Write clear sentences
To achieve clarity at the sentence level you need to write sentences that are clear, concise and precise.
Effective academic writing requires clarity. One way you can achieve this is to briefly define any specialist terminology and jargon, as well as define any abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms the first time you use them. Where possible use simple words and the active voice. Finally, review your writing for any ambiguities in expression and meaning.
Writing concisely means writing to the point – be direct. Stay on topic – make sure your content is relevant to the topic. Your writing is made more concise if you avoid wordy verbs, unnecessary nomination and unnecessary prepositional phrases. Check for any unnecessary repetitions of words, phrases and content.
Use accurate and precise vocabulary. You might need to use qualifiers to support your claims. Review your writing to ensure that there are no illogical sentence constructions – if you find an illogical construction, rewrite it using the appropriate pointers introduced in this section.
How to write clear sentences
At university it is important that your readers – in particular your assessors and fellow students – can easily understand your meaning and follow your line of reasoning. Click on the headings below for some helpful hints.
Explain any concepts or terminology you think may not be familiar to the reader or you may be applying in a nuanced way. This is particularly important when your understanding of an idea or word might differ from your reader’s, such as when a common word has a specialised meaning in a particular discipline. Let’s consider an example. Notice how brief meanings of key terms are embedded in the sentences.
From a first-year architecture assignment discussing the design of a public building:
However, we need to look to the middle east to find the building’s precedents, with the buildings that have influenced its design.
From a management report:
The employees suffer from a lack of motivation. Motivation is the willingness to exert high levels of effort to reach organisational goals, conditioned by the efforts to satisfy some individual need (Robbins, Bergman, Stagg and Coulter, 2000, p.549).
Don’t leave your reader wondering what you are talking about.
Acronyms (the initial letters of a phrase or title and pronounced as a word: e.g. TAFE) and initialisms (when the first letters of each word are spelled out: e.g. ECG) should always be defined at the first use. When the term is first used, write it in full followed by the abbreviation in curved brackets. Thereafter, use the abbreviation. For example:
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is affiliated with the United Nations (UN). The UN provides funds which help the WHO perform its role effectively.
The following types of abbreviation do not need to be explained at first use as they are in widespread common usage:
- Titles such as Dr. (doctor)
- Address elements such as St. (Street) or TAS (Tasmania)
- Latin abbreviations such as am and pm (morning and afternoon); BC or AD (before Christ or after Christ); e.g (for example) and i.e (that is)
- Length and weight terms such as km (kilometers), or oz (ounces)
- Scientific abbreviations such as CO2 (carbon dioxide), MHz (megahertz) or V (volts)
Never abbreviate individual words (e.g. write department, never dept.).
It is important to use precise vocabulary and correct terminology, but there is no need to use ‘big words’ for their own sake. Text filled with long, obscure or overly formal words take longer for a reader to decode and can sound pompous or stilted.
The manager is deficient in interpersonal skills and invests minimal time in assisting the clerks to develop their expertise.
The manager lacks interpersonal skills and spends little time helping the clerks develop their skills.
Generally, the active voice, in which the subject carries out the action, is livelier than the passive voice, in which the subject is affected by the action.
Compare the following examples:
- Passive: Coral reefs can be damaged by rapid and substantial climatic changes.
- Active: Rapid and substantial climatic changes can damage coral reefs.
Although the difference is slight, the variation in emphasis changes the perspective of the sentence. In the passive construction, the focus is on the reefs, while in the active version climatic changes are the focus. You need to keep this in mind when choosing between active and passive voices.
Passive voice can be used:
- When the actor is unknown or not important: For example: The proposal was approved; The novel Jane Eyre has been taught in many classrooms.
- To avoid naming the actor: Sometimes it is tactful to avoid naming the actor. For example: The results of this study have been misinterpreted is less confronting than: The authors of this study have misinterpreted their results.
Sometimes we inadvertently write sentences that can be interpreted in more than one way.These are called ambiguous sentences. Look at this excerpt from an essay on the Fourth Crusade:
The Crusaders planned to sail to Jerusalem via Egypt. However, during a sojourn in Venice, the Byzantine Emperor persuaded them to turn their attention to Constantinople.
Was it the Crusaders sojourning in Venice, or the Byzantine Emperor?
