Tips for being concise in academic writing

Tangled threads of woolIn a recent conversation with an academic author, she told me that she’d like to write more concisely.

I think she’s already good at this: she keeps her paragraphs and sentences to a manageable length and chooses her words carefully. She’s quick to notice if she’s repeated an idea unnecessarily.

But conciseness can be difficult to achieve when you have a ball of complex theoretical ideas to untangle. Before you know it, you’ve typed out a monster of a sentence that’s ten lines long and has just as many ideas crammed in. If this is you, you’re not alone – I’ve done it plenty of times myself.

This post looks at why it’s worth making the effort to be concise. It then gives you nine tips to help you plan, write and edit for brevity.

Why be concise?

Whether you’re writing a PhD thesis, a book or a journal article, there are plenty of reasons to be sparing with words.

  • It gets your message across clearly. That means your document is more likely to achieve its purpose – for example, to show your examiner that your intellectual argument is sound or explain your research to others.
  • You can fit in more ideas. Eighty thousand words might seem like a lot when you start writing a PhD thesis, but break that down into chapters and sections and it can soon be hard to stick to the word limit while including everything you want to say. The tighter you can make each point, the more ideas you can cover.
  • It’s kind to the reader – whether that’s your examiner or someone researching the subject. Everyone is busy, and even readers who are familiar with your subject will appreciate you respecting their time.

Convinced? Here are nine tips to help you keep the length under control.


Tip 1 – Plan well

Before you start writing, plan your structure. This will help you avoid going off on tangents that could take up the valuable room you need for your central ideas.

For example, if you’re writing a PhD thesis, create a map of the chapters and the sections within those chapters.

  • Make sure there isn’t any repetition between chapters and sections.
  • Order the sections logically. This will help avoid repetition creeping in when you start to write.

Planning helps you to untangle the concepts, theories and arguments and present them in a way that makes sense – all before you start to write individual sentences. If you know what you want to say and where your argument is leading, it’s easier to avoid waffle and keep your paragraphs and sentences shorter.

Planning tip

Try formatting your draft headings using the Styles tool in Word. You can then view the heading structure in the navigation pane to check that your chapters and sections are balanced, logical and without repetition.

To learn how to use Styles, see this guidance from the University of Michigan.

To find out how to view the headings in the navigation pane, see this post by my colleague Liz Dexter.


Tip 2 – Structure your paragraphs clearly

When writing, structure the information in each paragraph so that there is a clear thread from one sentence to the next.

Thinking about the structure of each paragraph helps you to avoid repeating yourself or going off the point. This will keep your paragraphs and sentences more concise.

  • Keep each paragraph to the development of one idea. When you move on to the next idea, start a new paragraph.
  • Make sure there is a clear connection between one sentence and the next, and between one paragraph and the next. You can use phrasebanks, such as the University of Manchester Academic Phrasebank, for inspiration.
  • Watch out repeated ideas, such as two sentences that say the same thing using different words or references.

Resource

The Using English for Academic Purposes website gives more guidance on how to structure paragraphs effectively. There is also a useful list of ‘signalling words’ to show how one sentence connects to the next.


Tip 3 – Keep (most) sentences short

Sometimes a sentence can become so long, with so many clauses, that it’s almost impossible for the reader to follow the argument from one end to the other. By the time they’ve got to the full stop at the end, they can’t remember how it began.

Limiting most of your sentences to around 20 words forces you to be more precise.

Of course, some sentences will need to be longer to express your ideas clearly and add variety to your writing. But if most of your sentences are more than two or three lines long, try editing them down using the tips below.


Tip 4 – Keep to one main idea in each sentence

If you’re having trouble keeping a sentence short, you might be trying to include too many ideas. Are you trying to explain a term at the same time as making a point? Are you jumping ahead to asides or caveats?

To fit in extra information, you have to add more clauses. Look out for these inside brackets or between parenthetical dashes or commas (see the Before example below). When these clauses are long, perhaps including quotations too, it gets harder for the reader to hold all the information in their mind and follow the logic of the argument. The grammar can also become confusing – for example, it isn’t always obvious which word or phrase a pronoun refers to.

If a sentence has too many clauses, the first thing to do is split it up into several shorter ones. Then you can add connecting words and phrases to link them:

Before

It has been reported that authentic materials increase the levels of students’ motivation (Yuk Chun Lee, 1995; Peacock, 1997; Dornyei, 1998), and this is significantly demonstrated in Peacock’s study, where the mean positive score – out of 40 – was six points higher for students using them, but on the other hand authentic materials can be demotivating: as Richard (2001) explains, they can be too difficult and contain lexis that they do not need to be taught at this stage in their learning, which might lead to them feeling less confident, especially those whose competence level is lower.
(1 sentence)

After

Authentic materials increase students’ motivation (Yuk Chun Lee, 1995; Peacock, 1997; Dornyei, 1998). In Peacock’s study, the results were significant: the mean positive score (out of 40) was six points higher for students using authentic materials than for students using artificial materials. However, authentic materials can also be demotivating. As Richard (2001) explains, they can be too difficult and contain lexis that the students do not need to be taught at this stage in their learning. This might lead to students feeling less confident, especially those whose competence level is lower.
(5 sentences)

Once you’ve done this, you can trim each sentence down to make it as lean as possible using tips 5 to 9.


