Become your own editor
- Structural matters
- Academic audience and writing conventions
- Discipline conventions
- Academic language
- Technical language
- Defining terms
- Use of first person
- Reference to personal experience
- Fair critique and fallacious argument
- Acknowledging sources
- Citation patterns for assertive writing
- Direct quotes
- All things grammatical
Part of the research degree process involves learning to write at 'publication standard'. This effectively means becoming your own professional editor. Editing happens at different levels of the text, including:
- overall impact—clarity of the research story line;
- structure—paragraphs, topic sentences, transitions and signposting;
- academic writing conventions—how the academic writer situates themselves in relation to their audience or other academic readers and writers;
- proofreading—grammar and punctuation.
This resource focuses on the last three levels of editing—structure, academic writing conventions and proofreading. The other topics in this Moodle site focus on the first level, or overall impact and clarity of the research story line in different parts of research writing.
Most 'final drafts' are products of endless cycles of revision, cutting, redrafting and editing. The difference between good writing and poor writing is often the amount of time spent on revision and editing. Writers for whom English is an additional language may be surprised to learn that there is not a noticeable difference in clarity between the early drafts of native speakers and their own. The amount of work put into developing writing is typically a more telling indicator of its clarity, than a writer's facility with English.
Although 'good writing' is the product of many, many revisions, it is possible to get into good habits early in candidature. It is also wise to edit writing before forwarding it to supervisors, even if you are not sure that the content will be part of the final thesis, exegesis, or journal article. This is because you will want your supervisor to engage with the content of your text as much as possible, and not be distracted by structural or editorial matters.
Writing well is important because it means your ideas will be accessible. Writing well improves the likely impact of your research, and goes a long way in supporting a successful career. Never underestimate the value of developing good editing habits.
Paragraphs and topic sentences
In research writing, each step in the research story line—the research justification, review of literature, method or research design, presentation of results or evidence, and discussion and conclusion—has its own distinctive structural features. There are however some principles of structure and flow that underpin academic writing in general, namely the structure of paragraphs, and signposting and transition sentences.
A paragraph is a group of sentences which share a common theme. An overview sentence at the beginning of the paragraph is often provided to tell the reader what the paragraph is about. This is referred to as a topic sentence. One key revision strategy is to remove any overlap of themes or content between sections and paragraphs. This typically involves merging and separating content within drafts until you are satisfied that each section and paragraph has a logical reason for being separated off from others. A topic sentence at the beginning of the paragraph is used to signal what the rationale for the separation is.
Academic writing is much like leading the reader through a maze by signposting which direction will be taken at the beginning of new turns in the discussion, and summarising what has been covered at the end of a section of writing. For the most part, signposting and transition sentences appear at the beginning and ending of texts, or of the sections within them. Their function is to signal a shift in the direction of ideas, to establish logical connections and conclusions, or to show the relationships between ideas.
Signposting and transition sentences come in several forms. Introductory signposting sentences indicate what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how you are going to go about doing it. Signposting sentences provided at the end of paragraphs and sections aim to draw together the main ideas or conclusions, and to highlight the significance or relevance of the preceding discussion. 'Transition' sentences and phrases combine introductory and concluding functions. Transition sentences usually involve summarising or pointing to the main point or topic of a particular section of writing, and then signalling a new topic of discussion.
Introductory signposting phrases should be few, and located within introductory paragraphs, or perhaps the first and last sentences of paragraphs.
Examples of introductory signposting sentences:
- The central argument for the development of … is … . In this chapter, the perspective that ... will be developed.
- The debate surrounding … is grounded in the field of … . The discussion that follows will suggest that the question of whether ... does not arise in discussion of ... as a result of the focus on ... .
- The proposition that ... is reflected in a research design which ... . Hence this study is designed to raise insights about ... by a method which ... .
- It is contended that … .
- This next section will examine some of the difficulties associated with … .
- This chapter sets out to investigate the … and its links with ... . It closely examines the … . In addition, the chapter investigates the notion that … .
- The final section provides a general discussion of … . The section concludes with coverage of … . The last part of the section reveals that … .
- The current debate about … is outlined demonstrating that ... .
- In this section the aspects of … are considered separately to highlight their relationship to … .
- The three following sections review insights from selected authors about the value of ... in order to highlight … .
- The next section highlights the literature relevant to the concept of … in order to show that … .
Concluding signposting sentences tend to be more numerous than introductory signposting sentences because they provide direction within the text. Concluding sentences summarise the descriptive content within paragraphs and sections; they tell the reader what the significant point arising from the detail or descriptive content is. They therefore give the text a critical, assertive tone. They are usually located in conclusions, final paragraphs, and in the first and last sentences of paragraphs. For this reason, the direction of well written papers can often be gleaned from reading the first and last sentences of paragraphs, and the first and last paragraphs of sections.