Try applying the strategies presented in this module to your own writing. Re-read a current or past assignment and highlight the parts that could be rewritten more clearly.
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Read the following pairs of text. Click on the clearer text of each pair.
How to write concisely
Academic writing should be concise; that is, you should use no more words than necessary to convey your meaning clearly. In some cases, the more words you include, the harder it is for the reader to understand your meaning. Most of us use more words in a first draft as we try to get our ideas down; therefore, achieving concise writing usually requires several revisions.
While this can take time, it will give your writing more impact – and also help you stay within the assignment word limit. Click on the headings below to learn more.
As you revise your work, check that the content of each sentence is both relevant and necessary. Ask yourself, ‘ Does this information contribute to the development of the paragraph as expressed in the topic sentence?’ If it does not serve a useful purpose, or adds unnecessary detail, remove it.
Be careful with verbs such as conduct, perform, carry out, undertake or complete followed by a noun. They are often unnecessary. For example:
The next step will be to undertake a thorough analysis of the results.
This would be more concisely written as:
The next step will be to thoroughly analyse the results.
Many verbs also have a noun form. A common mistake is to use the noun form too frequently. This can make your writing sound heavy. For example: Regular reviews of online content should be scheduled. In this case, the verb ‘review’ has been nominalised (made into a noun) so an extra verb ‘schedule’ is needed.
Online content should be reviewed regularly.
Companies should review online content regularly.
Expletive constructions do not involve swearing (which you should not include in academic writing (unless it is a part of a text under study and it is quoted). In English grammar, they refer to sentences which begin with It is or There is. These constructions are often used where they are not needed. For example:
There were two key tasks in the first part of the project. These were the design of the test rigs and selection of the variables to be tested.
Removing the expletive constructions makes the writing more concise:
The first part of the project comprised two key tasks: the design of the test rigs and selection of the variables to be tested.
It can be tempting to use wordy phrases to make writing sound more formal. However, they add little value and can make your writing sound heavy and overwritten. For example, instead of writing ‘in the area of customer service,’ ‘in customer service’ is sufficient. Some other examples include:
'factor to consider':
- One important factor to consider is the age at which language instruction begins.
- One important consideration is the age at which language instruction begins.
'matters such as':
- The novel is preoccupied with matters such as post-colonial society and its mores, race, madness, and family relationships.
- The novel is preoccupied with post-colonial society and its mores, race, madness, and family relationships.
'in the event that':
- In the event that dividends continue to fall, it will be necessary to reduce staff numbers.
- If dividends continue to fall, it will be necessary to reduce staff numbers.
A prepositional phrase adds description to a noun through the use of a preposition, usually “of.” For example:
The opinion of the working group was that the budget for the project had been set too low.
Such constructions add to wordiness and can be confusing if too many appear close together. They can usually be simplified using possessives or adjectives.
The working group’s opinion was that the project budget had been set too low.
Sometimes we use two words or phrases that say the same thing, or repeat the same information unnecessarily. Look at this paragraph from the introduction to an Engineering site visit report.
The Key River Water Treatment Plant (KRWTP) is a state of the art facility that recycles most of the domestic waste water produced in the area and treats the remainder before it is pumped into the sea. There are three steps in the plant’s treatment process. Firstly, the primary solids are removed using dissolved air floatation, clarification and sedimentation. After these large solids are removed, the water undergoes primary filtration before second filtration using a median filter, and last of all it is disinfected using chlorine. The plant processes 20,000 tonnes of domestic wastewater per year. Based on an average daily usage of 155L per person by the local population of 25,000, this is more than more than 3.8 million L/day from domestic sources. Of this, on average 78% is able to be recycled. The extracted waste is disposed of at the local landfill.
The same text edited to remove repetition:
The Key River Water Treatment Plant (KRWTP) is a state of the art facility which processes 20,000 tonnes of domestic wastewater per year. Based on an average daily usage of 155L per person by the local population of 25,000, this is more than 3.8 million L/day. Of this,78% is recycled and the remainder is treated before being pumped into the sea. The treatment process has three steps. First, primary solids are removed using dissolved air floatation, clarification and sedimentation. The water then undergoes two filtration stages, and finally chlorine disinfection. The extracted waste goes to the local landfill.
