The most potent way to improve our academic writing is to think about meeting the needs of our readers. We are all generally aware that this imperative is true at the global level: we know that readers will be frustrated if our writing doesn’t meet their broad structural expectations. Sometimes those expectations will be based on their familiarity with the various genres of academic writing; sometimes those expectations will be based on promises we have made through our use of metadiscourse. We may also be familiar with the idea that readers need certain elements in order to understand our writing at the paragraph level. At the local level, however, writers are often unaware of what their readers will need for maximal enjoyment and comprehension. Indeed, readers themselves are often unaware of these needs; they simply know that some writing is easier to read than others. But if readers in fact have implicit expectations about writing at the sentence level, it seems plausible that writers could learn to anticipate and thus satisfy those expectations.
In this post, I am going to discuss three basic approaches to sentence clarity, each of which is designed to help us meet readers’ unconscious expectations. These strategies all derive from the helpful work of Joseph Williams. In addition of offering concrete advice for crafting better writing, Williams has given a superb articulation of why writing is so challenging to characterize: “But when we use clear for one [sentence] and turgid for the other, we do not describe sentences on the page; we describe how we are feeling about them. Neither awkward nor turgid are on the page. Turgid and awkward refer to a bad feeling behind my eyes” (Williams, Style, p. 17). This observation is crucial, especially for graduate students, who are often on the receiving end of feedback that they struggle to act upon. To be told, in so many words, that our writing is giving someone a headache is not without value. We need this knowledge because knowing the effect of our writing gives us the impetus to change; however, it is only the first thing we need to know. In most cases, such feedback gives us very little guidance about what to do next. We all need a subsequent step: what we will do after we learn that our writing is making our readers blink, shake their heads, and rub their temples.
That subsequent step can involve learning what readers generally need from sentences, so we have some strategies to work with when looking at our early drafts. Here are three such strategies to try during the revision process:
- Place subjects and verbs together early in sentences
- Choose stronger subjects and verbs
- Employ the orienting–informing pattern
The first strategy is the easiest: try to put your subject and verb close together and relatively early in the sentence. Before the verb arrives, the reader often feels a sense of incompletion. By delaying the verb, the writer is asking the reader to start processing the meaning of the sentence without its most crucial animating element, the verb. Consider this example:
Ontario’s education system, which requires further attention from policy makers to ensure coherence in educational policies, a need that has been extensively captured in a recent report published by the Canadian Education Association that evaluates the PCS policy initiative in its early years of implementation, is frequently cited for its attention to early years learning.
While we are working our way through all the things that the author wants to tell us about Ontario’s education system, we are likely slightly uneasy. The most common way of characterizing that uneasiness is to say that the sentence is ‘awkward’ or simply ‘too long’. Those judgments are the sorts that convey that there’s a problem but don’t tell us how to craft a solution. Observing that the verb comes very late in the sentence (some 42 words later), is a crucial step towards that solution. To rework this sentence, we could take all the things that the author wanted to say about Ontario’s education system and turn that into its own sentence, before turning to the ostensible main idea of the original:
Ontario’s education system requires further attention from policy makers to ensure coherence in educational policies, a need that has been extensively captured in a recent report published by the Canadian Education Association that evaluates the PCS policy initiative in its early years of implementation. Despite this lack of policy coherence, Ontario’s system is frequently cited for its attention to early years learning.
Both sentences now have a subject and verb that are close together, early in the sentence. The implication that the frequent citations happen despite a lack of policy coherence can be expressed in an opening clause before the second sentence.
Topic Subjects and Action Verbs
The second strategy asks us to look at what words we are choosing for our subjects and verbs. A grammatical subject that is also the topic of the sentence give your writing more strength; similarly, a verb that is expressing the action of the sentence will make for writing that is more straightforward and energetic. Consider this example:
In the present study, focus is on the vibration of a clamped beam exposed to the recurring impact of the particles in a vibrationally fluidized bed.
Is ‘focus’ the true topic here? Does ‘is’ convey the action of the sentence?
The present study focuses on the vibration of a clamped beam exposed to the recurring impact of the particles in a vibrationally fluidized bed.
This revision makes the true topic (the present study) the grammatical subject and manifests the action with the verb (focuses).
The final strategy is both simple and powerful: use the early parts of your sentences to orient the reader before providing novel information in later parts. This pattern is what Williams calls the old–new pattern, but I prefer to talk about the activities of orienting and informing. This terminology focuses on what the writer is doing for the reader: orienting and then informing. The concept of what is old and new often confuses writers with its hint of judgment; it is easy to think of new as good and old as bad. Talking instead about orienting and then informing puts the emphasis on the relationship being built between the writer and the reader who is being first oriented and then informed. Consider this example:
This slow reallocation is due to the high costs of job switching and migration. The Hukou registration system added to the migration costs. The Hukou system, which operated from 1958 until the late 1980s, was designed to restrict labour migration.
This slow reallocation is due to the high costs of job switching and migration. These migration costs were exacerbated by the Hukou registration system. The Hukou system, which operated from 1958 until the late 1980s, was designed to restrict labour migration.
This slow reallocation [orienting] is due to the high costs of job switching and migration [informing]. These migration costs [orienting] were exacerbated by the Hukou registration system [informing]. The Hukou system [orienting], which operated from 1958 until the late 1980s, was designed to restrict labour migration [informing].
Committing to this pattern is the best way I know to ensure that your reader will move easily from sentence to sentence.
You may have noticed that these three strategies for sound sentences don’t mention the use of active or passive constructions. This omission is purposeful: while there are many things to be said about active and passive, I find that these three sentence strategies are the best way to craft energetic writing. Most everyone is familiar with some degree of moral panic about the passive voice, either from an early encounter with Strunk and White (“The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive”) or your grammar checker’s relentless warnings about the dangers of passive voice. While there are absolutely cases of unhelpful passives, these three sentence strategies will generally root them out without limiting your ability to enjoy the affordances of appropriate passive voice. This topic is one for another post—since this one is already too long—but I didn’t want to end without acknowledging a topic that is often top of mind for writers eager to improve their sentences.
This post describes the fourth of five key strategies for strong academic writing; I have chosen these five simply because they are the ones that I most frequently turn to in my work with students. In the four other posts, I discuss reverse outlines, paragraphs, transitions, and metadiscourse.
For more on sentences, you can consult this other post:
- In A Question of Parallelism, I look at the importance of using parallelism to guide our readers through our sentences.