Academic Writing

A great deal of academic writing is convoluted and dull (well, at least what I’ve been reading), and the American trend of using ungrammatical jargon to dress up second-rate thinking is sadly spreading to the UK.

But it doesn’t have to be that way – Nabokov’s scientific writings on butterflies have a lyrical quality, while Russell’s works on philosophy are clear and concise.

I have found George Orwell’s rules of writing to be very helpful:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

From Politics and the English Language (1946) –

Bertrand Russell also wrote a short essay entitled How I Write (1954) –

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5 thoughts on “Academic Writing”

  1. As a chemist, I think (4) is plain wrong (sorry). Scientific academic writing, at least, should never feature “I” or “we”. When I see others do it, I am really uncomfortable.

  2. On 4: ‘never use the passive where you can use the active.’

    Joseph, I agree with you that use of the first person should be avoided as far as possible in academic writing – scientific or otherwise.

    However, I think Orwell’s advice is still helpful when it comes to other passive constructions, as blindly using the passive voice can produce some very complicated sentences.

    The key is to be aware of the way you write. Carefully choosing the active or the passive voice can bring clarity and variety to academic writing.

  3. Thanks for this post and comments! I actually linked to it from my website 😉 .

    On 4: as a mathematician, I don’t use `I’ , but `we’ is *very* popular in maths context. I like the explanation that when I say “Now we prove the following theorem”, I really mean: “Now we, the author and the reader, prove…” – this is *so* true, you can’t read many math papers without a pencil and a piece of paper and actually writing down your notes…

  4. Phoebe, you are of course absolutely correct. One the the things I say most often when proof-reading for students is “think again about this section”. Thinking about what you are writing is the most important point of all.

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