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Publish, don't perish – Instalment 24

Improve your writing, step by step

Many librarian authors assume that editors will take care of any problems with their writing, so pay less attention than they should to points like grammar and flow. Others assume that professional writing requires a more formal style, which they interpret as wordy and convoluted. Neither assumption is entirely true; editors appreciate writers who make their job easier. Delight your own editors by putting an effort into making your writing flow.

The steps below will help you say what you mean and mean what you say. Taking the time to follow these simple suggestions will also help readers focus on content rather than form, paying attention to what you say, rather than how you say it. Passive, awkward prose hampers readers' understanding and pulls their attention from the points you actually wish to make.

Those writing in English will benefit most from this process, although the overall goal of straightforward and concise writing remains the same in any language. Tighten up your writing with these five steps and let your unique voice shine through.

The steps

Step 1: Go through your work and reword sentences to remove half of the "being" verbs (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been)

My high school English teacher made us write five-page papers – the height of cruelty, to a sophomore – without using a single "being" verb. I hated him at the time, but he has earned my eternal gratitude. (Try it sometime, as an interesting exercise!) You don't have to eschew these verbs entirely in your professional writing, but should use them sparingly, and repeat this step as necessary.

Note the difference between "What is lacking in these materials is…." and "These materials lack…" The first tells you about the materials' state of being, the second tells you what the materials are doing. Repetitive being verbs make your writing drag; give your work an instant makeover by making the switch to action verbs. Doesn't "to act" sound immediately more interesting than "to be?"

Step 2: Go through your work and change your sentences to active voice

Which sounds more straightforward? "Research will be presented by this paper's authors at next month's conference" or "We will present our research at next month's conference"?

Using active voice helps your writing really pop, and this step in itself helps eliminate "being" verbs from your prose. Again, which sounds more natural? "Many issues must be considered before…" or "We need to consider many issues before…"?

Passive voice is just that: passive. Overuse of passive voice weakens your prose and lengthens your sentences, tending to bore and confuse readers. Use it as sparingly as you do being verbs.

Note, however, that some academic publishing outlets do encourage use of passive voice in certain contexts, as a way to remove personal pronouns and other identifying information from the subjects of sentences. In these cases, passive voice is meant to convey objectivity, demonstrating that the article contains factual information rather than biased viewpoints. When in doubt, match your writing to the commonly-accepted style of your chosen publisher – always, though, with an eye towards overuse.

Step 3: Go through your work and cut out any excess verbiage

Watching out for wordiness both encourages you to use active tense and helps rid your writing of those pesky "being" verbs. Note the difference between "The reason XYZ works well is because…" and "XYZ works well because…" or between "What is involved in XYZ is…" and "XYZ involves…" or even between "A large percentage of the population uses…" and "Many people use…"

If you notice a sentence beginning to stretch out, think about how to reword it. See if you can preserve meaning while slashing word count. Lengthy sentences, again, tend to confuse readers: they lose your point by the time they reach the end. Read a lengthy sentence aloud to see if you lose your own train of thought, then take the time to shrink it.

Step 4: Don't use a fancy word when a plain word will do

Why say "utilize" when you can say "use" – especially given that the two words have slightly different meanings? Fancier terminology doesn't necessarily make you seem more educated; just say what you mean, and avoid overusing terms you'd be unlikely to use in everyday life.

This also goes for jargon: go through any manuscript with an eye out for excessive jargon (including acronyms!) that your readers may not understand. We information professionals do like our jargon, but remember that your work may be read by new librarians, potential librarians, or those more familiar with a different branch of the field. Define unfamiliar terms, and use jargon only as needed, not just to help you feel like an insider.

Step 5. Make sure everything agrees

Think back to your school English classes here. (Yes, back to basics yet again.) Make sure your subjects and their verbs get along. And, while you're at it, keep your tenses consistent. Overall, avoid jarring inconsistencies that cause your reader to stop and think about agreement rather than content.

That grammar checker in Microsoft Word? Don't bother with it; your prose will come out worse than it went in. You can be your own grammar checker, and can always enlist another pair of eyes if you need a second opinion.

If, after all this, you need to feel better about your own writing, check out the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest ("where www means Wretched Writers Welcome") at http://www.bulwer-lytton.com. This humorous literary competition challenges writers to come up with the opening sentence to "the worst of all possible novels" and you can view the winning entries online. It takes some serious effort to be the "worst", so go read, and take heart!