#AskDrEditor: Borrowing fresh eyes for your academic writing

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My editing advice column, Ask Dr. Editor, is now available through UniversityAffairs.ca. The seventh Ask Dr. Editor column describes how to use three of my favourite free online algorithms to support your editing processes: “Borrowing Fresh Eyes for Your Academic Writing.”

Have a question you want me to answer? Contact me or ask me on Twitter at @lertitia.

25 words

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Your sentences are too long. Shorten your sentences!

As an editor, I’m more descriptive instead of prescriptive. I know that audience, context and genre shape meaning. Language is a shifting beast–but more problematically than that, the so-called ‘rules’ of grammar and writing are arbitrary, classist, colonialist, even wrong.

But I’m still going to tell you to shorten your sentences. Aim to keep them no longer than 25 words. Here’s why & how.

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Making paragraphs flow

Screen Shot 2018-05-12 at 3.41.54 PMWe all know that good paragraphs cohere around a single topic and are book-ended by strong, analytical take-away sentences. But how can a disjointed, staccato-sounding paragraph be made to have flow?

Flow is an elusive quality — it’s the sense that sentences move logically and seamlessly without repetition or heavy-handed transitioning. Sometimes this flow comes from the structure of the paragraph itself, which may follow an order such as

  • general to particular (big to small),
  • particular to general (small to big),
  • question to answer, or
  • effect to cause.*

But when the paragraph as a whole doesn’t have an overarching shape, how can a writer make their ideas flow logically? If you’ve ever been told that your writing is “choppy” or “fragmented,” here’s your fix:

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Intensifiers don’t

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Intensifiers — the adverbs and adjectives that writers include to add force to their expression — don’t have the effect that some imagine they might.

Take these two examples:

  1. Dave is a trustworthy employee.
  2. Dave is a really trustworthy employee.

In which of these examples might a reader be left wondering if Dave will be pocketing staplers on the way out the door?

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Words to watch for: zombie nouns

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

In her New York Times essay and its associated TED talk, Helen Sword terms “nominalizations” — that is, nouns that contains 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.”

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. So how can you talk about an abstract concept — say, participation, or perception, or relationships — without letting the zombie hoards deaden your writing?

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