Simple things to avoid in order to write better, tips for students (and others)

I just finished what I call marking season a few weeks ago. It is the period from the last week of August to the end of the second or third week of September when we do most of our MSc dissertations marking. I have had the pleasure to read very interesting work on a broad range of topics during this period. While the overall quality of the work I read was high, there were a number of recurring writing habits that bugged me.

Review of How to Write a Paragraph

Thriving in a degree programme (and I would argue—as Carmine Gallo does in Five Stars—in most careers) especially at MSc level requires the ability to write clearly and convincingly. I have been thinking a lot about how to help my MSc and PhD students write better (it also helps me, which is no bad thing). Many are not native speakers (between 60-80% depending on the year and the programme), so explicit advice about how to use English effectively is likely to yield good returns (as a non-native speaker myself, brushing up on good English is time well spent too).

Review of Economical Writing

This little book makes for delightful and terrifying reading. Delightful because it is very well written, and hilarious at times. Terrifying because many of the rules expose flaws in one’s writing. The book packs a lot of very useful tips in a small format. It is a very good complement to the often recommended Strunk and White Elements of Style, with advice that is particularly useful to the social scientist.

Writing: the proverbial struggle

I read Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing (Sword, 2012) on a recent flight. The book surveys major style quirks plaguing academic writing. It is both entertaining and concerning: some of the examples are hilarious, but a look at one’s own writing yields many sentences as wonky as the examples in the book. For me, writing is the single most difficult part of being an academic: I am a slow writer and need heavy editing to get my first draft into shape.