Your Daily Conciseness #2

Not concise:

Participants sat in a circular formation during the meeting.


Participants sat in a circle during the meeting.


I can’t think of a situation in which a “circular formation” can’t be equally effectively described simply as a “circle.” If any readers can think of a context in which it’s better to write “circular formation,” please let me know!

When my students cannot detect the problem in this conciseness example, I ask them to draw a circular formation on the board. The answer comes to them when they realise they’ve drawn a circle.

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.

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.