Effective academic writing

Writing science is significantly different from other forms of writing. Here are some tips I learned recently to write more effectively.

Effective academic writing

After starting my PhD in September 2020, I am finally finished writing my first paper. This is the first time I am writing science. Before that, I had to write a research proposal for my comprehensive exam. We can call it writing science. But that document is not published. Only about 5-6 people read it. Even that took 6 review iterations before my advisors approved it.

Turns out it is a lot different from other forms of writing like blogs or fiction etc. Since this was my first attempt, it took me longer. Since the first review of my research proposal, I knew that I am not a precise writer. I started using a grammar tool after that. While it did improve my writing, it was not enough. My writing involves a fair amount of unnecessary words and sometimes lacks clarity.  

I finally decided to actively try to correct instead of learning subconsciously through experience. Polytechnique offered a workshop about writing science in the summer. I wanted to join it. But it was clashing with my conference presentations. So, I decided to audit the first class and later on decided to join a course on Coursera. Today, I am going to share what I have learned about communicating clearly and effectively through writing.

Cut the clutter

This is about removing all the sentences and words that serve no function. For example, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that is already in the verb, etc.

Here are some examples of void introductory phrases

  • It is worth mentioning that…
  • It was found that…
  • It is suggested that…

If something is well known, we can just mention that without saying “It is well known that…”. All we need to do is just cite the related article after the information we present. Similarly, stating that some authors “already documented in their studies” is redundant. We can just state it and cite the paper next to it. We should also avoid saying that “It is a fact”. That is redundant as well.

Similarly, there are void words. To detect them, the best way is to remove each word in the sentence and see if it changes the meaning of the sentence. Of course, this is a very time-consuming process. But the results are worth the extra effort. Here are some examples from the book “Communicate science papers, presentations and posters effectively” by Gregory Patience and others.

  • New innovations → innovations
  • Fewer in number → fewer
  • Has the potential to → can
  • Owing to the fact that → Because

Use active voice

Active voice is what we use when we normally talk. If we use passive voice for normal conversation, it sounds awkward. In academic writing, I have been reading passive voice sentences in a lot of paper. Which made me think that I should also be using passive voice when I can. That is the way to write papers in formal tone. But, this is wrong. We should be using active voice whenever we can. It makes the text easier to follow.

Passive voice has many problems apart from making the text slightly harder to read. Every so often, the main agent is omitted in the passive voice. For example, “Mistakes were made”. It is a way to avoid claiming the responsibilities for actions. Changing sentences to active voice emphasizes author responsibility.

When we change passive voice sentences to active voice, we also reduce some ambiguity. Here is an example.
Passive: It is suggested that millions of people will lose their homes as costal cities are flooded.
It is not clear who made the suggestion. It is also not clear how the cities are flooded. These ambiguities show up when we try to convert the sentence in active voice.
Active: Research suggests that millions of people will lose their home when oceans flood the costal cities.

Write with verbs

Verbs drive the sentences. Using strong verbs makes the writing more engaging and conveys the information effectively. Picking the right verb can be hard if you are like me with a very limited vocabulary. We can use Thesaurus to find the appropriate verbs. We should avoid using “to be” verbs. These are signs that we are not using the appropriate verbs.

We should also focus on turning certain nouns into verbs. It makes the text more engaging. Most of them are “ion” forms of the main verbs. When we use them, we also need to use an extra verb for the sentence. Here are some common examples from the Gregory’s book:

  • Take into consideration → Consider
  • Give a presentation of → Present
  • Perform an operation → Operate

Finally, we should try to keep the subject and the verb close to each other. This is often a good practice to avoid writing long sentences. Readers are waiting for the verb while reading. Until they see the verb, they don’t know where we are going.

Even though now I know about these concepts, it is still hard to focus on them while writing. The best I can do is to write like I normally do and then correct the text in multiple review passes. That process is time-consuming. But I will anyway be doing many review passes for my papers.

I haven’t finished the course. It has much more to offer. I will be sharing what I learn in a later post. Stay tuned and don’t forget to subscribe!

My favorites:

Video of the week: Why am I never tired (by Ali)

Quote of the week: “History isn’t a single narrative, but thousands of alternative narratives. Whenever we choose to tell one, we are also choosing to silence others.” — Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari