Keep your writing simple

Posted: December 16, 2010 in Assignments, Useful advice for students
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I have noticed several times in the past that, although students write perfectly clear sentences in emails and blog posts, when they get into “paper writing” mode the quality of writing decreases dramatically: Sentences become long, wordy, and impossible to follow. Passive voice is used more often than it should be (as opposed to” They use passive voice a lot”).

Good writing is simple, clear, direct. Your writing will be easier to understand if:

  1. You use short sentences.
  2. You use simple sentence structures: Start with the Subject (Who is doing the action), follow with the Verb (the action) and then qualify as needed. In each sentence, Someone is Doing Something (Subject, Verb, Object). Try to stick to this structure as much as you can. Avoid passive voice: Something is being Done to Someone (Object, Verb, Subject).
  3. Use fewer words. Examine your sentences and see how many words you can take away without compromising  meaning. I tell students to imagine each word costs 10 cents. Try to save your money when you write.

As you write, the main goal you keep in mind should be: How can I communicate this clearly? – NOT: How can I sound more elegant/academic? Focus on the reader (user), not on yourself.

Here is an example of rephrasing a sentence to make it shorter and clearer:

First of all, the open-ended questions after the post-task questionnaire as qualitative research were asked to the participants to analyze the nanoHUB website usability.

Start by asking yourself: What do I REALLY want to say? Then, just say it:

After each task, we asked participants two open-ended questions.

Some more tips/reminders for writing the final report:

  • It’s OK to use “We” – as in “We conducted usability research.”
  • It’s OK to use numbers inside sentences, but spell them out if them out if they are at the beginning of a sentence: “Three out of 5 participants completed the task.”
  • Be consistent across sections. Use the same style. If you refer to participants as P1, P2, do so in all sections. If you capitalize Task 1, Task 2, then do so in all sections.

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