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Writing style




On these pages, we will be looking at a few ways in which you can improve your academic writing style.


Inductive and deductive styles


Sentence length and complexity


Avoiding redundancy and repetition



Inductive and deductive styles

Good paragraphs usually contain just one idea which is developed through supporting information. In countries like Britain, there is a preference for the main point to be stated early in the paragraph and then developed. This kind of writing is called deductive. However, you might come from a culture that prefers to move from the general to the specific, from general principles to facts. This is style of writing is called inductive.

Of course, each of these two styles might also be preferred in different academic disciplines and topic areas; in law, for example, a case is usually built up inductively. Nevertheless, you should be aware that there is a preference in the UK for a more deductive style of writing, so if all of your paragraphs are inductive, then the reader might become impatient and may be thinking: ‘Get to the point!!!’

Here is an example of an inductive paragraph:

1.

Years ago in a remote part of a Pacific island nation, an international aid agency donated a hospital. This was a brand new purpose built facility that would serve a large community that at that point had no health care. The architecture was of the highest modern standards and the hospital was built on land well away from the river to avoid seasonal flooding. It was constructed of materials which were able to withstand the extremes of temperature and climate in the region. The opening was a great occasion. Officials and important people came from far and wide for the event. There were politicians who made speeches to praise the project. They said that it was a major development for the area and would radically change the lives of the people. Sadly, however, it was never used. The government lacked the funds to equip or staff the hospital. Moreover, the building itself was located far away from the river, which was the main means of transport for local people, so access was almost impossible. This health facility remained empty and unused. Many foreign aid projects fail because of poor planning, thereby wasting huge amounts of money.

What is the main idea of this paragraph?

Click here to check.


Here is another example of inductive writing:

2.

In many poor regions, aid from rich donor countries like the U.S. has been pouring in for many years. Nevertheless, the lives of those who need help have not improved much at all. Uganda is a country like this. Despite decades of aid, people there remain hungry, and life continues to be unbearably hard for those who live in poverty. Aid simply does not get through to the poor in Uganda. Instead, local officials take a large share of the money that comes through public sector budgets. It is normal and almost expected that bags of food aid go missing. The missing food is then sold for profit in street markets. Aid agencies like Oxfam are monitoring the situation and have evidence of politicians stealing directly from aid money and setting up bank accounts overseas. Aid has the perverse effect that it creates more greed for money from the West among the ruling elites. They act out of self-interest. They do not work towards improving the lives of their own people. If a local resident wants to open a legal business in Uganda they might need to get licenses from 20 ministries and bribe many people. It can take years, and the government can still shut that business down without good reason. One of the main reasons why foreign aid does not help the poor is wide-scale, systemic corruption.

What do you think is the main idea of this paragraph?

Click here to check.


Here is an example of writing which is too inductive and choppy. Basically, the writer seems to take too long to get to the point (from the perspective of a British reader):

UK polling data throughout the 1950s shows that happiness levels were above what they are today. The proportion of people saying they are "very happy" has fallen from 52% in 1957 to just 36% today (GfK NOP, 2011). Survey results in Britain are similar to data from America. In the U.S., social scientists have done a great deal of research into levels of life satisfaction. Their survey findings reveal that happiness levels have gradually declined over the last quarter of a century. But Britain and America are wealthy countries. In fact, in almost every developed country in the Western world, happiness levels have remained largely static over the past 50 years. This is despite huge increases in income. Britain, for example, is three times richer than in the 1950's. Clearly, happiness and well-being do not necessarily depend on material wealth.


CULTURAL QUESTION

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Research has shown that rhetorical styles in writing vary around the world (Jarvis, S. & Pavlenko, A.). Do you think that there is a preference for an inductive or deductive style of writing in your own country when it comes to academic writing? Does the choice of style also depend on the subject area e.g. science, law, humanities?

Reference

Jarvis, S. and Pavlenko, A. (2008) Crosslinguistic Influence in Language and Cognition. Abingdon: Routledge.


Sentence length and complexity


1. Choppy writing

Look at the paragraph below and notice how many short sentences there are:

UK polling data throughout the 1950s shows that happiness levels were above what they are today. The proportion of people saying they are "very happy" has fallen from 52% in 1957 to just 36% today (GfK NOP, 2011). Survey results in Britain are similar to data from America. In the U.S., social scientists have done a great deal of research into levels of life satisfaction. Their survey findings reveal that happiness levels have gradually declined over the last quarter of a century. But Britain and America are wealthy countries. In fact, in almost every developed country in the Western world, happiness levels have remained largely static over the past 50 years. This is despite huge increases in income. Britain, for example, is three times richer than in the 1950's. Clearly, happiness and well-being do not necessarily depend on material wealth.

You will have counted ten sentences.

QUESTION

What kind of impression do you think this kind of writing gives to a reader?

think bubble

Firstly, writing like this means that you take longer to express your ideas and the reader might get a bit impatient because there is a lack of flow in the writing.

Short sentences might convey the impression that you are not developing your ideas or connecting them in meaningful ways. It might just read like a series of unconnected facts and pieces of information. Your reader (your academic tutor) might consider that you are writing too simply, and therefore that your thinking is also simplistic.

Learners of English might write short sentences for a number of reasons and the main ones are:

- They haven’t yet developed the ability to write grammatically complex sentences

- Writing short sentences is easier and they feel more confident about their writing if they keep things simple

- In their own language, writing one-clause sentences is not considered inelegant as it is in English.


2. Combining sentences

Here is an exercise in combining sentences, which is a way of avoiding writing in a choppy style. Can you make ONE sentence? When you have written your answers, click here to see possible combinations.


1. Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952. This was when her father King George VI died. He died of lung disease.


2. In Britain, the crown normally passes from monarch to eldest son. King George VI had no son. The crown passed to his eldest daughter, Elizabeth.


3. Queen Elizabeth II is a 'constitutional monarch'. This means that she is officially the head of the state. However, the country is actually run by the government.


4. In the British monarchy system, the husband of a female monarch does not have any recognized special status. This is why the present Queen’s husband is not called King Philip.


5. Every day, the Queen’s office receives official ‘red boxes’.. These boxes are full of documents and reports from government ministers and officials. They must all be read and signed by the Queen.


6. As Head of State, The Queen maintains close contact with the Prime Minister. She has a weekly audience with the Prime Minister when she is in London.


7. The Queen's public birthday is celebrated in June with Trooping of the Colours. The Queen's real birthday is on 21 April. She celebrates this privately.


8. The Queen makes her annual visit to Scotland during August and September. During this time, Buckingham Palace is open to visitors from the public. Buckingham Palace is the Queen’s main London residence and office.


3. Stringy and long sentences

stringy


Where possible, it is better to combine short sentences to create more grammatically complex sentences with a few clauses. However, sometimes sentences can be too long and the reader may therefore not follow the point being made. Here is an example of an overly complex, long sentence:


Issues of gender, like those associated with race, are often highly complex given that they arise in contexts of human interaction, which are often unpredictable and also determined, to a great extent, though not exclusively so, by emotional response, which makes people react in unexpected and unplanned ways.


QUESTION

If we wanted to make this long sentence into two shorter (but still grammatically complex ones), where would you make a break? Would you delete any words or phrases?


think bubble


possible solution

Issues of gender, like those associated with race, are often highly complex given that they arise in contexts of human interaction. Such contexts are often unpredictable and also very much determined by emotional response, which makes people react in unexpected and unplanned ways.

Do you notice that the new version does not contain the words 'to a great extent, though not exclusively so'? Qualifying phrases like these can make already long sentences even longer and more complex.


Here is another very long and complicated sentence. Could we break it up into three shorter sentences? Where would you put the breaks?

