Four ways to improve your academic writing

 

When you're writing grant proposals, journal articles, or pretty much any other piece of professional writing, one of the smartest things you can do is to make it easy for your readers. Put yourself in their shoes for a minute and imagine what it would be like to read your work. Then do whatever you can to make reading as easy as possible.

Making it easy doesn't mean treating your readers like morons. It means treating your readers with respect.

 

How do you make it easy? Here are four great ways:

 

1. Tell them where they're going, then lead them there

Make your writing predictable. Set your readers up with a road map and then guide them all the way through. If you can create a logical path for them instead of making them do the work themselves, everyone's happy.

Not only do you need to tell your readers where they're going, you need to lead the way. This means:

  • Doing the thinking for them by ensuring that there is a logical flow to your argument
    • E.g., what do you need to do in paragraphs 1 and 2 so that the reader understands paragraph 3?
  • Using transition words to connect sentences and paragraphs

 

2. Get right to the point

Do as much background and set-up as you need to so that you can lay down the stakes, but then make sure the readers know why they're reading. Don't bury your message under pages of explanation and detail. And definitely do not wait until the end to reveal your point. THIS IS NOT A MAGIC SHOW.

One way to do this is to frontload your argument. This means you're putting your strongest material first and giving your readers a teaser of what's to come. I'll talk more about this in a future post, but essentially you're letting the reader know in the first few paragraphs what it's all about.

 

3. Put yourself in their shoes

Think about your audience. Chances are they're busy, tired, or preoccupied. If they have to do a lot of heavy lifting to figure out what you're trying to say, or if they're greeted with a wall of text when they start reading, they're probably not going to get very far.

When you put yourself in your readers' shoes, you can imagine what might make reading a little easier. For example:

  • Blank space on the page to give their eyes a rest
  • Headings and sub-headings to act as signposts
  • Bold or italicized text to draw the eye and add emphasis (use this sparingly)
  • Variation in sentence length and cadence

 

4. Keep it simple, smartypants

Plenty has been written about stuffy academics writing 'turgid prose' (I LOVE this expression, btw). But the affliction goes well beyond the ivory tower.

Keeping it simple is really about using clear, accessible language. It's not about treating your reader like an idiot or dumbing down your ideas. It's about presenting your ideas in a way that doesn't require your reader to do mental gymnastics to understand you.

I wrote about this in more detail here: Keep your writing as simple and as clear as possible.

All of the ways you can make it easy for your readers will involve a little more work from you.

But what better way to show respect? Treat your readers like royalty, and everybody wins.

 

 

How will you make it easy for your readers? Which of these tips seems difficult, and why? Let me know in the comments!