Examples of concluding signposting sentences:
- From the above discussion on … it follows that ... This adds to my proposition that … .
- Current literature often presumes … .
- It rapidly becomes clear that the study of ... is intimately bound up in … .
- This brief overview of … shows the overall direction of … .
- The influence of … is highlighted here. It reinforces the proposition made in … .
- As the statement above indicates, … .
- Again it is evident that … .
- For this reason, it can be said that … .
- Thus, there is a strong argument for … .
- The understandings generated from this review of the literature on … show that … .
- In this context, then … .
- Consideration of the underlying factors demonstrate that ... .
- My investigation shows that … .
- The issues raised from this review of literature establish that ... .
- This review of research into … reveals that … .
- Given the observed trends of … it can be concluded that ... .
- Inherent in this conception is the understanding that ... .
- Implicit in this definition is the understanding that … .
- Based essentially on the argument that ... outlined above, I maintain that … .
- Although different authors have put different emphases into their descriptions of … there is general agreement that ... .
- Throughout the literature … It is generally claimed that ... .
- The strength of such an approach is that … .
- This chapter commenced with an exploration of ... It reveals that … .
- While we now know that ... little research has been done on … This raises the question ... .
Transition sentences are typically found within the last or first paragraphs of sections or chapters.
Examples of transition signposting sentences:
- This chapter has highlighted … . It is evident that … . However, the nature of … from the perspective of ... has not been explored.
- This chapter brings to light two integral concepts related to … . This needs now to be researched more actively in the setting of … to explore the question of whether ... .
- Whilst this study focuses explicitly on …, it is generally recognised that … is defined by ... .
- To appreciate the …. , it is worth visiting briefly the model of … .
- To understand the role of … in forming … it is necessary to understand the factors that contribute to … .
- Before the discussion on the significance of … can be extended, the theoretical grounds for ... require explanation.
- Before going on to explore the issues of …., the working definitions for ... require clarification.
- Before going on to look at … it is important to consider … .
- The applicability of this concept to … has not previously been considered. Therefore, the three subsections below investigate literature on … specific to the question of … .
- Authors considered in the following section have been more explicit about … than those above who focus purely upon ... .
- In contrast to those authors whose paramount concern is ... , the field of ... takes the perspective that ... .
- Research discussed in the following section, takes the question of … further. This work suggests that ... .
- However, not all authors agree that … . Some describe a different approach in which … .
- show order/sequence: first, then, next, finally, secondly, thirdly, began, ended;
- show time: soon, then, finally, previously, later, last, meanwhile, earlier, at the same time, subsequently, following on from, when, immediately, upon, since;
- add some ideas: again, and, besides, therefore, also, additionally, indeed, moreover, another, as well, likewise, furthermore, finally, next;
- show cause and effect: thus, hence, therefore, consequently, so, because, since, then, finally, accordingly, for these reasons, as a result, on that account;
- indicate a summary: in brief, finally, in conclusion, to conclude, lastly, in summary, on the whole, to sum up, in fact, indeed, in other words;
- contrast ideas: however, nevertheless, yet, and yet, but, still, on the other hand, otherwise, conversely, in spite of, by contrast, despite, although, though, even so, on the contrary, notwithstanding, a different view;
- compare ideas: similarly, likewise, correspondingly, both equally, equally important, in the same way, in the same manner, each;
- illustrate: for example, for instance, to illustrate, by way of illustration, to be specific, in particular, in other words, and;
- concede: naturally, granted, of course, to be sure, although, despite, in spite of, for all, while, notwithstanding.
In addition to the use of clear, well appointed signposting and transition sentences, a smooth transition of ideas can be accomplished by replacing terms like 'it', 'they' and 'which' with specific terms.
Consider the first paragraph below and the improved version that follows:
- Ethics refers to a system of moral principles for judging whether a particular action is right or wrong, as well as to a set of rules of conduct for a specific class of actors or actions. It provides professionals with a set of standards to guide decision making. However, it is not something that can be ensured by the provision of a code alone.
The first sentence in this paragraph introduces three different terms—ethics, moral principles and rules of conduct. The use of the term 'it' at the beginning of the second and third sentences, makes it unclear which of these terms is being referred to in those sentences.
In the paragraph below, 'it' has been replaced with 'professional code of conduct' and 'ethical action' to signal precisely what is being referred to in the sentence.
- Ethics refers to a system of moral principles for judging whether a particular action is right or wrong, as well as a set of rules of conduct for a specific class of actors or actions. Codes of conduct provide professionals with a set of rules to guide decision making. However, ethical action is not something that can be assured by the provision of a code alone.
Here it becomes clear that it is professional codes of conduct that provide a limited guide for ethical action.
Writing clarity can also be improved by using the same key term rather than different terms to describe the same phenomena.