Having traced the history of nationalism in Europe, which was the recurring political theme of the 20th century, this essay will now address the question as to why certain countries have experienced it more overtly than others, paying particular attention to the UK and Germany, which are quite polarised in this respect, and are examples which show the degree to which cultural tradition plays a role in determining the political direction in which a country chooses to go.


possible solution

We could end the sentences in the places indicated with // below.

Having traced the history of nationalism in Europe, which was the recurring political theme of the 20th century, this essay will now address the question as to why certain countries have experienced it more overtly than others// paying particular attention to the UK and Germany, which are quite polarised in this respect// and are examples which show the degree to which cultural tradition plays a role in determining the political direction in which a country chooses to go.


QUESTION

How would you write the three sentences?


think bubble


possible solution

Having traced the history of nationalism in Europe, which was the recurring political theme of the 20th century, this essay will now address the question as to why certain countries have experienced it more overtly than others. Particular attention will be paid to the UK and Germany, which are quite polarised in terms of their experience of nationalism. Indeed, these two countries are examples of the degree to which cultural tradition plays a role in determining the political direction in which a country chooses to go.

Do you notice than in the new version a few clarifications have been added e.g. 'which are quite polarised in terms of their experience of nationalism' and ' Indeed, these two countries are examples ...'?

These two additions help to improve the cohesion of the three sentences.


Look at this long sentence. If you wanted to make three shorter sentences, where would you make the breaks?

In earlier decades, theory about development, including both ideology and strategy, prioritized economic growth and the application of modern scientific and technical knowledge as the best way to create wealth in the underdeveloped world and defined the global development problem as one which involved developed nations needing to catch up with the West and to enter the modern age of capitalism and liberal democracy, thereby engaging in a form of modernization that was equated with westernization and an associated faith in the rationality of science and technology


possible solution

Places where you might want to break up the sentence are highlighted //

In earlier decades, theory about development, including both ideology and strategy, prioritized economic growth and the application of modern scientific and technical knowledge as the best way to create wealth in the underdeveloped world// and defined the global development problem as one which involved developed nations needing to catch up with the West and to enter the modern age of capitalism and liberal democracy,// thereby engaging in a form of modernization that was equated with westernization and an associated faith in the rationality of science and technology.


QUESTION

How would you write the three sentences?


think bubble


possible solution


In earlier decades, theory about development, including both ideology and strategy, prioritized economic growth and the application of modern scientific and technical knowledge as the best way to create wealth in the underdeveloped world. Theorists defined the global development problem as one which involved developed nations needing to catch up with the West and to enter the modern age of capitalism and liberal democracy; by doing this, they were engaging in a form of modernization that was equated with westernization and an associated faith in the rationality of science and technology.

You might have noticed that in the three-sentence version, extra words have been added ('Theorists defined ....' and 'by doing this, they were engaging in ...') These additions help to clarify the links between the ideas in the text.


something to note

note

There is a difference between complicated and complex writing. If you use long sentences which contain many ideas and qualifications, then the reader has to work harder to unravel the meaning. This kind of writing can be unnecessarily complicated. In academic English writing, you can still use grammatically complex sentences containing a number of clauses, but not too many. The key thing is to put yourself into the shoes of your reader and ask yourself 'is this sentence becoming overloaded'?

Here are some examples of understandable, yet complex sentences from this section:

Having traced the history of nationalism in Europe, which was the recurring political theme of the 20th century, this essay will now address the question as to why certain countries have experienced it more overtly than others.

In earlier decades, theory about development, including both ideology and strategy, prioritized economic growth and the application of modern scientific and technical knowledge as the best way to create wealth in the underdeveloped world.


4. Varying sentence length

One common piece of advice about improving writing style is to try and use sentences of differing lengths; this will make your writing more reader-friendly and lively. This doesn't mean writing overly long sentences , nor does it mean including lots of short and choppy sentences.

balancing

As a writer, you need to do a balancing act and try to produce pieces of writing in which you consciously try to use a mixture of sentence lengths. Try this exercise below.

