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Clarity in Academic Writing

Welcome to the inaugural blog post for MargaretEdits. I thought it made sense to start off with an issue that I find absolutely critical in good writing yet doesn’t receive a whole lot of attention: clarity. Let’s face it, what is the point of writing if your readers are going to struggle to understand what it is that you want to say to them?

Tip #1: while clarity is comprised of numerous components—sentence structure, organization, and proper grammar, just to name a few—there’s a very easy and reliable way to double-check for clarity and that is simply to read your work out loud.

It sounds obvious, but I’ve been surprised by how reluctant people are to take this extra step during the editing process. Thankfully, you don’t need a PhD in English to know when a sentence simply doesn’t sound right. And folks, if you need to take a few breaths as you read a single sentence then it is probably a run-on or at least suffering from being overly wordy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a critical sentence whose main points got buried due to verbose writing. In fact, nine times out of ten, being succinct is going to serve you and your reader much better.

clarityWhen we talk about clear writing, however, what exactly do we mean? I think it is writing that communicates an idea in the simplest and most precise way possible. For your writing to be lucid, you as the writer need to know exactly what you’re trying to say. When I ask clients to rewrite a sentence using the most straight-forward and simplest language possible, it sometimes takes them a few minutes to identify exactly what they were trying to say.

Which brings us to tip #2: if you don’t know what your main point is (whether it’s a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole document) then the reader will be that much more clueless. The purpose of academic writing is to communicate your ideas as clearly as possible while still engaging the reader. Make sure you are using effective topic sentences to  identify your main points and to give the reader a sense of where you’re going next.

Tip #3: related to this idea of clarity is knowing exactly what is the purpose of what you are trying to write. For example, when I sat down to type this blog, my goal was to explain to other academic writers the importance of clarity in writing. Always take a few seconds at the beginning of a writing session to evaluate what exactly you want to accomplish; maybe even jot down a short list that will also serve to get you into a good writing flow.

The bottom line: nobody has ever been criticized for writing that is too clear.

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