Your Daily Conciseness #1

Write concisely means eliminating unnecessary words. Concise writing is sharp and elegant and provides a great reading experience.

I’m going to share one wordy sentence with you (almost) every day and show how it can be made more concise. Every time you enjoy Your Daily Conciseness, you’re one step closer to mastering clean academic writing with no unnecessary words.

And, it’s fun! (Really, I mean it!)

Here’s Your Daily Conciseness #1:

Not concise:

Smith draws the conclusion that global warming is a threat to 125,000 species of insects.

Concise:

Smith concludes that global warming threatens 125,000 insect species.

See the difference? I removed six words while preserving the meaning perfectly.

Creating an Engaging Tone for Your Academic Writing

The “tone” of a piece of writing can be described as how readers perceive the personality of the writer.

Whenever we read something, we form impressions about the writer. It’s almost like they are speaking to us, like we can hear them in our minds. And the voice we hear reveals a distinct personality.

Some academic writing is overly serious and unnecessarily complex. Reading it feels like attending a dry lecture by a professor who at best fails to connect with the audience and at worst talks down to the audience, as if the crowd is intellectually inferior.

On the other hand, you want to avoid producing academic writing that is too informal in tone. Academic readers expect you to show that you take your ideas seriously and are working hard to express them as clearly and professionally as possible.

The best tone for academic writing makes readers feel as though they are having a conversation with a highly intelligent person who is deeply knowledgeable about his or her topic and who understands that others may not know as much as they do.

Your writing should be only as complex as it needs to be to express the ideas. You should use a strong and specific vocabulary but avoid words that only a few people understand. And make sure to explain any specialist terms (jargon) or lesser-known references or concepts so all adult readers can follow your argument.

Your goal is not to impress readers with fancy and complex language and style, but rather to dazzle them with how clearly and elegantly you express your complex ideas.

The tone I try to achieve in my writing is warm, patient and conversational, serious but not too serious. I want my readers to perceive me as an intelligent person who loves sharing ideas with them. I want to sound confident and convincing, but also like I would listen to someone who disagreed with me.

Setting the right tone takes practice, but once you make it one of your academic writing goals, you can start working toward expressing yourself in a way that creates the best impression in readers’ minds.

Books on How to Write Well

The best books to read when you’re seeking to improve your writing depend on your immediate goals and your skill level. I’ve compiled a list of excellent books about writing with various goals in mind.

1] If you want a quick and accessible book to increase your grasp of the writing basics and help you avoid common writing mistakes and weaknesses, try How to Not Write Bad by Ben Yagoda. (The awkward title is Yagoda’s way of pointing out how jarring bad writing can be.)

2] If you’re confident about your writing skills and want an advanced exploration that incorporates information about how our brains work, I strongly recommend Steven Pinker’s book, The Sense of Style.

3] For a quick and sharp mentorship in convincing business writing, check out the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing by Bryan A. Garner. (The “HBR” stands for “Harvard Business Review.)

4] If you want to put your writing into perspective by understanding trends in academic writing, like what percentage of journal articles in your field use the first person (“I”, “we”), you’ll appreciate Stylish Academic Writing, by Helen Sword.

5] To improve your research skills, look for the detailed explanations of research strategies in The Craft of Research, by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb and Joseph M. Williams.

6] When you’re interested in an acknowledged classic book on writing, look for The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White.

7] To explore how literary techniques can enhance your non-fiction writing, I recommend Voice and Vision, by Stephen J. Pyne.

Not everyone enjoys books about writing as much as I do, but they can quickly help you enhance your skills. Please leave a comment if you have any other books on writing you’d like to recommend.

Good luck with your writing!

When to Use a Final Comma in a List

One of the tricky questions about comma usage is how to use commas in a list of items.

For example, should it be:

I love to eat apples, oranges, and bananas.    OR    I love to eat apples, oranges and bananas.   ???

Technically, both versions are correct. But I prefer the second. I try to make my writing as clear, simple and elegant as possible, and part of my strategy is to eliminate anything unnecessary. The final comma in a simple list is unnecessary, so I leave it out.

Sometimes, though, you need to add the final comma to preserve your meaning. Here’s an example I love from Ben Yagoda’s book How to Not Write Bad (the title is a joke, by the way, to demonstrate how jarring bad writing can be).

Imagine a student writing about what he is grateful for. Yagoda shows how the final comma in a list is sometimes not superfluous. There’s a big difference between:

I am thankful for my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.    AND    I am thankful for my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

In the first statement, the student is clearly listing three things for which he is thankful. In the second, he appears to be claiming he’s the offspring of Ayn Rand and God. That final comma sometimes makes a crucial difference in meaning.

You often also  use a final comma in a list of items when the items are longer. Here’s an example:

He returned many items from the storeroom to  their original owners, including a bicycle once ridden by Joe Clark, a colourful kite featured in a film about South Africa, and a white ribbon used to alert troops in World War Two to the surrender of a village.

The final comma improves readability in cases like this.

So, sometimes the final comma is needed. Other times you can use it or not. The most important thing is to keep your use consistent throughout your document. So if you use the final comma in a short list once, use it every time. Or if you plan to leave it out of a short list, make sure you leave it out every time. You can make an exception and plop a comma in there, though, whenever it improves readability or is needed to shape the meaning.

Meet Your University Mentor—Part One

Hello! Welcome to University Mentor!

My name is Mitchell Gray and I’m your new academic mentor.

I’m going to do everything I can to help you succeed in your studies. For example:

1] I’ll share tips and strategies for studying and goal-setting. (Things like avoiding time-killing procrastination!)

2] I’ll show you research results that will help you understand how to learn and how to conquer your classes. (Did you know that reading your text again and again is one of the worst ways to study?)

3] I’ll tell you about my successes (and failures) and what you can learn from them. (I’ve dropped out of one university and won the award at another for top graduating student in the social sciences. I learned a lot from both experiences.)

4] I’ll help you enhance your writing and communication skills so you can make the most of your great ideas. (Mastering well-organized, concise and clear communication opens the doors to academic programs and great jobs!)

I’ve worked with university students for seven years now at the University of British Columbia, including hundreds of international students. The ideas you’ll find at University Mentor are the innovative and evidence-supported techniques I’ve been using to help students build the skills they need to excel in their current studies and increase their chances of acceptance into future programs.

I’m excited to be part of your path to success. Welcome to University Mentor!