11 Aspects of clear academic writing
In a recent TAA webinar, professional coach Caroline Eisner shared ways to write clearly across academic disciplines. Specifically, she discussed the components of clear academic writing and how these components apply to the discourse conventions across the disciplines.
Below is a summary of eleven aspects Eisner identified as essential to producing clear academic writing across the disciplines.
1) Risk taking and original
Eisner says that this is “often the scariest requirement for new writers – to be risk taking and original”. Here, Eisner notes authors should “step into their expertise and acknowledge their authority on a subject”. Use lead in materials to mobilize the core, lead out materials to summarize your work and make further recommendations, but focus on the core where “you demonstrate your scholarliness, expertise on the subject, and authority”.
2) Answers “so what” question
According to Eisner, “in academia, you need to tell the reader why your research, your ideas, your opinions matter”. Further, she outlines several questions to answer in pursuit of the answer to the “so what” question.
- What is the issue?
- What are the specific questions surrounding issue?
- What is the context and background of the issue?
- Why does the issue matter?
- Why is it a problem?
- Why should the reader care?
3) Focused argument
To develop a focused argument, Eisner says, “the writer 1) demonstrates understanding of structure of argument, 2) uses supporting evidence from research, and 3) understands the difference between summary and analysis”. Further, they move beyond what others have said and demonstrates intellectual purpose.
According to Eisner, as a result of a focused argument, the reader can locate and understand the argument and finishes thinking “Gosh, was that an awesome article or what?!” A focused argument is a shift from making sense of an idea for oneself to making it make sense to the reader in a way that they can follow along.
4) Acknowledges complexity of argument
Noting the ability of a good teacher to explain complex ideas in simple ways, Eisner suggests to her clients that they “try to explain their ideas to someone who is not familiar with their topic”. As an academic writer, Eisner says, “you need to adopt the role of a good teacher by wrangling a lot of complex information into a well-organized synthesis of ideas, concepts, and recommendations that contribute to a better understanding of your research problem”.
5) Clear sense of audience
A clear sense of audience is important for producing clear academic writing. Eisner suggests asking such questions as who is your audience, what do they already know about your topic, what will they need, and what do they expect?
Further, what opinion(s) will your audience already hold on the topic, what effect do you hope to have on them, and what evidence will they expect?
And, finally, are you trying to inform, entertain, or argue with them?
6) Evidence is specific and analyzed
According to Eisner, “Evidence should be specific and detail-oriented”. To accomplish this, she offers a four-step approach: 1) start with relevant selections, 2) demonstrate importance, 3) integrate the evidence, and 4) focus on specific details for clear writing.
7) Sources used judiciously
When focused on the core, as noted earlier, to demonstrate your own authority on a subject, you should use sources judiciously. While important to acknowledge those who already wrote on the topic and ideas, Eisner advises that you carefully choose when to quote vs. paraphrase and integrate source material smoothly into the argument you are making as the author.
8) Logical progression of ideas
Adopted from Casson, Eisner says that a logical progression of ideas is based on the what, the how, and the why. The main idea (the what) is the topic of discussion introduced first. The how is represented next by evidence used to substantiate the point or back up the argument. Finally, commentary outlines the significance (the why) of the study, connecting ideas to the preceding material.
9) Clear and direct prose
Writing clear and direct prose consists of six elements, according to Eisner:
- Flow – to keep the conversation moving along
- Point of view – first person vs third person
- Strong authorial voice – to hedge or not to hedge
- More formal alternative – strong verbs and nouns
- Gendered pronouns – traditional academic style used singular gender pronouns
- Discipline-specific differences – each discipline has its own tone and style
10) Grammatically and mechanically competent
Make sure that your writing is grammatically and mechanically correct. Although Eisner says, “don’t stop to edit your grammar and mechanics while writing down your ideas because you will lose your great ideas and momentum”, they should be addressed before sharing your work with others through the submission process.
Unacceptable errors include grammatical, typographical, and mechanical errors in the finished manuscript. You should also verify subject-verb agreement, appropriate verb tense, and other grammatical elements appropriate to your discipline before submission.
11) Appropriate presentation
Finally, Eisner says, “your work is more likely to receive a positive response if you use the preferred disciplinary style and format your manuscript according to submission guidelines”. Things to address include:
- Line spacing and margins
- Font and font size
- Tables and figures
- Word length
According to Eisner, “most submission guidelines will list which disciplinary style guide to consult (such as the MLA or APA)” for additional guidance.