For example, compare the first paragraph below with the improved version that follows:
- This study will examine industrialisation processes in China from the late 1900s to the present. While growing structural differentiation was evident in the early part of the century, agrarian economies also continued to flourish. In the past 50 years, the move toward revolutionised means of production has continued unchecked.
In this paragraph, 'industrialisation processes', 'structural differentiation' and 'revolutionised means of production' are used to describe the same phenomenon, although this is not immediately clear.
In the next paragraph, these terms are replaced with one term expressed as 'industrialisation' or 'industrial economy':
- This study will examine industrialisation processes in China from the late 1900’s to the present. While industrialisation was evident in the early part of the century, agrarian economies also continued to flourish. In the past 50 years, the move toward an industrial economy has continued unchecked.
The use of the same key term in this paragraph enables the significance of the key point to emerge clearly—that in the past 50 years industry has become the dominant economic form in China.
General to specific—provides general information or overall concept first, and follows with supporting detail or more depth in the form of explanation, elaboration, illustration or exemplification.
Chronological—moves from most recent to older, or from originating/oldest to most recent, or breaks information into time periods, or shows time/sequence (firstly, subsequently) or process (do this, then that).
Spatial—provides information according to physical or other location.
Importance—moves from most important to least important, or vice versa.
Most-familiar to least-familiar—explains what we expect or anticipate then what is less expected or known.
Cause and effect—introduces cause and follows with effect (since, then, accordingly, as a result).
Simplest to more complex—develops ideas sequentially, building additional complexity as the writing progresses.
Order of frequency—introduces topics according to intensity, number.
Topical or thematic—explains the key themes sequentially, after having named the themes ('Two main solutions have been considered. The first is … . The second consists of …').
Question–answer—poses a question, then follows with an answer.
Problem–solution, solution–problem—poses a problem or solution, then explains the solution, or elaborates the problem that gave rise to the solution.
Compare and contrast concepts—introduces an idea, then compares and contrasts with a second idea to explain an important distinction between the ideas.
Definitions—uses definitions to be precise about meanings.
Create an analogy—explains an idea that has similar features.
Descriptive—describes who, where, when, why, step-by-step.
In addition to a well devised structure, the persuasiveness and clarity of academic writing depends upon understanding and conforming to the expectations and background knowledge of the audience of the text. Academic writing, like all good writing, should be tailored to its specific audience. The audience the text is intended to reach determines what is emphasised and included, how much detail is required, and the writing style that will be adopted.
For the most part, academics write for academic audiences. This is because research must be tested and refined within its relevant field of expertise before it can be publicly disseminated. Processes of academic peer review are designed to ensure the public is protected from faulty or misleading information.
Academic audiences differ widely, and it is important to consider the background knowledge of a specific academic audience within the writing process. Some academic audiences are highly specialised, others are more generalist, and some are comprised of researchers from a variety of different disciplinary backgrounds.
Journal articles are written with the concerns and expertise of the journal readership in mind. For this reason, journal articles often presume a more specialised audience than other kinds of academic writing. This can explain the oblique references made within many journals to debates and perspectives that would only be familiar to other experts in the journal's field of interest.
Scholarly books, on the other hand, are often targeted to wider public or novice audiences and will not assume as extensive a background in the subject area.
Conference audiences vary widely. Some are attended by researchers from different discipline and professional backgrounds, in which case, papers and presentations must explain core premises explicitly. Others attract more specialist audiences and presenters do not need to provide the same level of background explanation they would for mixed audiences.
Internal research proposals, like those written for conferral of candidature, aim to fulfil the expected requirements of the degree, and are written largely for the supervisor and other academics within the School. Research proposals aim to ensure that those supporting the research are clear about its objectives, and the rationale supporting those objectives, developed within a review of literature and a proposed methodology. Research proposals also aim to demonstrate that the research can be completed within the given time frame and available resource constraints. The content of the research proposal reflects these concerns of its audience, which are similar to those of research grant funders.
Theses are written for examination by academic examiners with extensive knowledge in some aspect of the field of study. They are also written for publication in specialist journals. PhD and Masters theses therefore tend to use specialised discipline language and concepts. However, although the examiner, journal editor or reviewer will be expert in some aspect of the study, it is important to be mindful that other aspects may be less familiar to them and may need some explanation.
The style and presentation of academic writing, as well as the point of view adopted by the writer, vary considerably depending upon the discipline background of the audience it is written for. Different discipline conventions apply to questions such as whether and how often to use the first person pronoun, passive or active voice, or references to the researcher in the singular or plural ('I', 'we').
Words and phrases can also mean different things within different disciplines, and the meaning of commonly accepted terms are sometimes contested within a discipline. For example, 'postmodern' is used to refer to a style of architecture and design within architecture, and a time period or field of social thought within the humanities. The use of terms like 'power', 'the unconscious', 'class' and 'identity' are theorised in different and contested ways within the social sciences and humanities and therefore require careful use, whereas they may be used without attracting comment in another discipline area.
