More Tips for Good Academic Writing

DR. VICTORIA’S “Recipe for Good Scientific Writing”

The blood samples were tested. The data was found to be inconclusive. The experiments were canceled.  Why do we assume that scientific writing has to be third person passive?

My recipe for good scientific writing is first person active. Don’t be afraid to say “I” or “We” and follow with a descriptive verb.  After all, I did the experiments, why shouldn’t I take credit for it? I discovered something new! I want everyone to know it.

So many of my science students think first person active sounds less formal than third person passive.

I keep telling them that the important thing about writing is to convey what you’ve learned. Maybe it does sound less formal, but it’s also less boring. And if your readers are bored, then they’re not learning anything.

The best way for a writer to teach is to leave a snapshot in the reader’s head, and the best way to illustrate something you’ve done is by using active verbs. I can picture someone doing a laboratory experiment, but I cannot picture the blood samples being tested.



According to Jacques Derrida: “The instituted trace cannot be thought without thinking the retention of difference within a structure of reference where difference appears as such and thus permits a certain liberty of variations among the full terms. The absence of another here-and-now, of another transcendental present, of another origin of the world appearing as such, presenting itself as irreducible absence within the presence of the trace, is not a metaphysical formula substituted for a scientific concept of writing.”

Ah, Derrida. Don’t write like that. Just . .  . don’t.

While it’s tempting to think that the sign that you’ve finally arrived in the academic field is to make your prose as complicated, lofty, and opaque as possible, why should we ignore the writing advice we give to our students?

Good writing is clear and direct. Yes, of course, complicated ideas demand complicated prose, but good readers can smell pretention a mile away.

Here are a few tips:

  • Respect nouns and verbs.
    • Yes, it’s fashionable to verbify a noun or to nouniate a verb, but, generally, unless these have already been accepted into common language, leave the neologisms to others.
    • We all want to be able to forge the term that will be on everyone’s lips, but make a name for yourself instead as a scholar people enjoy reading for your lucid, direct, and pleasurable prose.
  • Don’t call attention to how clever/iconoclastic you are (even if you happen to be exceedingly so).
    • Common pitfalls in this category can include the “Romanticism? Pfff. I reject such categories and labeling as the encroaching commodification of a decaying bourgeoisie which seeks to reify its own dissolution via the artificial signification of a post-Enlightenment Neo-Platonism strategy.”
    • While a great deal of good can come from re-evaluating commonly accepted ideas, don’t assume the position that your dissertation is going to explode the hide-bound categories of Academe.
    • Instead, emphasize how much your study will add to the field. Be a part of the academic conversation; don’t sneer at it (though there might be much to sneer at).
  • Write like a writer. Not a scholar. If you can’t visualize the difference, turn to Orwell: lucid, politically aware, always relevant, and worth repeating here:
    • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
    • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
    • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

(“Politics and the English Language”)

Well, you are saying to yourself, no one writes like this. Admittedly, this is rare, but you will find that the best scholars also happen to be the best writers, and this, I think, is no mere coincidence. So, if you have issues with your writing, seek a good dissertation editing service to help you.

–by the Staff of Edit911, Inc.