Thursday, June 19, 2008

Academic Writing Tips

Here are a few thoughts about academic writing.
  1. Avoid using "we".

    Philosophy: The word "we" is often used by lazy writers because it provides an easy way to give a sentence a subject. The problem is that doing so usually dilutes the impact of the sentence or obscures the true subject.

    Here is a real-world example (taken from a published paper): "In this paper we focus on statically checking behavioral properties of ..." The authors of the paper have little to do with the main point of the paper. The sentence above would be better as: "This paper focuses on statically checking behavioral properties of ..." This version emphasizes the true subject of the sentence, "this paper". It's also shorter.

    Unless the true subject of the sentence is the authors, avoid using "we". An acceptable use is: "We would like to thank the anonymous referees for providing helpful feedback on the earlier draft of this work."

  2. Parallelism is good.

    When a paragraph, bullet list, or sentence contains similar components, those components should use parallel construction. Opportunities for parallelism include: similar sentence structure, repeated verbs, repeated subjects. Required parallism: verb tense and noun plurality.

  3. Citation references are not nouns.

    Philosophy: The point of writing is communication to the reader. Because citation references are often numbers or alpha-numeric strings, it is difficult for the reader to ascribe them meaning. The reader should not need to refer to the bibliography to understand a sentence.

  4. Good writing is readable. (Read your writing out loud.)

    Reading a sentence or paragraph aloud can reveal defects in its structure. Paragraphs that use the same sentence structure too frequently often sound choppy or awkward when read aloud. Complex phrases that trip up the tongue indicate that the sentence may need to be edited.

  5. When in doubt, look it up.

    There are many excellent resources to improve writing skills. Some of my favorite online resources are:
    • Strunk & White
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