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Home / Opinion - How to improve writing style for academic success: Part 1

Opinion - How to improve writing style for academic success: Part 1

2022-08-18  Prof Jairos Kangira

Opinion - How to improve writing style for academic success: Part 1

I come back to you the readers after some break, a lull that I needed to rest, reflect and come up with more ideas to share with you in this column. While I was attending the highly successful National Conference on Education, I met many followers of this column who told me that they were missing my writings in this newspaper. It is always encouraging to get feedback from readers. They were happy when I told them I would resume soon.

 True to my promise, here I am, tackling a topic on how to write effectively for academic success. My target audiences are students at honours, master›s and doctoral levels who must demonstrate their mastery of academic writing as they marshal their discussions in writing. However, this article is useful to everyone who wants to improve their academic writing. 

Most students at postgraduate level struggle to communicate their ideas in their written academic work because they lack the appropriate writing style that is required in academia. Experience has proved that students’ writing is often clumsy, redundant and fuzzy – replete with vagueness and ambiguities, thereby making it difficult for supervisors to comprehend and follow the students’ arguments. In some cases, students use bombastic language with the aim of trying to show off or to appear ‘learned’ as they consider simple words or language as a sign of weakness or inferiority.

 What some of these students do not understand is that using simple or plain language is the best way to communicate one’s ideas clearly. Studies have proved that adopting a simple writing style is what students need in order to achieve success in their academic work. On this subject, academic writing author Mimi Zieger has this to say: “There are two good reasons why it is desirable to write clearly: first, to be sure that you yourself know what you mean and second, to be sure that you get your message across to your readers.” Sometimes readers get confused and lose meaning of what the writer is communicating because of a complicated writing style that is employed. 

Equally important here is Elizabeth Murphy’s observation: “Effective writing is writing that works. It does the job without anyone having to ask for further explanation. If it informs, it does so clearly – the reader does not have to ask for more information.” Still, the emphasis is on explicitness a student uses in putting across his or her thread of argument, line of argument or thesis in writing. By using a writing style that foregrounds explicitness, the student removes all uncertainties and ambiguities that would otherwise confuse the reader. It is not enough to achieve explicitness without presenting the arguments in a logical manner. 

At postgraduate level, students are expected to critically analyse, compare, contrast, examine and evaluate collected data in a methodical fashion and marshal their arguments in a logical and convincing manner. Of course, the arguments must be backed by credible evidence gathered during data collection and review of existing literature. Where necessary, the evidence provided by others has to be scrutinised.

Successful academic writing produces well-structured theses, dissertations and arguments. A well-structured piece of writing is presented in effective and clear paragraphs that are smoothly linked using discourse markers and cohesive devices, each paragraph addressing a main point or theme. A worrisome practice among students is that they look at how big a paragraph is and without reasoning, they jump on to the next and so on. This arbitrary way of paragraphing has no place in effective academic writing, as it does not foster a smooth flow of ideas and arguments; it inhibits logic.

The author’s voice or authorial voice is a crucial ingredient of effective writing. Readers would like to know the student’s voice in the thesis, what scholars refer to as ‘reflexivity’. It has been argued that the phenomena or facts scholars present are products of their interpretive stances. In other words, whether students use the personal reflexive voice (e.g. I suggest that …) and distancing voicing (e.g. The author/writer suggests that ..), the argument is that in both cases the facts are a result of the writers’ interpretive stances. Therefore, the use of the reflexive voice or the distancing voice depends on the dictates of disciplines and professors who always make it clear to their students which of the two voices to employ. 

In Part 2 I will address the correct use of hedges and reporting verbs in academic writing.

2022-08-18  Prof Jairos Kangira

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