Check your understanding View
On each screen you will see two versions of the same text. For each pair, select the version that is written more concisely.
How to write precisely
In academic writing it is essential that your readers understand exactly what you mean, so you need to make sure that what you write is accurate and unambiguous. Writing precisely requires considerable thought and careful editing.
Click on the headings below for more information.
When writing assignments it is important not to overgeneralise or overstate your claims.
Compare these two examples.
Example 1: Chinese are Buddhist. They go to the temple five times a year, live simple lives, and give money to charity.
Example 2: Many Chinese are Buddhists. Practising Buddhists go to the temple about five times a year, generally try to live simple lives, and give money to charity when they can.
The second statement is carefully qualified and avoids over-generalisation.
You can avoid over-generalising by using qualifying words to indicate the strength of your claims. The table below presents some of the most common qualifiers.
High level vocabulary can be problematic as it is easy to confuse words which sound similar but have different meanings or spelling.
Check your spelling
Consider the following example from an engineering report:
The study found that an opposing rotation decreased vortex breakdown, while a complimentary rotation enhanced it.
Complimentary is used instead of complementary, which has a different meaning. If this were a one-off typing error, the assessor would probably be lenient. However, if it occurred throughout the report, the writer could lose not just marks, but credibility.
Sometimes a single letter can be the difference between a noun, verb, adjective or tense. Words which often cause confusion include:
effect/affect; dependent/dependant; lead/led; advice/advise.
These types of error will not be picked up by spell checkers, so it’s up to you to check your work carefully.
Check your dictionary
Some words sound similar enough to be confused and thus used in the wrong context. For example, the student who wrote:
While studies suggest this approach has merit, its impact has clearly been conflated,
While studies suggest this approach has merit, its impact has clearly been inflated.
Take care when using a thesaurus
Students often use a thesaurus to avoid repetition. However, the words listed will not all be an exact match for the word you look up. They may vary in intensity, formality, part of speech, or contextual application. Take the case of the verb ‘to conduct’. Among many other words, the thesaurus offers: direct, lead, manage, organise, operate, carry out, perform.
When making a general claim, words such as few, some, or the majority, often suffice. However, in some cases, such as describing experimental methods and results, or making an important point, it is better to use a precise number, for example: six, 10mg, 73%.
All purpose verbs
Verbs such as can, have, get, or go can have more than one meaning or application. For example, get can mean achieve, obtain, receive, buy, become or understand. Using the most precise word is important in academic writing to avoid ambiguity or misunderstanding.
In first drafts we often write statements that are not quite logical. Consider the second sentence in this paragraph, from an essay on Jane Eyre:
As we see the novel through Jane's eyes, we only hear the story of Mr. Rochester and Bertha through what Mr. Rochester tells Jane, which Jane then narrates to the reader. If we were to learn Bertha's version of the story instead of Mr. Rochester's it would probably be very different.
Whether we learn Bertha’s version of the story or not has no effect on if or how it differs from Rochester’s. In this case the illogical construction is due to mixed referents: we (the readers) and it (Bertha’s story). Is the sentence about our reactions or about Bertha’s story? There are two ways it could be written, each of which conveys a slightly different meaning:
If we were to hear Bertha’s version of the story, we might see Rochester differently.
Bertha’s version of the story would probably be very different to Rochester’s.
Consider two options to edit your writing for sound logic: put it aside for a few days before revising or ask someone else to read it.
Modifiers add detail about another unit of meaning within a sentence. For example, in the sentence: Having missed the bus, Joe set out to walk to town, the phrase Having missed the bus explains why Joe set out to walk to town.
Note that the subject of the body of the sentence, Joe, also performs the action in the modifying phrase. Joe missed the bus and Joe set out to walk to town.
A dangling modifier occurs when the subject of the modifying phrase is not the subject of the sentence. For example: Having set the heater to its highest setting, the room soon became stuffy.
This does not make sense. Who set the heater to its highest setting? Consider these two more precisely written examples:
The room became stuffy after the heater had been set to its highest setting.
Having set the heater to its highest setting, Jane soon noticed the room becoming stuffy.
Check your understanding View
Read the following sentences. How would you write each one to be more precise? Think about it before you click 'Turn' for the solution.