Academic writing in the social sciences often examines abstruse topics that require in-depth analysis and explanation. As a result, a common challenge to writing college-level research papers is expressing your thoughts clearly by utilizing language that communicates essential information unambiguously. When you proofread your paper, critically review your writing style and the terminology you used throughout your paper. Pay particular attention to identifying and editing the following common categories of imprecise writing.
1. Problems with wordiness – the use of more words than is necessary to communicate a thought, concept, or idea.
- Cliches – these are phrases that have become bland and ordinary through overuse. Besides indicating lazy thinking because they are often used as a substitute for carefully thinking about what to say, cliches should not be used due to the fact that they're often embedded within a specific cultural context. For example, if you say, "The Iraqi diplomat is going out on a limb if he does not protect his country's economic interests during negotiations with the United States." Americans may know what it means to be “out on a limb” [derived from the sport of hunting–get it?], but would someone from another culture know what this refers to?
- Intensifiers – these include modifying words such as very, literally, radically, definitely, significantly, greatly, extremely, moderately, basically, exceptionally, obviously, really, uncommonly, etc. Intensifiers create the illusion of accentuating words but, in academic writing, intensifiers actually have the opposite effect because they do not covey anything measurable. And editing intensifiers does not imply exchanging the term “extremely large” with the word “huge”; if something is unusual or it needs highlighting, quantify its uniqueness and place it in a comparative context [e.g., instead of saying, “...an extremely large increase in hospital visitations,” state as, “...a 45% increase in hospital visitations since 2010”]. If there is no data to quantify the phenomena, then describe its significance using precise language [e.g., "Evidence that hospital visitations are increasing may impact the quality of patient services because there are no indications that staffing levels will be increased in the foreseeable future"].
- Nominalizations – this refers to a verb, adjective, or adverb that has been converted into a noun or noun phrase. Although this practice is not grammatically incorrect, overuse of nominalizations can clutter your writing. Examples include: "take action," "draw conclusions," and "make assumptions." These phrases can be reduced to: "act," "conclude," and "assume." Other nominalizations take the form of adding derivational suffixes to a verb, such as, --ance (deliver to deliverance) or -ize (modern to modernize). Editing the action of the sentence back into a bare infinitive verb [the most basic form of a verb] will undo the nominalization, making the sentence more succinct and easier to read.
- Stock phrases – this refers to phrases that compromise clarity in your writing by adding unnecessary complexity to the sentence; stock phrases are similar to cliches in that they are overused terms. Examples include: “has the ability to,” “due to the fact that,” “regardless of the fact,” or “at this point in time.” Stock phrases often can and should be reduced to one word. Therefore, the above phrases can be reduced to “can,” “because,” although,” and “now.”
- Verbal phrases– these are also phrases that contribute little or no meaning to the overall sentence. They are similar to stock phrases but can be reduced to a single action verb. Examples include: “to come to a conclusion,” "to take into consideration," or “to make a determination.” The above phrases can be reduced to “conclude,” "consider," or “determine."
2. Problems with redundancy – refers to the use of words or phrases that possess the same or almost the same meaning.
- Implied modifiers (similar meaning) – implied modifiers can refer to the meaning of a word or phrase possessing the same or very similar meaning of the modifier. These types of modifying words can be subtle and difficult to locate but eliminating them will help clarify your writing. There are two ways to edit these modifiers. For example, if you say, “The next decision of the Supreme Court is difficult to anticipate in advance.” Think about the implied meaning of "anticipate in advance"; if something is happening in advance, it is inherently anticipatory. Restate the sentence using only one of those words.
- Implied modifiers (incomplete thought) – implied modifiers can also suggest an incomplete thought about the subject of the sentence. Consider the following statement: “The maritime negotiations between Japan and China remain a difficult challenge.” It can be implied that any type of challenge is difficult. However, by inserting an explanation [“because”] within the sentence, you expand the thought more completely. Therefore, you can either say, “The maritime negotiations between Japan and China remain a challenge because it is difficult to...,” or you can say, “The maritime negotiations between Japan and China remain difficult because the main challenge is....” NOTE: This form of implied modifiers demonstrates that the act of writing concisely isn't simply about reducing the number of words you use; it is also an act of thoroughly expressing exactly what you mean to say.
- Paired synonyms – words paired together that have the same basic meaning may sound appealing when read aloud but they are unnecessary. Examples include: each and every, peace and quiet, first and foremost, alter or change, true and accurate, true and correct, always and forever. Choose only one word from the pairing that reflects the meaning you are trying to convey or use a thesaurus to find a word that more accurately reflects your thoughts. Other word pairings are over-used catch phrases, such as, “first and foremost,” "end result," "various differences," "sudden crisis," or “completely eliminate.” They are redundant and re-state the obvious; choose only one word or eliminate them altogether.
3. Problems with unclear sentence constructions--short, declarative sentences are easier to comprehend than lengthy narratives.
- Active voice – some professors, particularly in business, technical, or scientific writing courses, may prefer that you write papers using a passive voice because they want you to convey information objectivity by using an authoritative tone that focuses on the main idea or recommended action rather than the conscious intent underlying the idea or action. However, the passive voice frequently requires more words than is necessary to covey a thought or idea. Unless instructed not to do so, write using an active voice. Here is an example: Passive–"It is believed by the state legislature that a person’s picture on their drivers license must be updated every five years" [21 words]. In the active voice, the sentence would read: "The state legislature believes that a drivers license picture must updated every five years" [14 words]. Notice here as well the phrase, “a person’s drivers license”; who else would own a drivers license but a person? The word “person’s” is redundant and can also be deleted.
- Combining sentences – it is often true that writing shorter, declarative sentences helps the reader better understand the content of each thought or idea. However, it is also the case that two or more sentences may be combined to convey the information more effectively using fewer words. Review your paper and look for paragraphs that appear wordy. This may indicate opportunities to condense sentences. Here is an example: “The BP oil spill occurred in 2010. This oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico prompted greater attention to regulating offshore drilling. Among these regulations was a rule governing procedures for capping wells.” These three sentences can be combined to read: “The 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico prompted greater attention to regulatory procedures for capping offshore drilling wells.” All of the essential information remains, but it is stated more concisely.
Attending to Style. Institute for Writing and Rhetoric. Dartmouth University; Conciseness. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Eser, Jonathan. “Concise is Nice! An Aid for Writing Concisely.” The Writing Center. Georgetown University Law Center; Henning, Cathy. “Brevity isn’t Enough: You Need to Write Tight.” Harvard Management Communication Letter 6 (February 2003): 4-6; How To Write Clearly. Center for Academic Success. Butte College; Howard, Rebecca M. Writing Matters: A Handbook for Writing and Research. 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2014; Mack, Richard N. "Writing with Precision, Clarity, and Economy." Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 67 (March 1986): 31-35;Morrison, Eric. “Grammar Police: The Dos and Don’ts of Writing.” In Getting Your Research Paper Published: A Surgical Perspective. Edited by Mohit Bhandari and Anders Joensson. (New York: Thieme Publishing Group, 2011), pp. 110-120; Revising Your Paper. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College; Writing Clear, Concise Sentences. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Westervelt, Mary. “Concise Writing: Sentence Structure and Wording.” Technical Communication Resources. School of Engineering and Applied Science. University of Pennsylvania; Writing Concisely. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina.