#AskDrEditor: Your Reader is a Little Bit Drunk

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My editing advice column, Ask Dr. Editor, is now available through UniversityAffairs.ca. The second Ask Dr. Editor question comes from a faculty member who isn’t sure how to advise her trainees as they write their job application materials.

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

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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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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Cut “is”

This is a writing problem that is easy to correct. (10 words)

This writing problem is easy to correct. (7 words)

When editing your draft, search for the word “is.” In the two sentences above, searching for “is” and rephrasing the sentence enabled the writer to cut 30% of the original word count without losing any of the original sentence’s meaning.

Short Tip: Use the “find” function in your word processor (Ctrl+F) to search for the words “is,” “was,” “are,” and “were.” These words are symptoms of wordiness.

Here’s how and why you should cut “is” as much as possible:

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Favour the active voice

Active voice sentences are shorter and clearer than passive voice ones. When you write in the passive voice, the person who is doing the action is removed from the story you’re telling. Think of the difference between these two (fictional) headlines:

  1. Funding for Scientific Research Cut (passive voice)
  2. Trudeau Cuts Scientific Research Funding (active voice)

The second sentence tells us more about the person who has cut the funding–it tells a more complete story–using the same number of words. Here’s how you can identify passive constructions in your own writing, and how you can use the passive voice strategically:

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“This” + verb = unclear

Short Tip:
Search your document for “. This” to find and remove ambiguities in your phrasing.

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. An adjective+noun pairing will also work. This sentence structure clarifies your meaning, and so makes it easier for your reader to follow your argument.

Incorrect:

  • 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.

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