Academic writing in the social sciences often examines abstruse topics that require in-depth analysis and explanation. As a result, a common challenge to writing college-level research papers is expressing your thoughts clearly by utilizing language that communicates essential information unambiguously. When you proofread your paper, critically review your writing style and the terminology you used throughout your paper. Pay particular attention to identifying and editing the following common categories of imprecise writing.
1. Problems with wordiness – the use of more words than is necessary to communicate a thought or idea.
- Cliches – these are phrases that have become bland and ordinary through overuse. Besides indicating lazy thinking because they are often used as a substitute for carefully thinking about what to say, cliches should not be used due to the fact that they're often embedded within a specific cultural context. For example, if you say, "The Iraqi diplomat is going out on a limb if he does not protect his country's economic interests during negotiations with the United States." Americans may know what it means to be “out on a limb” [derived from the sport of hunting–get it?], but would someone from another culture know what this refers to?
- Intensifiers – these include modifying words such as very, literally, radically, definitely, significantly, greatly, extremely, moderately, basically, exceptionally, obviously, really, uncommonly, etc. Intensifiers create the illusion of accentuating words but, in academic writing, intensifiers actually have the opposite effect because they do not covey anything measurable. And editing intensifiers does not imply exchanging the term “extremely large” with the word “huge”; if something is unusual or it needs highlighting, quantify its uniqueness and place it in a comparative context [e.g., instead of saying, “...an extremely large increase in hospital visitations,” state as, “...a 45% increase in hospital visitations since 2010”]. If there is no data to quantify the phenomena, then describe its importance using precise language.
- Nominalizations – this refers to a verb, adjective, or adverb that has been converted into a noun or noun phrase. Although this practice is not grammatically incorrect, overuse of nominalizations can clutter your writing. Examples include: "take action," "draw conclusions," and "make assumptions." These phrases can be reduced to: "act," "conclude," and "assume." Other nominalizations take the form of adding derivational suffixes to a verb, such as, --ance (deliver to deliverance) or -ize (modern to modernize). Editing the action of the sentence back into a bare infinitive verb [the most basic form of a verb] will undo the nominalization, making the sentence more succinct and easier to read.
- Stock phrases – this refers to phrases that compromise clarity in your writing by adding unnecessary complexity to the sentence; stock phrases are similar to cliches in that they are overused terms. Examples include: “has the ability to,” “due to the fact that,” “regardless of the fact,” or “at this point in time.” Stock phrases often can and should be reduced to one word. Therefore, the above phrases can be reduced to “can,” “because,” although,” and “now.”
- Verbal phrases– these are also phrases that contribute little or no meaning to the overall sentence. They are similar to stock phrases but can be reduced to a single action verb. Examples include: “to come to a conclusion,” "to take into consideration," or “to make a determination.” The above phrases can be reduced to “conclude,” "consider," or “determine."
2. Problems with redundancy – refers to the use of words or phrases that possess the same or almost the same meaning.
- Implied modifiers – this refers to the meaning of a word or phrase possessing the same or very similar meaning of the modifier. These types of modifying words can be subtle and difficult to locate but eliminating them will help clarify your writing. There are two ways to edit these modifiers. For example, if you say, “The next decision of the Supreme Court is difficult to anticipate in advance.” Think about the implied meaning of "anticipate in advance"; if something is happening in advance, it is inherently anticipatory. Restate the sentence using only one of those words. However, implied modifiers can also suggest an incomplete thought about the subject of the sentence. Consider the sentence, “The maritime negotiations between Japan and China remain a difficult challenge.” Any type of challenge is inherently difficult. However, by inserting an explanation [“because”] within the sentence, you expand the thought more completely. Therefore, you can either say, “The maritime negotiations between Japan and China remain a challenge because it is difficult to...,” or you can say, “The maritime negotiations between Japan and China remain difficult because the main challenge is....”
- Paired synonyms – words paired together that have the same basic meaning may sound appealing when read aloud but they are unnecessary. Examples include: each and every, peace and quiet, first and foremost, alter or change, true and accurate, true and correct, always and forever. Choose only one word from the pairing that reflects the meaning you are trying to convey or use a thesaurus to find a word that more accurately reflects your thoughts. Other word pairings are over-used catch phrases, such as, “first and foremost,” "end result," "various differences," "sudden crisis," or “completely eliminate.” They are redundant and re-state the obvious; choose only one word or eliminate them altogether.
3. Problems with unclear sentence constructions--short, declarative sentences are easier to comprehend than lengthy narratives.
- Active voice – some professors, particularly in the areas of business, technical, or scientific writing, may prefer that you write papers using a passive voice because they want you to convey objectivity by using an authoritative tone that focuses on the main idea or recommended action rather than the conscious intent underlying the idea or action. However, the passive voice frequently requires more words than is necessary to covey a thought or idea. Unless instructed not to do so, always write using an active voice. Here is an example: Passive–"It is believed by the state legislature that a person’s picture on their drivers license must be updated every five years" [21 words]. In the active voice, the sentence would read: "The state legislature believes that a drivers license picture must updated every five years" [14 words]. Notice here as well the phrase, “a person’s drivers license”; who else would own a drivers license but a person? The word “person’s” is redundant and can also be deleted.