The style of academic texts also varies between disciplines. For example, in areas like psychology or health sciences a 'report style' of writing is frequently adopted in which sections on 'method', 'measures', 'results', 'discussion' are expected. In other areas, texts are organised around conceptual arguments.
As a general rule of thumb, aim to conform to the broad conventions of the field within which you are writing. Choose a group of published writers, journals or books that are closest to your own perspective and adopt similar writing conventions and practices.
Academic writing, unlike literary writing which aims to evoke images, feelings and sympathies, aims to convey ideas concisely, simply, directly and accurately. It is important then to use language that conveys ideas, and to avoid distracting language. Some general rules can be used to accomplish this:
- Avoid slang, clichés and colloquialisms.
- Avoid a chatty, anecdotal tone (find alternatives to 'you', 'one', 'the reader' and 'people').
- Avoid phrases based on value judgements ‘it is obvious’, ‘it is welcome’, ‘it is a fact’, ‘normally’ and ‘everyone can see’.
- Avoid unnecessary or imprecise words: ‘very’, ‘fantastic’, ‘etc’ and ‘so on’.
- Replace over used phrases like ‘played a role in …’ and ‘led to …’ with descriptive verbs like accelerated, energised, influenced, affected, shaped, contributed to.
- Use non-sexist language. (Write in the plural rather than using ‘he or she’).
- Avoid racist, homophobic, or otherwise offensive language and commentary.
Like the specialist languages adopted in other professions, technical, theoretical and other academic jargon is designed to convey agreed meaning for a group of scholarly experts. It is appropriate for you to use specialist language within your field, but it is best to avoid such language when writing for non academic or general audiences. Specialist terms must be used accurately. Philosophical, sociological and other specialist dictionaries are the best places to confirm the meaning of terms.
When you use a term in the same way that a specialist or general dictionary defines the term, it is not necessary to provide a definition. It is necessary to define any term whose meaning:
- varies or is contested within your field,
- is more precise in your usage than in the general or specialist dictionary,
- is not the same as the meaning provided in the common or specialist dictionary or,
- does not appear in a common or specialist dictionary.
The first time the term is used, it should be defined precisely and concisely, and then used in this precise sense throughout the text thereafter.
There are no 'rules' about how to use the first person ('I', 'we', 'me', 'us', 'my' and 'our'). Whether or not you use the first person will depend upon the writing context and your purpose in the writing. The sciences traditionally avoid the first person because it is perceived to introduce an inappropriate subjective or personal tone. In the humanities and social sciences, the first person is more acceptable, perhaps because these disciplines are underpinned by methodologies which question, in various ways, the possibility of value-free science. These divisions are changing however, and the sciences are adopting the first person more frequently.
The first person is useful to provide clear attribution for an idea or comment, and to distinguish the writer's voice from the views of others. For example, using the phrase 'In this paper I will show ... ' is a good way to signal the contribution the writer will make to the broader field. Using the first person is also a good way to convey your passion and involvement in the topic, and to establish a connection with an audience. For this reason, the first person is often adopted within oral presentations.
On the other hand, inappropriate use of the first person can undermine the writing particularly if it is used in a way that implies that the point being made is only the writer's opinion, or when it is not supported by evidence or further explication. Compare for example: 'I believe there is a discrepancy between practice and policy claims', with 'I suggest there is a discrepancy between practice and policy claims. This will be demonstrated in ...'.
Overuse of the first person is generally to be avoided in any context because it distracts attention from the subject to the author of the text.
As a general rule, refer to personal experience within academic research writing sparingly or not at all, and only when it supports the development of the main research story line.
Sharing personal information is relevant in research writing when your experience is part of the research data for instance. You might explore your own experience in order to understand a specific phenomenon, or because the way you engaged with your research participants reveals something about the specific phenomena or context your study aims to explore. Anecdotes from personal experience might also be used to highlight the problem the research is concerned with, to establish your credibility with the subject matter (if you have a background in the research context for example), or to provide an example to support a key idea.
When critiquing the work of others:
- Provide accurate and balanced summaries of the central findings and arguments of others. (Do not assume the reader is familiar with the work referred to).
- Represent the work of others fairly.
- Reference accurately, including page numbers for ideas that are not part of the central argument or findings.
- Acknowledge points of agreement and indebtedness.
- Back-up critiques with thorough explanation and substantiation.
- Critique the general structure of a claim, not minor points.
- Do not overplay or underplay the significance of your own or others’ work.
- Avoid fallacious argumentation.
Fallacies in arguments
Adapted from Thornless and Thornless 1980, in Hart, C. 1988. Doing a literature review, Sage, Thousand Oates.
- Implied definition—referring to something without clearly defining it.
