Simplicity in Academic Writing

In your academic writing, do you feel the compulsion to utilise complex terminology and vocabulary in hopes of validating your intellectual prowess and ameliorating your grades?

If you found that last sentence hard to read, you may realise that complex words are not always the best way to get a clear message across.

One of the secrets to excellent writing is simplicity. A few simple, well-chosen words may be all it takes to get even the most complex message across. Further, your writing will seem more appealing to read and can be understood by a wider audience. While occasional flowery or complex words can help make your writing more expressive, too much will cause your reader to tire of your writing style and lose interest.

So how does one keep their writing simple?

Know Your Purpose

You communicate best when you know exactly what you want to say and why you want to say it. By keeping your purpose in mind, you can then focus on conveying your message as clearly as possible.

Use Plain Language

Why write ‘attempt’ when you can use ‘try’? Write ‘use’ instead of ‘utilise’ and ‘improve’ instead of ‘ameliorate’. Using everyday language helps readers relate to your writing. This does not mean that you should not use the occasional elaborate word; rather, it means that your readers will be able to read your content clearly, and then, be enthralled by your more interesting words.

Choose Specific Words and Limit Qualifiers

Excessive use of qualifiers such as ‘very’, ‘quite’ and ‘really’ make your writing too vague and wordy. If there is a more appropriate descriptive word to use, use it!

Here are some examples:

The child was very hungry.
Better: The child was famished.

It was quite cold outside.
Better: It was chilly outside.

We found the journey really tiring.
Better: We found the journey exhausting.

Use the Active Voice

The active voice is when the subject performs an action, such as in this sentence:

Short sentences provide clarity.

The passive voice means the subject is being acted upon by the verb, such as in this sentence:

Clarity is provided by short sentences.

Our brains tend to make more sense of sentences in the active voice because it has a more logical progression; hence, we should aim to write most of our sentences in active voice.

The passive voice is useful in some circumstances and is preferred by some disciplines in specific cases. You can read more about this in our article ‘When the Passive Voice is Useful in Academic Writing’.

Balance your Sentence Lengths

This is where an exception can be made; while it is good to use short sentences, too many short sentences can make your writing seem disjointed and shallow. Use a combination of short, medium and long sentences to create rhythm in your writing. Make some direct points and elaborate on them. Then draw your reader into your content with a longer, more descriptive sentence to engage them in a deeper emotional commitment to your cause; then lay off and give them the space they need to appreciate your views.

Read it Aloud and Edit Rigorously

If you are still in doubt, here are a few quotations from some brilliant writers who are all in favour of simplicity in writing:

‘The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.’—Thomas Jefferson

‘Use the smallest word that does the job.’—E.B. White

‘I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.’—Gary Provost

‘As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. “To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long.’Kurt Vonnegut

Happy writing!

(And if you’d prefer to watch the video about how to keep your writing simple, you can check it out on our YouTube channel.)

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