Creating great academic papers: Enjoy writing and learn to engage your readers and editors
The Charlesworth Knowledge education team delivers academic writing workshops all around the world. We help colleagues who do not speak English as their first language to be more effective when creating and publishing articles. Academics all want the same things: to write as many papers as possible, as quickly as possible, and get them published in the best journals possible (hopefully, also, without having to pay too much for the privilege!).
We have always based our training on the premise that academic paper writing is actually no different to any other kind of creative writing and that, above all, a plot is needed; a structure. Having a structure in place before you start to write helps you, the writer, to get the paper constructed and is also absolutely critical for readers in enabling them to follow your paper and stick with it from start to finish. This is our goal as writers, after all: to keep people interested!
Lessons can be learned from writing in general as, irrespective of the research field, the key aspects of clear communication in academic papers remain the same. A recent article in Nature corroborates this approach: Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy spent time working with and advising academics at Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, drawing on his experience as a writer. McCarthy drew one overall message from this experience, which we also say in our writing workshops: keep it simple in academic paper writing. Try to develop a single, coherent, and interesting message. Write down this ‘take home message’ in two or three sentences before you start to write.
Here is an edited distillation of McCarthy’s tips for writing an effective and enjoyable article (including some of our own thoughts and notes from paper writing workshops):
• Use minimalism to achieve clarity. Less is more. Remove extra words or commas whenever possible. Effective English writing is simple, not complex;
• Limit each paragraph to a single message. Indeed, a single sentence can be a paragraph;
• Keep sentences short, simply constructed and direct;
• Don’t slow the reader down. Use verbs, especially in your title, and avoid footnotes because they break the flow of thoughts and send your eyes darting back and forth while your hands are turning pages or clicking on links. The same is true of numerous citations; use a few key references that present the ‘state-of-the-art’ in your field relevant to the question your article seeks to address;
• Don’t over-elaborate. Your paper is not a dialogue with the readers’ potential questions, so don’t go overboard anticipating them.
• Don’t worry too much: Just enjoy writing;
• Write the way that you speak. It’s more important to be understood than it is to form a grammatically perfect sentence;
• Commas denote a pause in speaking. Speak your sentence aloud to find natural pauses;
• Dashes should emphasize the clauses you consider most important — without using bold or italics — and not only for defining terms;
• Inject questions and less-formal language to break up tone and maintain a friendly feel. It’s always better to write in the first person active tense than in third person passive (despite what you might have been taught in the past!);
• Choose concrete language and examples;
• Read your work aloud to yourself or a friend. Why not ask one of our Charlesworth expert editors to work on your text?;
• Talk to editors before making submissions. Making pre-submission enquiries before even beginning writing can save huge amounts of time. Editors like receiving communications from authors, so write to them and ask ‘I’ve just completed a piece of research. Would it be appropriate for publication in your journal?’. We can provide templates and suggestions for writing enquiry emails;
• Try to write a version of your paper that you are happy with. You should be happy with your finished work; remember the reason you started to do research in the first place!
Hopefully, some of these tips and tricks are helpful; after all, writing is supposed to be a fun and creative experience! Still feeling stuck? Another recent article about research productivity recommends you stop and spend some time to write a poem! It might help.
Charlesworth Author Services provide a range of expert English language editing services, all designed to improve your chances of being successfully published in your preferred journal. Why not get in touch with a member of our Charlesworth Author Services team for more information, and get your writing edited and polished by one of our PhD-level specialists working in your research field? To find out more click here.
Our academic writing and publishing training courses, online materials, and blog articles contain numerous tips and tricks to help you navigate academic writing and publishing, and maximise your potential as a researcher. More details can be found here.
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