Here is a paragraph which contains a series of sentences which are all around 10 words long. Can you re-write it by

  • joining two sentences to make them longer
  • keeping one short sentence

Many people take a coffee break while at work. They believe that this will ease their stress. Research has been conflicting on the effects of caffeine. Some studies suggest that it can worsen anxiety and trigger stress. However, others show it boosts confidence and alertness. Recently, however, a study was done by psychologists at Bristol University in the UK. Their research suggests that taking coffee breaks while working may actually negatively affect employees' ability to do their jobs. It also undermines, rather than boosts, teamwork. So this raises the question: do the classic American coffee breaks hurt more than help?

Click here to see a possible solution.


calculate

Why not analyse your own writing? Do some word counts based on a few paragraphs from an assignment you have recently done in English. Do you naturally vary sentence length? Are some of your sentences too long and complicated? Are there runs of short and choppy sentences?




AVOIDING REPETITION AND REDUNDANCY


1. REPETITIVE USE OF VOCABULARY

If you are writing an academic text, it is not appropriate to keep repeating the same words and phrases because this is poor style. Of course, it is inevitable that you will repeat key nouns, as you are focussing on a particular topic when you write. If you are writing about Google's marketing strategies, then those words will recur in your text. However, even key words like these can be substituted. This section will focus on how.

Example 1

Look at the following text and notice how many times certain words and phrases are repeated:


The owners of small businesses claim that there is no way that small businesses can compete with massive companies like Wal-Mart. There are many reasons why they cannot compete with these companies, such as the fact that small businesses do not have as much access to advertising as large businesses like Wal-Mart. Small businesses also have limited hours of operation compared to large businesses. Also, small businesses have fewer staff and a lack of specialized staff. Small businesses also have a smaller inventory, and having a small inventory means that they cannot lower prices to the extent that large businesses like Wal-Mart reduce their prices. Small businesses are also usually not given the opportunity to experiment with new retailing methods. Finally, small businesses also often suffer from a lack of building space.

 

I think we could agree that in the above paragraph key words are being over-used, repetition is often unnecessary and there is a lack of vocabulary range. How would you re-write it so as to avoid so much repetition? Look at the words highlighted in the version below. How would you avoid repeating these words and phrases?


The owners of small businesses claim that there is no way that small businesses can compete with massive companies like Wal-Mart. There are many reasons why they cannot compete with these companies, such as the fact that small businesses do not have as much access to advertising as large businesses like Wal-Mart. Small businesses also have limited hours of operation compared to large businesses. Also, small businesses have fewer staff and a lack of specialized staff. Small businesses also have a smaller inventory, and having a small inventory means that they cannot lower prices to the extent that large businesses like Wal-Mart reduce their prices. Small businesses are also usually not given the opportunity to experiment with new retailing methods. Finally, small businesses also often suffer from a lack of building space.


Click here to see some possible solutions and find out more about avoiding repetition and redundancy.


Example 2

Here is another paragraph which contains a lot of repeated words and expressions. This is a descriptive piece of writing on a scientific theme, so we would expect some repetition of key terms, but we could still improve it so that the style is less repetitive.

QUESTION

Which words would you replace or delete?

think bubble



Light pollution is a form of pollution which is created by excessive and badly designed lighting and has many negative effects. These negative effects vary according to different forms of light pollution. One form of light pollution is called ‘light trespass’. Light trespass is when, unwanted light extends unnecessarily—or trespasses—into someone else's space. Another major form of light pollution is sky glow; sky glow refers to the bright, glowing effect of light from populated areas seen in the night sky. Sky glow creates many negative effects: it obscures the stars from view, and it interferes with astronomy research. Furthermore, sky glow diminishes our appreciation of the night sky. However, light pollution does not only affect people. This kind of pollution also affects wildlife. For example, some birds navigate by using the stars but cannot navigate if sky glow obscures their view. For example, baby sea turtles instinctually move from the sand to the ocean at night because the water and horizon are generally brighter than the surrounding sand. However, artificial lights in the area can confuse the baby sea turtles and they get lost because of light pollution.


