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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Topic sentences and how to use them

During your studies, you will be probably be told at least once that you should pay attention to topic sentences. These sentences come at the beginnings of paragraphs and introduce the central ideas that are about to be developed. “Use topic sentences,” the advice-givers say, “and your writing will become clear”.

And yet many examples of fine writing do not use topic sentences. I’ve read many paragraphs where the first sentence does not point towards the incoming payload at all, and yet the authors of these paragraphs are praised for their style and clarity. Then why should we use them? Are topic sentences another example of a fictional device made up to turn writing into a paint-by-numbers exercise? Continue reading “Topic sentences and how to use them”

Model abstracts in linguistics

It’s important to be able to write a good abstract.  How else are you going to convince people to accept your journal articles or conference presentations?

Abstracts share a lot with introductions.  In both you’ll have to provide context, establish a problem or niche, and then fill in the knowledge gap with your own position.  And they both function to get the reader interested in finding out what you have to say.

But you’ll have to go a step further with abstracts.  Continue reading “Model abstracts in linguistics”

How to write conclusions

We often hear that the conclusion is where you “tell ’em what you told ’em”. That’s easy advice to follow, but does it really reflect how most essays and articles end? It would be a little odd if that was all there was to it; you can already find a brief summary of what the article says in the abstract, so why would there by another place for doing the exact same thing again? Just for convenience’s sake, so that the reader doesn’t have to flip back to the abstract? I think there’s more that can be done with a conclusion than simply repeating what was in the paper. To be sure, we do need to sum up the paper’s content, but that can be over in a sentence or two. What comes next?

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Reducing ambiguity

If you’ve taken an introduction to linguistics, you’ll have heard of ambiguity.  When I say “a cow attacked a farmer with an axe”, there’s some potential for miscommunication about who’s wielding the axe.  The reason is that sentences aren’t just words on a string.  Instead, the words come in clumps, and these clumps can link up in different ways even if the word order stays the same.  It matters if “with an axe” attaches to “attacked” or “farmer”.  This is syntactic ambiguity, but you can also have ambiguity in the words themselves.  If I said “I bought a pen”, you would probably imagine that I’d bought something to write with, but my sentence might actually be about an enclosure for some pigs.  You never know.

In your academic writing, you probably won’t be communicating facts about pigs in pens or cows with axes, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t need to worry about ambiguity.  Here are a few examples that can cause real trouble in essays: Continue reading “Reducing ambiguity”

Writing to learn and writing to communicate

Write twice: once to discover what you think and once to present what you’ve learned. Committing yourself to writing twice may look like a burden, but you’ll probably find it to be liberating instead.

The first time through is when you find out what you think. You can’t skip this; you won’t know what you have to say until you get it out. No matter how many times you read through your sources, you’ll find that your ideas and concepts will always have something ethereal about them until they are sitting on your computer screen. Continue reading “Writing to learn and writing to communicate”

How to write an introduction

There are a few well-worn pieces of advice on introductions that get passed around. “Tell ’em what you’re going to say” is probably the most popular of these. Another one is “grab their attention”. I haven’t found either to be very helpful in my own writing. After all, most authors tell people what’s going to be said in the abstract, which covers the whole paper and its conclusions. The introduction is really for leading people into the essay, not reproducing it in compact form. And while you can grab people’s attention through short, shocking statements, surely that isn’t the only way to open things up. Look at the essays you admire. Some may aim to surprise, but probably not all.

Then there are the traps that students fall into over and over. Many undergraduates open by repeating the essay prompt or quoting from the dictionary. These are hackneyed approaches, and they call to mind an unsure student sitting in front of a blank computer screen. Others try to puff things up with grand statements of the cosmic importance of what’s to come in the essay (“Ladies and gentlemen! What you’re about to see will astonish you. Ever since the dawn of humanity, we have wrestled with…”). That’s an exaggeration of what I’ve seen, but only just.

A better approach is to use your introduction to set the right environment for your argument. You can do this by (1) establishing the context, (2) identifying a problem, and then (3) providing a response. The context is where you introduce the topic that will be under discussion, usually in a fairly neutral way. The problem can be either a gap in existing knowledge or a point of academic contention. And the response is your contribution or judgment, the argument that you will be supporting over the rest of your paper. You might have found a different approach to the problem, or something new to consider. Or maybe new evidence has come along from a different field that should be taken into account. Continue reading “How to write an introduction”