Don’t be afraid to be clear

Students often try to give their writing an academic air by making it more difficult to read. They’ll turn a straightforward sentence like “the puppet popped out and scared the children” into “the puppet’s sudden emergence caused fear in the children”. Or write sentences like “an experiment to test this theory was carried out”, in which all instances of “I” or “we” are scrubbed out in an effort to make things less personal.

But fewer professional researchers feel this shyness about being direct and personal in their writing. To illustrate this, I’ve taken extracts written by PPLS researchers and degraded them into the sort of writing that’s more typical of undergraduates. Take a look at the transformed sentences below and consider how they could be made less obscure.

Animals setting off to their usual foraging grounds can be seen to be in possession of knowledge of their destination based on the fact that different starting places and different routes exist.

An experiment in which eight- to ten-year-old children played a tangram description and matching task with a partner, as in Wilkes-Gibbs and Clark (1992), was carried out to distinguish these alternatives.

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Words to use carefully

Today I found myself talking about the writing centre to a group of postgraduate students. In the interest of being direct, I decided not to use speaking notes. An odd word choice here or there, I thought, was worth it if I could maintain eye contact throughout. Usually that would be the right choice, but today I had the unpleasant experience of catching myself saying something I definitely didn’t want to be saying. See if you can spot the moment when my nose started to wrinkle:
You shouldn’t see the writing centre as remedial. Even the strongest writer in this room can benefit from listening to what someone else has to say about their essay. As proof, consider the academics in our department. Even those who have been publishing for decades are glad to get outside opinions. Nearly every journal article they write includes a long list of people who helped make the writing better.
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