputate a sentence or a paragraph from your writing, better delegate the job to a professional editor to save the whole thing.
One paragraph should develop one idea. To make sure you follow the rule, write a sentence telling what the paragraph wants to say next to each paragraph you have. This will help you see two important issues you will have to correct:
(1) some ideas in one paragraph do not relate to the main idea – this means they should be placed elsewhere; and
(2) you have several paragraphs with the same main idea – this means you have to remove repetitive content and create one focused paragraph developing this one idea.
When you have done the first step, you might notice that subtopics covered in different paragraphs are connected between themselves. Make sure you place them together.
When you place ideas that logically follow each other one after another, you avoid overusing linking words and phrases. Although linking words are common in academic writing, they may also signal bad organization: if the ideas connect logically, there is no need to add additional elements to make the reader understand where you are heading. Thus, if you spot many linking words in your paper, you might need to change the order of paragraphs to enhance logical flow of ideas.
If you have a longer paragraph with several examples, make the sentences presenting examples have parallel structures. This will substantially improve the flow and the readability of the piece.
Here is the example from The Atlantic. Although the topic is not easy, the parallel structure makes the passage very engaging:
“Diagnosing the particular flavor of chaos responsible for this mass death has proven elusive. The Siberian Traps, now long retired as a vast swath of basalt plateaus in the far northern reaches of Russia, might have poisoned the world with mercury. Or maybe they destroyed the ozone layer by incinerating huge underground layers of ancient evaporites. Or perhaps they acidified the planet with sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide, stripping vegetation, killing corals worldwide, and altering the chemistry of the planet’s soil so that dirt would have tasted like vanilla. Or maybe the Siberian Traps wracked the planet with brief volcanic winters, or they poisoned the planet with carbon dioxide itself, or the oceans became stagnant and poisoned with toxic hydrogen sulfide. Maybe that’s what killed everything.” “When a Killer Climate Catastrophe Struck the World’s Oceans” by Peter Brannen, 2018
In sentences, maintaining parallel structures is not a recommendation, it’s a must: all elements joined by “and”, “but” and “or” should be the same part of speech. For example, there are several ways to correct the following mistake and improve the writing:
Wrong: “To be a good researcher, one has to be a lifelong learner, think critically, and be dedicated”
Correct: “To be a good researcher, one has to be a lifelong learner, a critical thinker, and a dedicated professional”
Correct: “To be a good researcher, one has to commit to lifelong learning, apply critical thinking, and demonstrate dedication”
Correct: “To be a good researcher requires lifelong learning, critical thinking, and dedication”
Look through all of your sentences in a passive voice and turn them into active voice (the exclusions may be the methodology section in scientific papers). Active voice enhances clarity and makes the paper more engaging.
Scientists might use passive to avoid personal pronouns. However, all scientific journals now encourage authors to use I and We. Do not be afraid of personal pronouns – they do not make the writing biased; on the contrary, they make authors assume responsibility for their inferences and decisions.
Students should rather avoid personal pronouns, but this does not mean you should use passive voice. When you look critically at your writing, you will see that in many cases it is not necessary and you can simply reverse it to active with no loss in meaning.
Proper use of punctuation can improve flow and clarity while helping to avoid unnecessary linking words.
Semicolons can solve the issue of two short sentences following each other. They also help to show that an idea is separate, yet connected to the main one. For example: “A short sentence creates emphasis and makes a reader pause; several short sentences in a row break this magic.” Colons help to cut clutter when enumerating. Dashes and parentheses both put a clause aside and ease reading. However, use them carefully, as dashes emphasize what they separate, while parentheses – deemphasise it (actually, what is found in the parenthesis can be simply skipped by a reader).
Ironically, to sound more academic, authors write really wordy phrases with noun forms of verbs. For example, “provides a review of” instead of “reviews”, “provides a description of” instead of “describes”, “expresses the belief” instead of “believes”. In case of repetition, the nouns coined from verbs complicate reading even more: “the study aims at identification of…, classification of… and discussion of…” vs “the study aims to identify.., classify… and discuss…”.
Try to rephrase your sentences turning nouns back to verbs, and you will see an immediate improvement in flow and clarity.
You can cut additional clutter when the verb and an adjective specifying an action are substituted with one strong verb. For example, “reports that approximately” may be substituted with “estimates” and “estimates that in the future” may be substituted with “projects”.
Adjectives like “likely”, “possibly”, “definitely” may be also eliminated using modal verbs “may” and “must”.
Although some negatives may be ok, “it is not uncommon” is just a wordy phrase to tell “it is common”; “ pay attention to” stands for one word – “ignores”; “it can not be denied that a family plays…” is just an wordy way to say “A family plays...”.
“There is/ there are” often create wordiness and you can do well without them in most cases. For example,
“There are many students who procrastinate when… ” = “Many students procrastinate when…”
“The data confirms that there is an association between” = “The data confirms an association between”
Another editing technique that will help you improve your writing is looking for clutter or “deadweight” phrases. A nice list of clutter phases and their alternatives may be found here. These are just a few of my favorite examples:
despite the fact that – although
current trend – trend
final outcome – outcome
for the purpose of advancing – to advance
future plans – plans
what I am trying to say is that – just say
It is better to do paragraph editing before sentence editing. Focusing on sentence structures, you risk losing a greater picture and paragraph-level flaws. This is also the reason why you should not try to make each of your sentences ideally worded when writing the first draft.
Now, here is a little challenge for you!
Take one paragraph from your draft, edit it using the mentioned techniques, then post the before and after variants as a comment or send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a subject line “Editing challenge”.
Cut ruthlessly)) If you make at least some improvements and indicate the number(s) of the technique you have used – you will earn a 50% discount on the editing of the whole draft.
Have you had any ah-ha or that’s-what-I-do moments when reading? Please, share!