Economy of Expression: Being Concise is Nice
Monday, August 16, 2010 Concise WritingBy Laurel Walsh, Associate Director of Writing Services
The first rule of writing at the graduate level is to befriend the delete key. Early iterations of scholarly arguments are cluttered with extra phrases. This is because we use phrases as placeholders on the page. We are waiting for good ideas, but we type things that do not illuminate an issue for our reader while those juicy thoughts marinate. One of the editors on our team would argue that you should find every adjective and adverb and kill it, but I am not quite so ruthless about prose. To compose elegant sentences, you need only promise the reader one thing: to inform and delight.
To inform your readers, you need to do your research. I am not talking about a midnight stroll through Wikipedia or making a few Google searches. To really inform and delight an academic audience, you need to look at the academic material that is available on the topic. The problem is that there is so much information. An essential part of becoming part of the academic community is learning to be a thoughtful consumer of information.
So much of what is available to us online is biased. News sources routinely promote video that was provided to them at no cost from corporate sources (check out this link to read a fascinating story on Video News Release or VNRs), and the stations most often do not disclose a source for this content. With so much misinformation, it is not surprising that student authors have difficulty writing in an unbiased manner. Writing for an academic audience requires clarity, cohesion, and fairness. Authors cannot inform their readers if they do not review many different approaches to a policy, phenomenon, or practice.
Learning to evaluate sources takes time and energy. By carefully reviewing, analyzing, and summarizing a variety of sources, you can begin to create a thesis by integrating several insights into an overarching theme. The trick is that you must not merely look at material that supports your hunch about a topic. To really delight your audience, you must include counterargument. By juxtaposing contradictory findings, student authors establish themselves as thorough scholastic investigators. Make sure that your audience can tell that you are trying to cast light on a topic and do not create essays that make the reader think you are out to prove a point.
I ask students each term to omit all unnecessary words from their drafts. Many students have asked me, “If you want me to omit unnecessary words, why did you assign 10,000 word assignments?” Writing academic essays is not like writing a haiku. In an academic paper, you are exploring and engaging your reader in an investigation. When authors delete clunky extra phrases and empty verbiage, we honor our contract with the reader. Our words are our gift to the world of scholarship and each one is a form of currency. Spend your words wisely and get rid of each phrase that does not carry its weight!