- Illegitimate definitions—closing down alternatives by giving a restrictive definition.
- Changing meanings—defining something as A, then using A in a different way.
- Emotional language—using value loaded or ethically loaded terms.
- Use of all, rather than some—using bland generalization to incorporate all variables and thereby minimize contradictory examples.
- Ignoring alternatives—giving one interpretation or example as if all others could be treated or categorized in the same way.
- Selected instances—picking out unusual or unrepresentative examples.
- Forced analogy—using and analogy without recognizing the applicability of other contradictory analogies.
- Similarity—claiming there is no real difference between two things even when there is.
- Mere analogy—use of analogy with no resources to examples from the real world.
- False credentials—exaggerating your credentials or experience to convince others of your authority.
- Technical language—deliberate use of jargon intended to impress the reader and/or hide the lack of a foundation to an argument.
- Special pleading—claiming a special case to raise your argument above other similar positions, often associated with emotive language.
- Playing on the reader—telling readers what they want to hear rather than challenging their thinking and assumptions.
- Claiming prejudice—attributing prejudice to an opponent in order to discredit them.
- Appealing to others for authority—claiming some other in authority has made the same argument as yourself in order to strengthen your own position.
- False context—giving examples out of context or using nothing but hypothetical scenarios.
- Extremities—ignoring centre ground position by focusing only on the extreme ends of spectrum of alternatives.
- Tautology—use of language structures to get acceptance of your argument from others, often in the form of ‘too much of X is a bad’ therefore X itself is good.
Different disciplines adopt different referencing systems. For more information about referencing styles and ethics, please go to: Referencing resources.
When reporting the findings of other authors it is sometimes difficult to ensure that one's own point of view is not lost within the array of competing voices. One way of achieving an assertive stance and of foregrounding your voice when discussing the ideas of others is to use specific kinds of citation patterns. There are two central citation patterns:
Author integral According to Brown (1999), the sky is blue.
Information prominent (author non-integral) The sky is blue (Brown, 1999).
The main ideas within texts that rely heavily on author integral citation patterns can often be unclear because the author's voice is drowned out by the literature. The examples below attempt to illustrate this.
The paragraph below is author integral:
Dimopoulos (2010) and Kaspiew et al. (2009) state that the new Family Relationship Centres encourage separated parents to remain child-focused and to reach agreements to assist parents to avoid the involvement of the family court system. Petridis and Hannan (2011) identify the importance of the role of the FRC for parents and children to discuss parenting arrangements and confirm a parenting plan. Baker and Bishop (2005, p.212) found school personnel need to be included in FRC meetings with families and agency staff from the outset to ensure the agreements hold. This study further explores the importance of parent-school partnerships in establishing effective parenting agreements.
In this paragraph, every sentence, except for the last, opens with a reference. As a result it is difficult to determine where the author stands in relation to the statements being made. It also appears that the findings reported in the first and second sentences are similar and could be combined into one sentence with one reference bracket. The paragraph below attempts to remedy this.
There is emerging evidence that Family Relationsip Centres can play an effective role in facilitating a discussion of parenting arrangements and in confirming a suitable parenting plan enabling parents to avoid the family court system (Dimopoulos 2010; Kaspiew et al. 2009; Petridis and Hannan, 2011). There is however also evidence that school personnel need to be included in Family Relationship Centre meetings with families and agency staff from the outset to ensure that agreements hold (Baker and Bishop 2005, p.212). This study further explores the importance of parent-school partnerships in establishing effective parenting agreements.
This rewrite combines similar findings into one sentence, and places the key finding before the authors of the finding, who are acknowledged at the end of the sentence in the reference bracket. This makes it clear where the author stands in relation to existing research.
Compare the first, author integral paragraph toward the end of a literature review with the second, information prominent version that follows:
- Despite decades of research, some authors still claim that the burden of family care is not well understood. Hoenig and Hilton (2014:20) claim that most studies focus on the carer’s subjective perception of caring, and objective factors like the social and economic costs of caring to the carer. Yamashita (1998:12) comments that only a few studies consider the health of the family unit, the strengths that families bring to caring, and the family caregiver’s expertise as manager of their relatives care.
In this paragraph, the first sentence foregrounds 'some authors', the second 'Hoenig and Hamilton', and the third 'Yamashita'. The author's voice is drowned out by the claims of other writers. This makes it difficult to determine the main point of the paragraph.
In the next paragraph, the writer's voice is given priority:
- Despite decades of research, the burden of family care is still not well understood. Most studies focus on the carer’s subjective perception of caring, and objective factors like the social and economic costs of caring to the carer. Little attention has been given to the health of the family unit, the strengths that families bring to caring, and of the family caregiver’s expertise as manager of their relatives care.
