Good Writing

By Alison Jones

Academic Writing Clinic Notes (November 2006)

  • Academic writing can be good writing
    'Academic' writing has a reputation as dull - and it so often is! This is because much academic writing is just bad writing. Unfortunately, because students and academics read a lot of bad writing they often write badly themselves.
  • Good writing may involve the reader in some work
    Good writing does not mean over-simplified writing. Readers may encounter unfamiliar terms or ideas, so they will have to 'work' at their reading. But because terms are explained clearly, readers are confident and alert
  • but it also involves hard work for the writer
    Work on each paragraph as you write, and avoid 'just getting it down' once you have written something poorly, it does not get any better for simply being on the page.
  • You can write well
    While very good writers are usually born rather than made, anyone can learn to write better than they do. It requires practice, and following a few basic rules.

The rules below address common problems encountered by readers of theses, reports and essays:


Paragraphs

Paragraphs are the basic elements of good writing.

  • A good paragraph has ONE point. A paragraph includes elaboration or illustration of the point. It also indicates the relevance of the point to the argument. In addition, it links to the preceding and following paragraphs.

PERL paragraph rule:

  • Point: Your ONE point should be stated in the first sentence of the paragraph (you could get a good sense of the article by reading only the first sentence of each paragraph).
    What simple point am I trying to make here, in my own words?
  • Elaboration/Evidence/Example: Provide an illustration of and evidence for the point. Elaborate on the point by reference to other research or argument or data.
    How do I know this? What do I mean?
  • Relevance: Indicate how the point is significant to the question/argument addressed by your text.
    What has this paragraph got to do with the argument?
  • Link: Each paragraph needs to be linked to the one before, usually in the first or last sentence of the paragraph. How did I get here?

A good paragraph

  • avoids using a reference in the first sentence. This is the sentence where your point is made, so make it in your own words. The words of others can then be used to elaborate or illustrate.
  • takes up about one third of a page. On each page there should be about 3-4 paragraphs.
  • grows around an idea. This means that you can separate each point on the page, and develop a paragraph around each – in this way, your writing grows in quantity and quality, becoming less dense. (Some points may require more than one paragraph, but these sorts of points either need to be divided into some sub-points, and each paragraph needs to indicate it is still addressing the same larger point)
  • avoids putting 'this' in the first sentence of a paragraph. Do not assume that the reader will know what 'this' refers to.

Sentences

Sentences are next, because they make up paragraphs.

  • All sentences should make sense and stand alone as single ideas or statements! Read them out loud when in doubt.
  • Sentences in theses and reports are often too long. Always consider how your sentences can be divided into two or three shorter ones. Ruthlessly eliminate all unnecessary words and phrases such as;
    • The way in which
    • This is a subject that
    • The question as to whether 
  • In one page, you should be able to remove at least ten words after you think you have finished your editing!
  • Rarely begin sentences with However, Nevertheless, Thus, Therefore, In this way. Does the sentence really follow?
  • Avoid the word 'this' when possible. Beware of 'there is': 'There is evidence that most Māori teachers are leaving classrooms after their first year.' Cf Most Māori teachers leave the classroom after their first year.
  • Note your own favourite phrases. And then stop using them!
  • Commas assist in sense-making, and in making a sentence more readable. Many people under-use or over-use commas. If you are not sure where to put them, see if they can be 'replaced' by brackets. Usually, you should be able to read the sentence through omitting the bracketed phrase.
    Where this is not applicable, read out loud and ask: where did I pause…and put in a comma.
  • Can you identify the subject of the sentence? Is the subject of the first part of the sentence related to that in the second part?

