How to Write Clearly & Succinctly - With Bonus Editing Checklist

How do you write better papers? The first step is to fix the language you use, and how you write. That is what this writing tutorial is on. The second step is to understand how to write a good literature review. The third step is to structure your paper correctly. You can find all three of these tutorials in my academic section of my blog. These tutorials are based on my experience of writing papers, marking papers, and publishing papers in an academic setting in the discipline of sociology and anthropology.

Get rid of prepositions you don’t need.
Make your sentences less wordy.
Get rid of repeated words: in the same sentence, in the following sentence, at the beginning of paragraphs

Sentence Structure
Simple Sentence: subject + object + verb (My dog barks.)
Compound Sentence: sentence + ,and / ,if / ,or / ,nor / ,for / ,yet / ,but / ,so + sentence (My dog barks, but I still love him.)
Complex Sentence: sentence + ; transition word/phrase, + sentence (My dog barks; however, I still love him.)
In your first draft make all your sentences into simple sentences. Then after you have written clear, concise sentences, try combining a few here and there to add variety, style, and flow to your paper.

Camouflaged Verbs
The verb is the strongest part of your sentence, don’t camouflage it.
A camouflaged verb is a verb that you turn into a noun
Example: I will continue the meeting. (Good) In continuation of the meeting… (Bad. Why did you change up the verb like that?)
Watch out for these bad endings for verbs:
ion / tion / ing / ment / ant / ent / ence / ance / ency

Passive Verbs
If you can add “by zombies” to the end of your sentences, then you are doing it wrong.
Clearly assign all verbs to a particular subject
Six shrimp were eaten. (BAD. This is a passive sentence. Notice how I can add “by zombies” to the end of the sentence and the sentence still works. BAD)
Harry ate six shrimp. (Good. This is an active sentence.)

Expletive Words
There are / There is / It is
Get rid of them!
Don’t start your sentences with them!

Multi-Syllable Words / Words You Don’t Understand
Is there a simpler way to say this?
Avoid having 3+ long multi-syllable words in a sentence; especially, right beside each other in the same sentence.
Is your sentence bulky?
Do you understand the word you are using?
Would you be able to explain that word/concept to a five year old? If not, figure it out, or leave it out. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t use big words, but you should aways know a) what they mean well enough that you could explain the concept to a five year old, b) that it is necessary to elevate your sentence, and c) you do not have too many in the same sentence.
Should you/could you define it in your paper, citing other references?

What are examples of academic jargon in your discipline? What are words that only you and a few people know in your discipline?
Do you really understand the concept/word/jargon you are using?
Always define complicated or obscure jargon/concepts citing the necessary related references.

Weasel Words / Vague Words
Make sure you cite/reference/back up EVERY claim you make in a paper. Either it is an original claim BACKED UP by your own research and observations or else it is a claim that needs to be BACKED UP by an academic reference.
Get rid of informal/casual words.
Do not use vague references to support your statements. (Ex: Most people find XYZ in dogs).
Do not use language that softens your claims. Such language includes:
Some, many, several, up to, often, maybe, generally, unlikely, could, would, can, vast majority, etc.

Citations 101
What is an in-text citation versus a citation used on my reference page?
In-text citation: Basketball players drink more water than hockey players (Osterberg et al. 2002).
Coordinating citation on your reference page at the end of your paper:
Osterberg, K. L., Horswill, C. A., & Baker, L. B. (2009). Pregame urine specific gravity and fluid intake by National Basketball Association players during competition. Journal of athletic training, 44(1), 53-57.

How do I cite multiple authors?
Your in-text citation: Basketball players drink more water than hockey players (Carvalho et a. 2009; Osterberg et al. 2002)

Your reference page just adds the extra references to the list:
Carvalho, P., Oliveira, B., Barros, R., Padrão, P., Moreira, P., & Teixeira, V. H. (2011). Impact of fluid restriction and ad libitum water intake or an 8% carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage on skill performance of elite adolescent basketball players. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 21(3), 214-221.

Osterberg, K. L., Horswill, C. A., & Baker, L. B. (2009). Pregame urine specific gravity and fluid intake by National Basketball Association players during competition. Journal of athletic training, 44(1), 53-57.

When should I use citations in my paper?
For every claim you make in a paper you should have an in-text citation of a reference that backs up that claim after the sentence. Note the period of your sentence is placed after the end bracket of the in-text citation. You should then provide the fully detailed citation in your references section located at the end of your paper. Listed references located at your end of your paper should appear in alphabetical order. Please note that the exact structure of your in-text citation and reference list citation will depend on which citing style guide you follow. Always check what citing style your prof wants you to use, and read the style guide for that type of citation. No matter which citation style you use, you should always be citing at least one reference for every claim you make that cannot be backed up by your own research.

How many citations should I include in my paper?
You should cite at least one reference for EVERY claim you make in a paper that is not backed up by your own research in the paper. This includes claims you think are common sense. If you can cite more than one reference for a claim, then this will only make your claim appear stronger, and is encouraged. Yes, this may mean you could have hundreds of citations in your paper. GOOD. Please note that it is highly advised that you only cite academic references that have come from peer-reviewed academic journals. Some professors (most professors) will insist upon it.

Can I use long quotes in my paper?
Start getting into the habit of not using long quotes (or any quotes really) in your papers. It is better to succinctly and intelligently summarize the quote in a sentence/claim/statement and then cite it. Most professors will not appreciate long quotes of someone else’s words when they are supposed to be evaluating your words. In addition, by putting it in your own words, you are showing that you understand and critically work with pertinent literature.

Editing Checklist For Your First Draft:

  • Wordiness
  • Extra prepositions
  • Run-on sentences
  • Too many complex/compound sentences
  • Camouflaged verbs
  • Passive sentences
  • Expletive words
  • Too many multi-syllable words
  • Undefined complicated concepts
  • Unexplained academic jargon
  • Informal words/slang/casual tone of voice
  • Vague references/support statements
  • Softening qualifiers
  • Lack of citations beside a claim
  • Incorrect in-text citations
  • Long quotes in my paper

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1 comment

  1. Wow this is quite the list. I think you've pretty much nailed everything. It's very helpful, thank you!


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