In the first sentence 'some authors' has been removed. In the second and third sentences, the claim is made directly and the reference is removed altogether. Given that this is an end paragraph in the review, the claims can be made without references because the preceding review supports them. It is not then necessary, or adequate, to provide sources to support claims about an existing gap in the literature. The literature gap must be demonstrated throughout your review by reviewing what has been done and suggesting at different points in the discussion that a specific angle, that you will address, has not been given sufficient attention, or has not been explored from a more novel angle. Support from other authors can be provided, but this will only be offered to note in passing that others agree with your assessment.
In general, the ideas of others should be paraphrased in your own words and followed with reference details. Direct quotes should be used sparingly or not at all.
The use of direct quotes is appropriate when:
- it encapsulates the key point of a chapter or article, in which case the quote appears below the title;
- the author uses particularly distinctive or vivid language which would be lost if paraphrased;
- the quote is needed to provide a direct and clear exemplification of specific ideas;
- the discussion deconstructs, critiques or analyses the language others use in direct quoting.
When a direct quote is provided:
- keep length to a minimum, but avoid misrepresenting the author;
- always follow or precede the quote with an assessment of its significance in your own words.
Passive voice places the actor of the sentence in the predicate (the part of the sentence behind the verb), or leaves it out altogether. For example: ‘the policy was implemented by management’, ‘the policy was implemented’; or ‘an increase in violence is confirmed by the results’, ‘an increase in violence is confirmed’.
Active voice places the actor of the sentence in the subject—the part of the sentence in front of the verb. For example: ‘management implemented the policy’; or ‘the results confirm an increase in violence’.
Preference is for the active voice because it is more direct, concise and accurate. However, there are times when the passive voice makes more sense. Instances where passive voice may be more appropriate than active voice include:
- when tact and diplomacy are required (where it would be inappropriate to mention the actor);
- when the actor is unimportant or unknown;
- to add variety to the writing;
- in methods and results sections where the action is more important than the actor, for example: ‘stress reactions were monitored in group de-briefing sessions’ rather than ‘I monitored stress reactions in group de-briefing sessions’;
- to emphasise part of the sentence, for example: ‘a reform agenda emerged from the change of government’ emphasises the agenda, whereas ‘change of government led to a reform agenda’ emphasises the change of government.
A concise and formal academic tone can be achieved by the use of nominalisation. Nominalisation means to change verbs (actions or events), adjectives or adverbs into nouns. A verb describes an action. A noun describes a person, animal, concept or thing. Nominalisation can most often be used to turn the focus of the action (the verb) into a noun that describes a concept or idea.
Germany invaded (verb) Poland in 1939. This was the immediate cause of the Second World War breaking out (verb).
Germany’s invasion (new noun) of Poland in 1939 was the immediate cause of the outbreak (new noun) of the Second World War.
We analysed (verb) the data from the experiment, and it revealed that children react when they have excessive sugar.
The analysis (noun) of the data revealed children's reaction to excessive sugar intake.
Tips for using nominalisation:
- Read your writing and highlight any personal pronouns (I, you, we, they). These will often be replaced in the nominalised form.
- Underline all of the verb groups that show the action of the sentence. These can be changed into nouns or noun groups.
When the noun or pronoun is singular, the verb should be singular, and when the noun or pronoun is plural the verb should be plural.
The consent form contains … .
The interview schedule is organised into … .
The participants in the study were selected by ... .
Researchers have found that ...
Past tense can be used to report methods and results (because they describe what was done and what was found). For example: ‘we interviewed’, ‘interviews were conducted’.
Present tense can be used to describe how data are presented and to report on figures and tables (because this is still true). For example: ‘data are summarised as mean + SD’, or ‘Figure 1 shows …’.
Present tense can be used to indicate consensus with an author: 'Sharplin (1985) states that environmental assessment basically requires two activities'.
Present perfect tense is used to indicate a more ambivalent or distanced position in relation to an author’s viewpoint: 'Sharplin (1985) has stated that environmental assessment basically requires two activities'.
- Add –ly to the word (suddenly, tightly).
- If the adjective ends in –l, still add –ly (real becomes really, annual becomes annually).
- If the adjective ends in –ll add y (full becomes fully).
- If the adjective ends in –y change the y to i and add –ly (heavy becomes heavily).
- If the adjective ends in –ue, drop the e and add –ly (true becomes truly).
- If the adjective ends in –ic, add –ally, except for public, which becomes publicly, not publically (ironic becomes ironically).
The lexical density of a text refers to the number of lexical words, or words which convey meaning (nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs), relative to the total number of words. Articles (a, the), prepositions (on, at, in), conjunctions (and, or, but), auxiliary verbs (am, are, is, was, were, being, did, does, doing, had, has, having) are grammatical words which add little or no meaning to the text. The lexical density of a text tells you how informative it is.
In the examples below, the lexical words are underlined.