Common problems with words and phrases:

  • Always use apostrophes correctly. Know that it's means it is.
  • Do not use abbreviations. Acronyms can be used if you have supplied the full title on first usage. Do not use slang.
  • Do not use 'etc' and 'and so on'.
  • Do not use teasers such as
    • It is necessary/interesting/important to study this [without saying why]
    • I am interested in/intrigued by [without saying why we should be too]
  • Avoid generalizing or meaningless homogenizing terms, such as
    • society (Society believes/ according to society/ society forces us);
    • we (we all know that we all share an interest in);
    • research (According to research)
  • The use of 'I' is now acceptable in some disciplinary areas (although check this with your supervisor). Phrases such as 'This research argues' 'The author believes that' or 'This thesis contends' are ugly.
  • Remember that titles should always contain the keywords which might indicate to a reader or electronic search engine the content of your text.
  • Beware of using the words 'Māori' or 'Pakehā' in generalizing ways (In Pakehā terms/ Māoridom has agreed that). Consider the internal differences made invisible by these homogenizing terms. Are these differences important to your work?

Quotes

Quotes from other writers are a common feature of academic writing. Here are a few rules regarding use of quotes:

  • Must always be exactly accurate, and referenced with page numbers
  • Quotes should not be asked to do any work. They should not introduce a point or make a point which you have not made in the text. They should not be used instead of your own words because you 'couldn't say it better'.
  • In other words: quotes are not structural features. If you took them out the narrative would not collapse. You should paraphrase quotes first. You can use them as well as your own words, to support your own argument, or to illustrate a point.
  • Only use quotes when they are particularly apt or you are making a critical point about the quoted material.
  • If you do not quote, you may paraphrase and use references. Do not use references in confetti mode (i.e. sprinkled about just to look good!). And do not assume that a reference can stand in for an argument.

Context

  • Always indicate where and when quoted research was carried out - is it New Zealand research? Or North American? Do not move from one social/cultural /national/time context to another without noting the shift.
    Educational statistics [which? When?] reveal that only about 26% of [which? Where?] students learn a foreign language for two years in secondary school.
  • When introducing research pivotal to your argument, indicate how it was carried out, as well as its significance. Do not simply use a statement of conclusions to stand as an assertion upon which you can rely.
    Smith's research shows that young men in the justice system have. [who is Smith? Why is her/his work significant? When was it carried out? How did she /he do this research? How big was the sample?]
  • Do not simply ignore arguments you disagree with. Use them as an opportunity to argue for your position by providing counter-evidence and argument. This makes your argument stronger.

Other useful points

  • Know the difference between assertion and argument. Assertion (also sometimes known as advocacy) occurs when the writer pushes a position, (e.g., "teacher educators should be taught te reo Māori", or "health workers must be 'culturally competent"). It is most powerful to show carefully the effects of monolingual teachers, or health workers who have no sense of cultural difference, and allowing readers to see a convincing argument, rather than have conclusions forced down their throats.
  • Do not avoid contradiction. Indicate possible objections to your argument and respond to them. Point to gaps or tensions in your argument or data, and suggest ways they might be addressed.
  • When using Māori words in an English-language document, decide on whether you will provide an English translation. If you do, either (a) provide a glossary (use a reputable Māori dictionary for this) at the back or front; (b) translate in brackets after the kupu; (c) use a footnote translation. There is no rule except be consistent.

Finally…

  1. One sure way to ensure better writing is by reading good writing. The more good academic and non-academic writing you read, the richer your unconscious ideas about writing will become, with good outcomes for your academic writing.
  2. Always proof read (reading out loud is a good idea, or get someone else to proof read). If it doesn't make sense to you, it won't make sense to the reader.
  3. Always edit and remove as many extraneous words as possible; make your text elegant! And use a thesaurus to avoid repeating phrases.
  4. If you are a student, always hand in your best work to your supervisor to mark. High quality feedback only comes from high-quality drafts.
  5. If you are aiming at publication, know the audience and the technical requirements for the article before you start.
  6. Always keep up your full reference list, including relevant page numbers. Use EndNote or equivalent. Check you have referenced correctly throughout the text.
  7. Murder your darlings! Sometimes you have to kill off those favourite sentences or ideas because they just do not fit… or maybe you just need to put them away somewhere for another project.

You may think you know what you want to say, but unless you can express your thoughts clearly in writing, they are not worth much in the academic world!