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Distinguishing features of academic writing #1: Precision

During the course of Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo) in November 2019, we explored five distinguishing features of academic writing – the first of which being precision.

What does it mean to write with academic precision? In this article, we recap the event where we sought the answer to this question. During the discussion, we also explored the importance of academic precision and the effects of word choice, active voice, redundancy, and organization on the goal of precision in our manuscripts.

What is precision and why is it important in academic writing?

Central to the discussion was the opening question, “What does it mean to write with academic precision?” An online resource from Dennis S. Berstein at The University of Michigan states, “Precision writing is a style of written communication whose primary objective is to convey information.” Chat participant, Eric Schmieder, added that “Being precise means to choose the right words for the intended purpose. To be selective in an effort to clearly convey the purpose and meaning of the writing.”

But why is it important to be precise – or to convey information through the correct choice of words – in our academic writing? The Walden University guide titled, “Scholarly Voice: Precision, Clarity, and Academic Expression”, indicates “Devices that are often found in creative writing—for example: setting up ambiguity, inserting the unexpected, omitting the expected, and suddenly shifting the topic, tense, or person—can confuse or disturb readers of scientific prose.”

Schmieder noted, “Precision allows readers to clearly follow your methodology and argument. It adds to credibility and perception of accuracy and validity of your claim. It also improves the likelihood that readers will understand your research and findings.” Even when writing for an informed audience, as is often the case with a thesis or dissertation, precision is important. An article by Rene Tetzner notes that being precise means that you cannot “cut corners by neglecting to provide clear explanations of the problems, hypotheses, theories, concepts, approaches, trials, terminology and the like that are used and discussed, either frequently or rarely, by academics and scientists conducting advanced research in your subject area.”

How does word choice and discipline-specific vocabulary affect academic precision?

We then considered two questions regarding how word choice affects precision in academic writing efforts: 1) How does word choice affect the goal of academic precision? and 2) How can you best incorporate discipline-specific terminology and acronyms for academic precision?

According to the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill handout on “Word Choice”, “In an academic argument paper, what makes the thesis and argument sophisticated are the connections presented in simple, clear language.” Schmieder added that words may have different meaning in different context, so what is simple and clear for one audience, may not be to another.

“Words convey different meanings, even ones that can pass as synonyms have different levels of formality and appropriate place for use. Understanding what word conveys the appropriate meaning for your work and audience and precisely selecting that one matters.”

An online resource from Lund University cites the use of discipline specific vocabulary as being relatively small in volume, but highly impactful on the resulting quality of manuscript. “5% of the vocabulary used in academic writing is discipline specific; however, despite the percentage being seemingly small, this type of vocabulary reflects on the quality of the text and the knowledge of the writer.”

To ensure quality and understanding, proper use of vocabulary and clarification, when necessary, is important. “Although not an exhaustive list of precise word choices, these are some of the most commonly misused words in academic writing”, according to The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

  • That v. Which
  • That v. Who
  • While v. Although
  • Since v. Because
  • Farther v. Further
  • Everyday v. Every day
  • Lay v. Lie
  • Less v. Fewer
  • May v. Might

An resource notes that “in addition to general words and academic words, [readers of academic writing] will also need to learn subject-specific or ‘technical’ vocabulary.” As an academic author in a technical discipline “laden with acronyms and technical terminology”, Schmieder said during the TweetChat that he tries “to clarify any acronyms on first use and define any terms that may be ambiguous to ensure understanding in the context of [his] work.”

How can active voice improve academic precision?

With an understanding of the effect of word choice on academic precision, we explored the benefits of active voice in academic writing and how to choose words that support an active voice in our manuscripts.

According to research conducted by Thomas Sigel and published in the Journal of Management Development, passive voice weakens your scholarly argument. Specifically, Siegel notes that “by avoiding passive constructions in scholarly writing, academics can demonstrate a more thorough understanding of materials, thus strengthening arguments and presenting articles with clarity.” Additional benefits of using the active voice in academic and scientific writing were noted in another online article by Rene Tetzner.

Schmieder added support for the use of active voice, stating, “Active voice, by nature, is more direct in its meaning resulting in clearer reception from the intended audience. Therefore, the use of active voice in academic writing results in more precise communication of ideas.”

For those unfamiliar with active voice, the Walden University Writing Center guide on Active Versus Passive Voice states, “Writing in the active voice means the subject of the sentence clearly performs the action that the verb expresses.” Schmieder noted that “making word choices with active voice in mind reduces the likelihood of ambiguity or unclear communication of ideas.” A review of Rebecca K. Frels’ Research in the Schools article, “Editorial: A Typology of Verbs for Scholarly Writing”, can offer guidance on improving word choice for this purpose.

How can the structure of academic writing improve precision?

Our final two questions during the event focused on the structure of an academic paper as it relates to precision in academic writing. Specifically, the effect of redundancy and the organization of ideas in the manuscript.

Addressing the effect of redundancy, Schmieder noted, “Since redundancy is generally not a direct repetition of statements, but more commonly a rephrasing of ideas, it can add unintended ambiguity to the argument by incorporating less precise word choices to the same claim.” A Writing Commons article titled “Writing Concisely and Avoiding Redundancy” claims, “most of the time writers make the mistake of using more words than necessary to get their message across” and offers several examples of redundant phrases and overused adverbs.

Enago Academy offers five tips on avoiding redundancy:

  • Emphasize with care
  • Don’t say the same thing twice
  • Avoid double negatives
  • Be precise, not vague
  • Eliminate redundant words and phrases

Finally, on the topic of organization, Monash University notes that “Writing precisely requires considerable thought and careful editing.” The writing process is just that, a process. Richard D. Morey goes as far as to state that “writing is an essential scholarly skill” in his article on “How to write a well-structured essay” and offers the following six step approach to doing so.

  1. Gather information
  2. Form the thesis statement
  3. Write the opening paragraph
  4. Write each supporting paragraph separately
  5. Write the concluding paragraph
  6. Read everything together

Schmieder added, “The sequence that ideas are presented in the paper improve understanding while minimizing the need for extra explanation of topics not yet covered. Reordering the delivery of content improves precision.”

Throughout the rest of the month, we continued our discussion of the five distinguishing features of academic writing looking at the other four features – complexity, formality, objectivity, and accuracy – in turn. Look for future posts from those discussions and join us on Twitter every other Friday for new TweetChat discussion topics under the hashtag #AcWriChat.