A Good Text is Hard to Find: Beware of Emulating Models of Academic Writing
We’ve learned to write, over time, based on what and how much we’ve been taught, heard, spoken, and read. The higher the quality, the greater the learning. By now you’ve read hundreds of articles in your discipline and learned much—both about your subject and the mechanics of writing. Chances are good that your writing now imitates that of published writers. This makes sense and it’s basically a good thing.
However, just because a research study gets published—even when written by a respected researcher and published in a peer-reviewed journal—don’t presume that it represents a high level of academic writing and thus bears emulation. Even peer-reviewed articles can have writing issues.
To avoid these issues, pay close attention to what you're reading; be aware of, and cautious about, what you emulate; and actively seek critiques of what you’ve written. All writers need friendly, supportive readers who can respectfully point to errors that we’re just too close to see. We need this type of support, perhaps, even more than we need models to emulate.
As you know, writing is not easy and errors are natural. This is why some writers claim that the nature of writing is rewriting. But despite an author’s careful revisions, there are several reasons why writing errors persist into print (whether paper or online).
- Social scientists are trained to be scientists, not writers. It’s just assumed that writing skills will develop. (This is a big assumption. Should academic writing be taught in any social science curriculum?)
- Even for those who have published, writing may not come easily.
- All writers can be blind to their errors at times.
- The academic publishing process has limitations. For example, time (deadlines), money, and editorial priorities factor into publication decisions. And the author, significance, and timeliness of a piece of scholarship under review can also influence what gets published by whom.
- Excessive use of the passive voice (leaving readers wondering just who did what)
- Long and/or complex sentences (forcing readers to re-read them out of confusion)
- Excessive use of nouns or prepositional phrases (causing the narrative to become abstract, confusing, and perhaps too dense)
- Limited variation in sentence length (causing readers to lose attention )
- Overuse of jargon, beyond what is necessary in a discipline (creating inaccessible prose)
- Bureaucratic phrasings, e.g., regarding, involving, concerning, related to, with respect to, in the area of, with regard to (yielding verbose, overblown sentences)
To avoid these issues, you might have a look at this handful of journals whose articles you can emulate. Each of these set very high editorial standards. The quality of the prose is not second to the quality of the research:
- New England Journal of Medicine
- Scientific American
- Recommendations from your chair or faculty member.
No matter the field—psychology, nursing, business, or education—good writing is critical to the transmission of knowledge. Isn't this the purpose of scholarly writing after all?
Tim McIndoo is a Senior Dissertation Editor in the Walden Writing Center. He came to Walden University in 2007 with over 30 years of editorial experience, including work as translator and photographer. He lives in Minneapolis with four cats.
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