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It is imperative that style is clear and aids the expression of your ideas. Academic concepts are by their nature complex, and this can lead to overcomplexity in the way they are expressed, obscuring the meaning. Academic ideas should be expressed as simply as possible. This does not mean that it is always possible to reduce a complicated argument or concept to a sentence as simple as 'the cat sat on the mat', but academic style nonetheless should prioritise clarity.

Academic writing should also be concise. It is a very functional genre and does not use more words than necessary to convey the meaning. Different sorts of assignment have different limitations placed on them. Exam essays, and, to some extent, supervision essays, have a time limit, and more formal assignments such as dissertations may have word or page limits. Unnecessary words may make it difficult to stay within these limits. Moreover, long-winded writing may give the reader the impression that your ideas are not clearly defined or focussed, that you are 'waffling' to make up space or unable to identify precisely what your point is. Although academic texts are very complex, they should not be more complex than is necessary. There is a careful balance to be struck between formality and conciseness in academic writing. Many of the strategies that give your writing a more formal tone are also more wordy, and you must decide on your priorities, and what compromises to make.

Strategies for clarity

One of the easiest ways to improve the clarity of your writing is to shorten your sentences. Long and complex sentences may confuse the relationship between parts of the sentence and may also mean that your main point loses impact. Shortening a long sentence into a sequence of shorter ones, linked with words which express the relationship between them (such as 'however', 'moreover' etc.), can increase clarity and ensure that each of your points has equal weight. In particular, you might consider:

Pronouns: it should always be clear what a pronoun refers to. If a word such as 'it' or 'they' has more than one potential referent in the sentence, or the preceding one, the reader may mistake your meaning.

Main idea: It is clearest if the main idea of the sentence appears early. Any additional elements which precede the main idea of the sentence should be examined to make sure that it is clear what they are refering to. For example:

'As a woman, Milton does not respect Eve.'  in this example, it appears that Milton, not Eve, is the woman referred to.

'Rejecting Stanley Fish's view, Milton did not attempt to surprise his reader.'  In this sentence, it appears that Milton (d.1674) is rejecting Stanley's Fish's view (b.1938). A clearer alternative would be: 'Contrary to Stanley Fish's view, Milton did not attempt to surprise his reader'.

Strategies for conciseness

Phrasal verbs are verbs which add elements in order to give the verb a different meaning. They are very common in informal, spoken language, but can often be replaced by a single word, which is often also a more formal alternative. Examples include:

Wordy Concise
to look at to examine
to think about  to consider
to talk about to discuss
to find out to discover
to put across to convey

 

There are other instances where unnecessary words might be added in order to create a more formal tone where the shorter and more neutral version is just as good. For example

Type Wordy version Concise alternative
is + adjective of This word is suggestive of This word suggests
x is a y that It is a poem that uses mixed metaphors The poem uses mixed metaphors
it is a [adjective] one The novel is a complicated one The novel is complicated
[adjective] + quality / character / manner / nature This poem has a sentimental quality to it This poem is sentimental
passive constructions The urn is called a 'still unravished bride of quietness' by Keats Keats calls the urn 'a still unravished bride of quietness'

 

There are also well-worn phrases, common in spoken and journalistic style which add words without contributing to meaning. Examples include:

Wordy Concise
Despite the fact that Although
Due to the fact that Because
With regard to Concerning
On a regular basis Regularly
One of the most significant A significant