How to... write more simply Part: 2

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How to... write more simply

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Developing a coherent argument

Writing a purpose statement

In an interview with John Peters, Emerald's former chief executive and editor of Management Decision, the following was said about how to counteract the vagueness and lack of clarity in some papers:

"Write a purpose statement! Write 'The purpose of this paper is ...' Then do what you say you will do. And please tell us why it's important, or novel, or valuable. What's in it for the researcher and the practitioner?"

In other words, be very clear what your paper is about so that you could explain it easily to anyone who asks. In these pages we give some hints about how you can make your language clearer, but the most important thing in getting your message across is that you fully understand your message.

Good introductions and conclusions

Your introduction is your chance to get your reader interested in the subject. First impressions count, in research as in life. A good approach is to:

  • Establish the importance of the research area.
  • Establish a reason why your own particular study is important – because it is particularly important for the industry, or because there is a gap in the literature and it would be inappropriate to apply existing knowledge.
  • Having outlined the territory, you can now stake your research claim directly: "The purpose of this article ...", "This article investigates ..."

Examples

"A longitudinal study of corporate social reporting in Singapore"
Eric W.K. Tsang
Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 11 No. 5

"Equity in corporate co-branding"
Judy Motion et al.
European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 37 No. 7

Likewise, the conclusion of your piece should be a summing up of the methodology and the findings, but also about why they are important, and in particular what is the importance to research and to managerial practice. See below how the author concludes the article in the co-branding study quoted above.

Example

A number of managerial implications were identified within the analysis and the following strategy for co-branding was identified ...

The role of marketing communications in corporate co-brands and the equity sources that emerge offer a potential agenda for research and further theory development about the nature of co-branded equity. Such research will further understanding of how co-branding offers corporate brands the opportunity to move beyond sponsorship relationships to partnerships that redefine the brand identity, discursively reposition the brand and build co-brand equity.

Some things to avoid

There are some habits which are easy to fall into but which can cause writing to be less clear.

Don't use undefined terms

When using terms with which the reader may be unfamiliar, always give some explanation, as in the following definition of "grounded theory".

Example

One of the most developed inductive research methods is that of grounded theory ... In this methodology the researcher starts with a priori constructs, inquires deeply into organisational behaviour and gradually tests and forms theoretical constructs.

"Grounded theory methodology and practitioner reflexivity in practitioner research"
Denis Leonard and Rodney McAdam
International Journal of Quality and Reliability Management, Vol. 18 No. 2

Note how in the above example, the authors do not explain "inductive": if you are writing for an academic audience, it is reasonable to assume that they will know basic terms.

Temper generalizations

Never make general claims unless you really can prove them – qualify them in some way. Words that can temper generalizations include: as a rule, for the most part, generally, in general, potentially, normally, on the whole, in most cases, usually, the vast majority of, a large number of, it is likely that, have tended to.

Giving examples is also a good way of backing up generalizations.

Example

Here, the literature suggests that contracts have tended to reinforce the position of large community organisations, and diminish the position of smaller organisations. For example, Ernst & Young's (1996) study of the New Zealand Community Funding Agency found that there was a clear concentration of public resources in favour of large community organisations ...

"A comparison of contracting arrangements in Australia, Canada and New Zealand"
Neal Ryan
International Journal of Public Sector Management, Vol. 12 No. 2

Use analogies with care

Make sure that analogies really do work. A famous analogy was coined by US Supreme Court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes. In a case concerning protesters during the First World War, he ruled that the First Ammendment of the US Constitution (the right to free speech) does have some limits depending on cirumstance, noting: "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting 'Fire!' in a theatre, and causing a panic". A number of people (e.g. Alan M. Dershowitz, "Shouting 'Fire!'", Atlantic Monthly, January 1989) have claimed this was a weak analogy in the original case. In any event, it has now been overused to such an extent that it has little impact.

Avoid faulty logic

Traps to avoid include:

  • if you are developing a general argument, make sure that the statements on which you base the argument are valid.

Example

"It is the belief of the authors of this paper that much CAL software has been designed more with presentation than with learning effectiveness in mind."

This author makes this claim without substantiation from any literature or examples.

This extract is reproduced by kind permission of Professor Gabriel Jacobs, Professor of European Business Management at the University of Wales, and remains his copyright.

  • non sequiturs, where the author makes sudden jumps in the sense, with the effect that a point raised in one paragraph is followed by a completely different point in a subsequent paragraph, or even within the same paragraph. This leaves the reader confused and unable to hold onto the thread of the argument!

Make explanations coherent

The "flow" of your paper should be consistent: when providing descriptive or explanatory information, as in a literature review or report of research, or a case study, make sure that you avoid either giving too much information or too little. Avoid jumps in the logic (where you require the reader to understand certain things which are obvious to you but not necessarily to them), or repeating information.

Make effective transitions

Any piece of writing tells a story – in the case of a research article, the story concerns a contribution to research, with an outlining of territory with your literature review, then an outline of your methodology followed by your results with their implications. With any story, it is important to follow the necessary steps so that the reader has all the facts. This sounds too obvious to mention, but it is surprising how often people neglect to do this with the result that the article is not very clear.

The chances are that if when you read through a draft of your article, if you become aware that there are uncomfortable gaps in your narrative, then you may well have left out some important steps. However, if your draft still reads "jumpily" even with the correct logic in place, this can often be fixed through a gracious transitional sentence, which connects the subsequent point with the previous one. Such sentences will probably use a transitional word or phrase such as the following:

  • Likewise, in the same way, similarly, in comparison
    Shows similarity, comparison, drawing a parallel
  • On the other hand, in contrast, nevertheless, despite, in spite of, on the contrary
    Contrasts with what has gone before, dissimilarity
  • First, second, to begin with, at the same time, later, finally
    Placing in order, showing a temporal sequence
  • Thus, accordingly, therefore, because, in consequence, as a result, because, owing to, since
    Shows causality, cause and effect
  • As has been said previously
    Referring back
  • For example, for instance, such as, thus, as follows
    Examples
  • In other words, namely, to be more precise, that is to say
    Explanation
  • Also, for example, in other words, moreover, more importantly
    Addition, reinforcement
  • Finally, in brief, in conclusion, in short, overall, to conclude, to sum up, this paper has demonstrated
    In summary, conclusion

Using headings

Using headings is another very effective way of guiding your reader through your material, and making it more readable, because it forces you to divide up your material into chunks.

Two very different articles show examples of the use of headings.

Example

"Conducting market research using the Internet: the case of Xenon Laboratories" (Andy Lockett and Ian Blackman, Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing, Vol. 19 No. 3) uses headings to signal the literature review and the case study, as well as different elements within those sections (background, limitations of the traditional approach, etc.).

"RoMEO studies 1: the impact of copyright ownership on academic author self archiving" (Elizabeth Gadd et al., Journal of Documentation, Vol. 59 No. 3) makes far more frequent use of numbered headings.