The quick brown fox jumped swiftly over the lazy dog.
Writing can often be improved by increasing its lexical density. Consider the example below which progressively increases the lexical density, and the informativeness, of the sentence.
1. He loves going to the cinema.
2. John loves going to the cinema.
3. John smith loves going to the cinema.
4. John smith loves going to the cinema every day.
5. John smith intensely loves going to the cinema every day.
6. John smith intensely loves going to the huge cinema every day.
Writing can also be improved by identifying, and removing where possible, non-lexical words.
- does not convey new information,
- states the obvious,
- repeats information,
- or uses words or phrases in a way that does not facilitate meaning.
Examples of redundant writing:
- An overview of the approach and its underpinning assumptions are given below and the significance of this study is explained.
- The use of important terms in this dissertation are provided below.
Sentences of this kind can be deleted because they do not provide information. It would be better to describe the approach and its underpinning assumptions, and provide definitions. Compare the first, largely redundant, chapter summary below with the information rich version that follows for example:
- Chapter two will provide an overview and analysis of literature and research about nursing care. I will identify aspects of care, and then the beginnings of a theoretical framework that will inform this study. I will then contextualize this study by providing an overview of definitions of care within the nursing literature.
This paragraph signals that a literature review, a theoretical framing, and a definition will be provided in chapter two without providing detail about the fields of research that will be reviewed, or the theory and definition that will actually be used.
The paragraph could be rewritten to provide more specific information.
- Chapter two outlines theoretical conceptualisations of ‘care’ within nursing literature informed by feminist psychology and the philosophy of ethics. The chapter suggests that nursing needs to consider whether continuing attempts to define, measure and describe care are necessary. It suggests instead, that Wittgenstein’s (1958) notion of family resemblance satisfactorily resolves many of the definitional issues of care and caring within nursing.
This paragraph is better because it describes the fields of literature that will be reviewed, and the perspective that will be developed in the chapter.
'Proofreading' is a term often used to refer to the complex range of decisions that copy editors take when preparing a manual for publication. For the most part, proofreading refers to a set of rules and recommendations, outlined within 'style manuals', that pertain to use of the English language. These rules are not specific to the academic context, and they are many and sometimes complex. Some basic editorial rules are explained below. Comprehensive compilations of proofreading rules can be found in style guides.
- One space is used between words and between sentences. Even spacing helps to keep the lines compact and readable.
- Word setting in desktop computer typesetting can be set to unjustified (flush left, ragged right) to conform to publication norms.
An acronym is a shortened form of a word or words that typically consist only of the first letter of each word. Acronyms are used only for terms whose acronym is commonly known and used, or for a term that will be used frequently throughout the entire text.
Acronyms that consist of more than one capital letter are written without full stops (for example, USA). The full name is provided the first time the term is used, followed by the acronym in brackets. The initialised version of the term is used thereafter. Acronyms should be used sparingly.
Capital letters are used for:
- days of the week, and months of the year (not the names of seasons);
- languages (not names of disciplines and school subjects);
- words expressing a connection with a place (French elections), and not when they do not express a direct connection to a place (italian dressing);
- nationalities or ethnic groups;
- proper names (titles, places, institutions, or events, festivals and holy days);
- distinctive historical periods;
- religions, followers, divine beings, sacred books, sacred events;
- title of either the first word, or of significant words (not little words like the, of, and or) in a book, play, poem, film, magazine, newspaper or piece of music (whichever you choose be consistent);
- first word of a direct quotation, repeating someone else's exact words, if the quotation is a complete sentence (not for incomplete quoted sentences);
- brand names of manufacturers and their products;
- roman numerals (except for page numbers);
- the pronoun I.
Full stop (.) is used for shortened words (eg Oct. Prof. Rev.), but not for contractions which end with the same letter as the full word (eg Dr, Mr). Metric measurements are an exception to the rule; they do not require a full stop (eg cm, kg).
Commas (,) indicate a pause only when essential for clarity. A comma is used before but, and, for, or, and nor when complex clauses have different subjects. It is also used after a long adverbial clause.
Question marks (?) are used at the end of a sentence that asks a direct question, a rhetorical question or a silent question.
Colons (: ) are used to introduce a word, phrase or clause that explains, enlarges or summarises. (There was only one word for it: catastrophic). Colons are also used to introduce lists, whether set off from the text or in text (except when the list is introduced by for example, including, such as, namely, that is), and for block quotations set of from the text.
Semicolons (;) are used to separate part of a sentence that require a stronger break than that marked by a comma, but which are too closely related to be broken into separate sentences. (The past is a different country; they do things differently there).
Dash or em rules (─) are used at the beginning and ending of a word or phrase when it takes up and expands upon the preceding word or phrase. A dash is also used to gather up the subject or object of a sentence when either consists of a long list, or when there is an abrupt change in the structure of the sentence. The em rule should not be used in place of a comma. Do not use spaces between the em rule and the preceding or following word.