- Combining sentences – it is most often true that writing shorter, declarative sentences helps the reader better understand the content of each thought or idea. However, it is also the case that two or more sentences may be combined to convey the information more effectively using fewer words. Review your paper and look for paragraphs that appear wordy. This may indicate opportunities to condense sentences. Here is an example: “The BP oil spill occurred in 2010. This oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico prompted greater attention to regulating offshore drilling. Among these regulations was a rule governing procedures for capping wells.” These three sentences can be combined to read: “The 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico prompted greater attention to regulatory procedures for capping offshore drilling wells.” All of the essential information remains, but it is stated more concisely.
Attending to Style. Institute for Writing and Rhetoric. Dartmouth University; Conciseness. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Eser, Jonathan. “Concise is Nice! An Aid for Writing Concisely.” The Writing Center. Georgetown University Law Center; Henning, Cathy. “Brevity isn’t Enough: You Need to Write Tight.” Harvard Management Communication Letter 6 (February 2003): 4-6; How To Write Clearly. Center for Academic Success. Butte College; Howard, Rebecca M. Writing Matters: A Handbook for Writing and Research. 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2014; Mack, Richard N. "Writing with Precision, Clarity, and Economy." Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 67 (March 1986): 31-35;Morrison, Eric. “Grammar Police: The Dos and Don’ts of Writing.” In Getting Your Research Paper Published: A Surgical Perspective. Edited by Mohit Bhandari and Anders Joensson. (New York: Thieme Publishing Group, 2011), pp. 110-120; Revising Your Paper. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College; Writing Clear, Concise Sentences. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Westervelt, Mary. “Concise Writing: Sentence Structure and Wording.” Technical Communication Resources. School of Engineering and Applied Science. University of Pennsylvania; Writing Concisely. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina.
Although most research papers and chapter summaries have the same basic requirements regardless of the discipline — Media Communications, Psychology, etc.— Business papers have a few unique challenges that deserve elaboration.
Beware the Cliché
While clichés may be grammatically acceptable, they make for tedious reading and can reflect negatively on the writer in terms of originality. Business papers especially seem to contain many clichés, but this issue can be resolved with a few simple actions.
Recognize Clichés — In order to eliminate clichés from your writing, you must first learn to identify them. A cliché is a word or phrase that has been so overused that it has lost all meaning or impact. It is perceived as boring and unoriginal.
Examples: “it's neither here nor there,” “think outside of the box,” “win-win situation,” “look out for number one,” whole nine yards,” “last but not least,” etc.
You may hear these so often that you don't even realize that they are clichés, but they are. If it's a word or phrase that you've heard or seen repeated over and over, then it's likely that it qualifies in this category.
Identify Your Intent — If you are uncertain of this, then it makes it more difficult to omit clichés. For example, if you use the term “bottom line” throughout your paper, why? If you are making a statement about a company's goal or objective, why not say something like, “Company XYZ's primary goal is to make a profit” rather than “The bottom line is that Company XYZ must be profitable.”
Determine an Appropriate Substitute — Do you need to re-phrase or can you simply eliminate the cliché altogether? For example, the cliché “whole nine yards” can easily be replaced with a simple “everything.” The term “last but not least” can be removed as it is redundant; the reader will realize it is the last item while reading it. You haven't changed the meaning in either example but have instead communicated it clearly and concisely.
Some common slang that appears in Business papers includes: “corporate ladder,” “ducks in a row,” “touch base,” and “bring to the table.” While these still might be verbally acceptable in the business world, they should be avoided in written communications.
Poor Choice: “Most workers at Company XYZ try hard to climb the corporate ladder.”
Better Choice: “The majority of workers at Company XYZ strive to advance their careers there.”
Poor Choice: “Company XYZ brings know-how and a lot of skilled workers to the table.”
Better Choice: “Company XYZ brings business knowledge and a strong workforce to the merger proposal.”
If you do feel that it's appropriate to use slang to better communicate an idea or message, use it sparingly and place “quotation marks” around the word or phrase to let the reader—which includes your professor—know that you are aware that it is slang.
Wordiness & Passive Verbs
More is not necessarily better when it comes to writing. This is especially true when you are writing about topics with which the “average reader” may not be familiar. Be clear and concise and use active verbs whenever possible. Engage the reader and make it relevant to him/her.
Poor Choice: “On September 13, 1945, the XYZ Company was founded by John Doe for the purpose of providing farmers with crop-dusting services that were very much in need at that time.”
Better Choice: “John Doe founded the XYZ Company in September of 1945 in order to provide farmers with much needed crop-dusting services.”
Notice that the verb in the second example is active: “John Doe founded…” In the first example, it is passive: “…XYZ Company was founded by…”
Use these items in support of your writing rather than in place of it. Graphs, charts, and tables can help support or strengthen a point visually, but they cannot and should not replace the written word in research papers.
Don't over-rely on bulleted lists either. Remember that you are writing an academic paper and not a memo or PowerPoint slide show for a presentation.
Don't minimize the importance of clear, complete information when writing. Using poorly chosen words and phrases can confuse the receiver of your information. In the business world especially, this can lead to faulty decision-making and can even have negative financial impacts upon companies.
By Don Miller, Writing Specialist, 2008