Don’t be afraid to be clear

Students often try to give their writing an academic air by making it more difficult to read. They’ll turn a straightforward sentence like “the puppet popped out and scared the children” into “the puppet’s sudden emergence caused fear in the children”. Or write sentences like “an experiment to test this theory was carried out”, in which all instances of “I” or “we” are scrubbed out in an effort to make things less personal.

But fewer professional researchers feel this shyness about being direct and personal in their writing. To illustrate this, I’ve taken extracts written by PPLS researchers and degraded them into the sort of writing that’s more typical of undergraduates. Take a look at the transformed sentences below and consider how they could be made less obscure.

Animals setting off to their usual foraging grounds can be seen to be in possession of knowledge of their destination based on the fact that different starting places and different routes exist.

An experiment in which eight- to ten-year-old children played a tangram description and matching task with a partner, as in Wilkes-Gibbs and Clark (1992), was carried out to distinguish these alternatives.

Sentences like these can require multiple passes to absorb. They might not jump out immediately as awful, but they’re harder to understand than they might be.

Now let’s see the unaltered versions. The original authors didn’t feel the need to disguise ideas or identities, and so they are able to communicate their ideas to the reader more effectively:

When an animal sets off to its usual foraging ground, it knows where it is going, because it can get there from many different places, and even take new routes. (James R. Hurford’s chapter in Christiansen and Kirby 2003)

To distinguish these alternatives, we carried out an experiment in which eight- to ten-year old children played a tangram description and masking task with a partner, as in Wilkes-Gibbs and Clark (1992). (Branigan et al. 2016)

Hurford keeps the animal in focus throughout his sentence by making it the subject of several short clauses. Branigan, Bell and McLean aren’t afraid to use “we”, which means the reader doesn’t have to plough through dozens of words before getting to the main verb.

Yes, it’s true that research articles often involve specialised vocabulary and complex ideas.  But a skilled academic writer will try to communicate as clearly as possible despite all that.  A novice, on the other hand, will see the complexity as a badge of honour and may even try to increase it artificially.  This is always a mistake.

Over the next few months we’ll look at how to make your writing clearer and easier to understand.  In the next post in this series, we’ll see how to identify subjects.  When you make careful decisions about how you start your sentences, you can dramatically improve your writing.