En rules (–) are used in spans of figures and in expressions relating to time or distance (1987–88). En rules are also used to express an association between words that retain their separate identity (cost–benefit ratios).
Hyphen (-) is used in some compound words and some complex words. A compound word consists of two or more words which, when put together, bring a new meaning. A complex word is a root word with an attached suffix or prefix. Most compound and complex words do not need a hyphen. You can often find them in the dictionary if you are not sure.
Use of hyphens within compound words is complex. To check when to use a hyphen in compound words, refer to a style guide.
You can use a hyphen:
- when there is a doubling of a vowel prefix (pre-eminent, anti-intellectual), unless it is a common word (cooperate, coordinate);
- when the second element of a complex word begins with a capital letter (pre-Christian);
- when the element following a prefix is a date (pre-1945);
- after ‘ex’ meaning former (ex-wife, ex-member).
- Follow the lead part of the sentence with a colon.
- Punctuate the list as though it were a sentence.
- If the text within a dot point is a complete sentence, use a capital letter for each dot point sentence and a full stop at the end of each dot point sentence.
- If the text within the dot point is not a complete sentence, start it with a lower case letter, and use no punctuation at the end of each dot point except the last line which has a full stop.
- If the text within a dot point is not a complete sentence, but contains two or more phrases, start with a lower case letter, and use a semi-colon at the end of each dot point, except the last line which has a full stop.
Italics are used for emphasis and for titles. Use italics for emphasis sparingly.
Italics are used for titles of:
- long poems;
- musical works, comedies and operas;
- films and videos;
- paintings, sculptures and the like;
- newspapers and periodicals;
- names of ships, aircraft and other vehicles;
- acts and other legal documents and;
- scientific names of plants and animals.
- Numbers are written as words in descriptive and narrative texts.
- Numbers at the beginning and close of sentences are expressed as words.
- Numbers over nine can be expressed as figures.
- Spaces are used between groups of three digits, but not four-figure numbers (80 000, 1432).
- Use a full stop for a decimal place, and place a zero before decimals below one.
- Use an en rule, not a hyphen, to mark the space between numbers (410–16).
- In general use as few numbers as possible for references, plates and appendixes, unless this confuses the meaning.
- When giving the full date use the format: 9 October 2001.
- For time periods refer to the following examples: 50 BC, AD 1978, 1960s, the eighteenth century or 18th century, 10–15BC, 1972-74 or 1972–1974.
Once you have a first rough draft, you can begin the revision and proof-reading process. Good writing is the product of many, many revisions (up to 20 or more!) Some key revision strategies are listed below.
- Check that each paragraph and section has one main topic and main point.
- Signal the topic in the first sentence of the paragraph or section.
- Introduce the main point in a concluding sentence in the first or last part of the paragraph or section.
- To do so, try summarising the main theme and point of a paragraph or section in the margin of your text, and use this as a topic or closing sentence.
- Cut, paste, delete and rewrite until you are satisfied that the paragraph and section breaks indicate changes in topic and key ideas.
- Check that headings reflect the topic and key point.
- Go back to sources as needed and check they have been accurately reported.
- Remove any unnecessary repetition and redundancy. Put deleted content in a separate file if you think you might need it later.
- Reorder phrases and words, and reword sentences to improve clarity.
- Check for sentences whose subject is ‘it’ or ‘they’, and consider replacing these words with more specific terms.
- Check the dictionary meaning of words you are unsure of and use more precise words as necessary.
- Check that content of tables and figures matches their titles.
- Check that the commentary before and after tables and figures accurately introduces them.
- Swap drafts with peers.
- Ask friends, family to edit a chapter for you.
- Get some distance from your own text before editing.
- Use your best medium—paper, computer.
- Find a quiet place.
- Read out loud.
- Develop a checklist to ensure consistency in spelling, abbreviations, capital letters, numbers, date formats, citations, terms of address, punctuation for in-text and reference list.
- Refer to an AGPS Style Manual.
- Refer to a dictionary and thesaurus.
Editing drafts of your writing involves checking to ensure that your writing has:
- clear paragraph and section separations and topic sentences;
- summarised the main point of a particular section of writing before leading the reader on to the next section;
- uses headings that accurately reflect the content of the section, and which indicate a major turn in the discussion;
- used transition sentences between chapters, sections and paragraphs that repeat key words to indicate that this element of the theme will continue;
- used introductory quotes accurately to reflect the main idea or content of the chapter;
- checked that explanations of tables, figures and any long quotes are provided in the main text;
- uses accurate referencing;
- put the ideas of others in the authors words, and not over quoted other scholars;
- used spacing, acronyms, punctuation, capitalisation, italics correctly.
This web resource was developed by Wendy Bastalich.