Posted on

How to write readable academic prose

The purpose of writing is to transmit ideas, says Andrew Johnson, professor of Holistic Education at Minnesota State University, Mankato, not to show the reader how much you know about a particular subject. “I approach articles and books as if the reader knows nothing,” he said. “I enter a teaching mode, trying to make things as simple as possible. I have to bring my ideas to the reader. I’m not famous enough for the reader to come to me.”

Johnson shares some tips for making your writing more readable:

  • Write everything down first, and then edit. “You have to explode onto the page and get those ideas out,” he said. “Write garbage first — only then can you begin pulling things away and shaping your ideas. Go back sentence by sentence, and then paragraph by paragraph, asking yourself, ‘Does this need to be there?’ Knowing what does not need to be there is just as important as knowing what does need to be there.”
  • Remember the purpose of writing is to transmit ideas from Point A (your head) to Points B and beyond (your readers’ heads). It is not to show how much you know. Use concise sentences and simple terms whenever possible.”
  • Provide structure for the reader (e.g. headings and subheadings; boxes; etc.).
  • Research your subject thoroughly. “Reading is the gasoline that helps power the writing engine,” he said. “If I know too little about a subject, I let the literature guide me. I do an extensive literature review first, and let my structure arise from the notes. If I know a great deal about a subject, I’m in charge. I write first and do a literature review later to shape my writing.”
  • Read your writing out loud into a tape recorder and then listen to it to develop a writer’s ear.
  • Learn your craft by writing journal articles and listening to reviewers’ comments. “I often have to put a review away for a few days and step back from it emotionally,” he said. “I’ve learned to listen to reviews. It has made me a better writer.”

Andrew Johnson is Professor of Holistic Education at Minnesota State University, Mankato.