Tip 5 – Avoid repetition

Some words and phrases just repeat the meaning of other words. They don’t contribute anything new, so you can get rid of them.

Here are some examples:

the length of the duration of the project >> the length of the project

for the purpose of >> for

in order to >> to

Watch out for redundant words that are separated from their ‘pair’ in your sentence, like these:

Before

Although case studies are convenient for detailed examinations, they are, however, inappropriate for generalisations.

After

Although case studies are convenient for detailed examinations, they are inappropriate for generalisations.

It’s easy not to notice redundant pairs because we get so used to seeing them, so use a checklist. The Purdue OWL has a list of redundant pairs by category here.


Tip 6 – Rephrase wordy constructions

You might be able to replace wordy constructions such as ‘not only … but also’ and ‘on the one hand … on the other hand’ with something simpler and shorter:

Before

We analysed not only the type of cake eaten by each participant but also the day of the week on which they ate it. On the one hand, chocolate cake was the most popular choice on Fridays; on the other hand, carrot cake was favoured on Tuesdays.

After

We analysed the type of cake eaten by each participant and the day of the week on which they ate it. Chocolate cake was the most popular choice on Fridays, while carrot cake was favoured on Tuesdays.

Sometimes, a ‘not only … but also’ or an ‘on the one hand … on the other hand’ does a better job than the alternative. Don’t be afraid to keep these constructions if they add emphasis that you need, but be careful not to overuse them.

Other wordy phrases include ‘in light of the fact that’ (try using ‘because’), ‘with regard to the matter of’ (about) and ‘in spite of the fact that’ (although).

Resource

The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has a list of alternatives to wordy phrases.


Tip 7 – Cut down long introductions

Introductions to sentences and paragraphs are often longer than they need to be. See if there are any you can cut down or delete.

Before

This standpoint is further supported by the fact that when teachers start their training …

After

Furthermore, when teachers start their training …


Tip 8 – Delete ‘padding’ words

All of us pepper our writing with words and phrases that aren’t needed. It can be difficult to spot these while you’re writing, so look out for them when you come back to edit your work.

Example

The objective of this thesis reveals that its approach is clearly qualitative rather than quantitative.


Tip 9 – Cut general ‘waffle’

You can end up waffling when you haven’t quite worked out what you want to say. Careful planning should help you avoid this creeping in. To spot waffle more easily, give yourself at least a few days between writing and editing.

Before

There are two major complications with the idea of ‘learning styles’. First, a difficulty with this issue and indeed the concept of learning styles is that there are so many distinct contributors that it is difficult to define learning styles precisely.

After

There are two major complications with the concept of ‘learning styles’. First, there are so many distinct contributors that it is difficult to provide a precise definition.


Summary

This post looks at just a few ways of keeping the text concise, and I hope some of them work for you.

For more detailed advice and examples, have a look at the resources below.


Resources

Your university: language tutor Mark Lawrence on academic writing support services available in UK universities.

The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on writing clear, concise sentences.

The Purdue OWL on conciseness.

LearnHigher on writing clearly and concisely.

Using English for Academic Purposes on structure and paragraphing.

Pat Thomson on tightening up your sentences.

The University of Manchester Academic Phrasebank of connecting phrases.

The Thesis Whisperer on using the right connecting words to link sentences.


Acknowledgement

I’m very grateful to two academic authors, who gave me permission to adapt extracts from their work to create the examples in this post (except for the pioneering study on cake, which I confess is all my own). You know who you are – thank you!

Proofreader and copy-editor living in the Peak District, UK. Advanced Professional member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. 'Owner' (ha, ha) of two feline assistants.

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Posted in Academic writing, Students
6 comments on “Tips for being concise in academic writing
  1. Thanks for this Laura – even as an editor I know I’m sometimes guilty of waffling, so really handy to have these points to hand, and the resources you cite.

    Like

    • Laura Ripper says:

      Thanks, Jill. It’s good to know there are other waffling editors out there – I always have to distil my ramblings through several edits! 🙂

      Like

  2. Mego says:

    This is perfect!!

    Like

  3. Liz Dexter says:

    Great article; it’s especially useful to have the examples. And thanks for the shout-out!

    Like

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