Skip navigation
Ask Dr. Editor

Simple tricks to add clarity in complex sentences

The criticism that some academic writing can be difficult to read shouldn’t be ignored.

BY LETITIA HENVILLE | FEB 14 2020

Question:

Academic writing is often criticized for being difficult to read, but we’re usually writing about complex topics for expert audiences. Do you think that saying that academic writing is hard to read just another form of anti-intellectualism? (Anthropology)

Dr. Editor’s response:

I recognize and am troubled by attacks on universities, on disciplines, and on individual researchers. To combat anti-intellectualism, I think it’s incumbent on scholars to share their knowledge beyond the boundaries of the campus and classroom. But that responsibility to engage with non-academics doesn’t mean that every journal article or university press book needs to be written so that it can be understood by the general public. It’s OK to write for an audience of peers with shared expertise.

Still, much academic writing is more difficult to read than it needs to be — and so the criticisms of academic writing’s difficulty shouldn’t simply be ignored. There’s some early evidence that difficult-to-read papers receive low numbers of citations (see for example, McCannon), so it’s in your best interest to learn to edit your own writing well.

My favourite recommendation for the social scientists among my readers: to increase the clarity of your writing, whether you are writing for your peers or for the public is to watch for sentences that begin with the word “this.”

“This” + verb = unclear

When you have a sentence that starts with the word “This,” I advise making the second word in your sentence a noun, not a verb. “This,” when followed by a verb, muddies meaning. The “this + noun” sentence structure clarifies your meaning, and so makes it easier for your reader to follow your argument.

Here’s a fake example:

The multitude of factors that contribute to Vancouver’s high youth homelessness rate make it difficult for healthcare providers to provide appropriate care to young, vulnerable women. This exacerbates the impact of the opioid crisis.

What specifically exacerbates the impact of the opioid crisis? Is it the lack of appropriate care for young, vulnerable women? The difficulties of healthcare providers in this context? The high homelessness rate? The multitude of factors that contribute to this high rate? Or some combination of all of these?

Adding a noun (or, in this case, an adjective and a noun together) brings clarity to this cause-and-effect pair of sentences:

The multitude of factors that contribute to Vancouver’s high youth homelessness rate make it difficult for healthcare providers to provide timely, appropriate care to young, vulnerable women. This inconsistent care exacerbates the impact of the opioid crisis.

Fortunately, “This + verb” constructions are easy to identify and correct. As you edit your draft, use the “find” function to search for “. This” and look to see whether your “This” is followed by a verb, a noun, or an adjective+noun pairing. If you see a verb after “This,” that’s a clue to revise your sentence.

What is “this”?

I see the “This + verb” construction regularly in social science writing, and it’s an impediment to clarity – a real problem, especially when it obscures cause and effect. When you’re writing on complex topics, you need to wield words precisely, and “this” is an imprecise gesture at the abstract. Changing “this” from the subject of your sentence to a modifying word bring clarity to your work.

But “this” isn’t the only troublingly abstract word that can make your writing unclear and thus difficult to read. Abstractions of all sorts can introduce opacity into an otherwise clear text.

In her New York Times essay and its associated TED talk, Helen Sword terms “nominalizations” – that is, nouns that contain within them shorter verbs, adjectives, or other nouns – “zombie nouns” because they “cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.”

Her example: “The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.”

Academics, we’re told, love zombie nouns; that may be because academics are frequently concerned with abstract concepts, or it may be because we all like the idea of a reinvigorated, reanimated, living dead thing (can you say, “revise and resubmit”?).

A nominalization or “zombie noun” can often be recognized by an ending such as:

  • -able
  • -ance
  • -ation
  • -ency
  • -ian
  • -ion
  • -ism
  • -ity
  • -ment
  • -ness
  • -sion

Zombie nouns are a problem when they render your writing more abstract than it needs to be.

Besides asking your word processing software to find every “-ation” and “-ity” in your text, there are two quick tools that you can run your writing through, to quickly identify zombie nouns:

It’s not simple to search your own text for abstractions and ambiguity, but using digital aids – like the “find” function and these free online algorithms – can be a good way to identify terms that have the potential to trip up your reader.

ABOUT LETITIA HENVILLE
Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at shortishard.ca. She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to Ask Dr. Editor at shortishard@gmail.com or on Twitter @lertitia.
COMMENTS
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *