Revision by Subtraction: Creating Scholarly Voice With Clear, Direct, Specific Word Choice
Academic voice. That illusive, yet all-important, aspect of academic writing. The voice we create as writers depends greatly on individual word choice you bring into your writing. Today, I’d like to give some concrete and straightforward examples of how you can enhance your own academic voice. Keeping focus on the trifecta of academic voice: clear, direct, and specific, I have created a list of words that can be deleted or replaced in most academic writing situations. The removal or replacement of these words with language that is clear, direct, and specific leads to a more academic voice in one’s writing.
There are two main categories of words worth removing. The first is words that don’t add any meaning. These are words that may add length to a sentence, but they don’t enhance content. They aren’t useful in describing or providing an example. I sometimes say words like this only “tread water,” keeping the sentence from moving forward to produce any meaning.
My Top Three Words to Eliminate from Your Writing Altogether
Very or Really
The inclusion of the word “very” in a sentence may seem like it is highlighting just how important that point is, but does it? As a reader do you understand how important? "Very" only means more than something else. My “very important” is different than your “very important.” The best thing to do is remove the word.
Example: The passing of this legislation is very important in securing funding.
Revised Sentence: The passing of the legislation is important in securing funding.
The main idea is the same, but now it is more direct.
Lots Of / A Lot Of
Much like “very”, “lots of” isn’t specific. What is a lot, anyway? In addition to this, the word has a very casual or conversational tone. Removing it from the sentence is the best choice to improve the tone.
Example: Change in management organization can lead to lots of dissatisfaction among employees.
Revised Sentence: Change in management organization can lead to dissatisfaction among employees.
In this version is much cleaner, clearer, and direct.
Any Word that Ends in -ly
Go ahead and do a quick Google search about avoiding adverbs. You’ll quickly learn that it is a writing tip frequently recommended. (See what I did there?) This classic advice exists with good reason, however. Often, these added describers are not needed to clarify or create meaning for the reader.
Example: Slowly, we are making progress in revising the triage procedures.
Revised Sentence: We are making progress in revising the triage procedures.
Deleting the word “clearly” has not changed the meaning, but the sentence is now clear and direct.
The second category of words worth eliminating is words that are best replaced with something else. Like the previous category, these words do not add content or meaning so much as they take up space. However, the space these words inhabit should contain another, more specific, word.
My Top Three Words to Replace with More Specific Language
Things or Stuff
Uhhh what things? Even a reader who spent a few pages with the above writer might wonder which things are being handled. Although fine in casual conversation, using “things” or “stuff” in academic writing means you are not being specific or clear. Replace these words with what you mean.
Example: Working with the Jacoby Quality Matrix (Jacoby, 2010) will ensure we handle these things appropriately.
Revised Sentence: Working with the Jacoby Quality Matrix (Jacoby, 2010) will ensure we handle patient concerns about medication appropriately.
Now the reader knows what is going on! It’s always more specific to say what you mean.
The list goes on and on, I’m sure. However, in academic writing leaving the rest of that list off does not create for a clear meaning. Make a decision with this one. Either put the rest of the list you have in your head OR end the list. Sometimes we put a little “etc.” at the end when we have run out of items to list but are certain there has to be more.
Example: This shift in curriculum standards will affect parents, teachers, students, etc.
Revised Sentence: This shift in curriculum standards will affect parents, teachers, students, administration, and academic support staff.
This revision shares a specific list of people.
Due to the Fact That
This is an easy fix. Sometimes writers try to sound formal or academic by using more words than needed. The correction? Just use “because” instead.
Example: Due to the fact that 75% of respondents preferred phone conferences (Chopra, 2013), the practice should replace in person conferences for medication counseling.
Revised Sentence: Because 74% of respondents preferred phone conferences (Chopra, 2013), the practice should replace in person conferences for medication counseling.
Crisp and clean, this sentence gets right to the point.
And now that you have my list, it's time to seek out these words in your own papers. Did you know that there’s a shortcut you can use to find and replace all a word every time it's used in an entire document? Now that you have a list of offenders, you may want to check out our how-to post on editing using the “find and replace” feature in Word so you can implement these strategies.
Do you have any questions or strategies for harnessing your academic tone? Are there other words that you avoid or replace? Let me know in the comments section.
Melissa Sharpe is a Writing Instructor in the Walden University Writing Center. Her favorite part of working with writers is helping facilitate the writing process.
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