skyglow













Try to replace the highlighted words and phrases:

Light pollution is a form of pollution which is created by excessive and badly designed lighting and has many negative effects. These negative effects vary according to different forms of light pollution. One form of light pollution is called ‘light trespass’. Light trespass is when, unwanted light extends unnecessarily—or trespasses—into someone else's space. Another major form of light pollution is sky glow; sky glow refers to the bright, glowing effect of light from populated areas seen in the night sky. Sky glow creates many negative effects: it obscures the stars from view, and it interferes with astronomy research. Furthermore, sky glow diminishes our appreciation of the night sky. However, light pollution does not only affect people. This kind of pollution also affects wildlife. For example, some birds navigate by using the stars but cannot navigate if sky glow obscures their view. For example, baby sea turtles instinctually move from the sand to the ocean at night because the water and horizon are generally brighter than the surrounding sand. However, artificial lights in the area can confuse the baby sea turtles and they get lost because of light pollution.


Click here to see some possible solutions and find out more about avoiding repetition and redundancy.


2. FINDING SYNONYMS


Clearly, one way to avoid using the same words and expressions too often within the same text is to use synonyms (similar vocabulary). The longer you learn and are exposed to a language, the wider your range of vocabulary will be. When you learn words, it's always good to learn a few synonyms at the same time as this will enable you to express yourself more flexibly, explain and reformulate ideas better, and of course, improve your writing style.

You can help build a stronger vocabulary by being an active reader - when you come across useful words and expressions as you read, do you check them in the dictionary and find out about their usage? Do your record these new items so as to learn them?

ANother way to widen your vocabulary is by using the Thesaurus. This is a synonyms dictionary and you can find a number of these online:


http://www.merriam-webster.com/

http://thesaurus.com/

http://www.macmillandictionary.com/about_thesaurus.html


Clcik here to do a Thesaurus-based exercise


3. GRAMMATICAL SUBSTITUTION


You can avoid repeating words and improve your writing style by using grammatical substitution; this just means replacing one grammatical item for another.


Here are just a few examples:


1. You can replace a noun with a pronoun:

There is always a safe way to do something, but the more dangerous one is usually more fun.

2. You can replace a noun phrase with a pronoun:

Climbing a mountain without a rope sounds foolish, but this is just what some extreme climbers do.

3. You can replace a verb with the appropriate form of the verb 'do' and the word 'so':

By law, people have to wear seatbelts. Failing to do so will incur a heavy fine.

4. You can replace a whole clause by using the word 'so':

Everyone seems to think he’s guilty. If so, he will have to resign.


Click here to do an exercise on Substitution.


And here to do another.


4. LABOURING A POINT


Another example of poor style is when a writer spends too long explaining something and adding unnecessary detail - this is what we call 'labouring a point' (I think I just did it!)

Look at an example of this. What could be deleted?

Example one

think bubble

A number of recent studies (Brudney, 1993; Clary & Snyder, 1991; Davis et al., 2003) have found that young people volunteer to serve their community mainly because they are motivated by the desire to help others. This kind of motivation is altruistic; in other words, volunteers are considering and responding to the needs of others. Given this humanistic motivation of volunteers, youth organizations should promote volunteering as an avenue to make a difference in the lives of others.

Click here to check.


Example two

Again, here is another example in which the writer is labouring a point.

What would you delete?

think bubble


It is commonly believed that English is the dominant language in the world today. However, there is growing evidence that English will not remain in that dominant position in the future. Instead, experts in linguistics predict that multilingualism will be the key trend in the years to come. A multilingual population is already the case in much of the world and is becoming more common in the United States. One in five Americans speak a language other than English at home. The notion that English will take over the world and that we will all be speaking it as a first language is now considered out-dated and erroneous. In most of the world multilingualism is and will continue to be the norm, with English perhaps as just one language among others of equal importance.


Click here to check