Seven Strategies to Improve Your Academic Writing

Seven Strategies to Improve Your Academic Writing 670 335 Open and Universal Science (OPUS) Project

Whether you’re drafting a research article or a grant proposal, identifying areas for improvement can be challenging. Patrick Dunleavy, a professor of political science at LSE, has developed seven strategies to help refine problematic articles or chapters. These tactics are designed to elevate your work from merely adequate to exceptional.

1. Focus on One Thing

Overcomplicating your writing by attempting to cover too much ground can dilute your message and exceed length limits, making it difficult for reviewers to follow your argument. Instead, focus on doing one thing well within clearly defined boundaries. This approach not only clarifies your intent but also ensures that your work remains substantive without fragmenting it across multiple articles.

2. Simplify the Structure

Social science articles should ideally be 8,000 words or less, with chapters around 10,000 words. Use sub-headings every 2,000 words to create a predictable rhythm and structure. Avoid multi-tiered hierarchies of sub-headings, as these can overwhelm readers and obscure your main points. Each section heading should be substantive, guiding the reader through your narrative logically and clearly.

3. Say It Once, Say It Right

Repetition can undermine a reader’s confidence in your writing. Avoid previewing, stating, restating, and summarizing the same point. Instead, present each point clearly and concisely the first time. This approach ensures your argument is direct and engaging without unnecessary repetition.

4. Re-Plan Your Paragraphs

Revisiting and reorganizing your paragraphs can offer fresh insights into your existing draft. Techniques like “reverse outlining,” where you extract a detailed structure from your finished text, can help you see your work from a new perspective. This method can reveal alternative sequences and improve the overall flow of your writing.

5. Clarify the Motivation

Readers need to understand why your research matters. Clearly articulate the significance of your study, why it was conducted, and its broader implications. If you’re struggling to write an effective conclusion, it might indicate that your motivation isn’t clear enough. A compelling introduction and a strong, forward-looking start to each chapter can help maintain reader interest.

6. Strengthen Argument Tokens

Every paragraph in your research should be supported by “tokens” such as citations, quotations, empirical evidence, or data. Ensure these elements are robust and convincing. Updating and expanding your literature search just before submission can provide a more comprehensive and current foundation for your arguments.

7. Enhance Data and Exhibits

Effective data presentation is crucial. Design exhibits that follow good design principles and ensure that each chart, table, or diagram is fully labeled and relevant to your readers. The data should be presented in a way that underscores its importance and applicability.

By employing these strategies, you can transform a lackluster draft into a compelling and persuasive piece of academic writing. For more detailed advice, refer to Patrick Dunleavy’s book, “Authoring a PhD” (Palgrave, 2003), particularly Chapter 5 on “Writing clearly” and Chapter 6 on “Developing as a Writer.” Additional insights can be found on Rachael Cayley’s blog, “Explorations of Style,” and Thomas Basboll’s blog, “Research as a Second Language.”

About the Author: Patrick Dunleavy is a professor of political science at LSE and Chair of the LSE Public Policy Group. He is the author of “Authoring a PhD: How to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral dissertation or thesis” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)

Image credit: Nic McPhee (Flickr, CC BY-SA)

Original article via Impact of Social Science blog

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