I have given presentations to students on improving their academic writing, with a special emphasis on the issues that might affect speakers of English as a second or later language, and these presentations have been excellent opportunities for me to learn how and why students approach writing in the ways they do and, most importantly, why they make the errors they do.
If I know the logic behind an error, I can better explain the edits I make in a paper when there’s a chance my reasoning won’t be apparent.
One of the questions that came up during my last presentation arose when I mentioned that jargon and big words are not necessary to make a paper read as academic and that avoiding them is often the better option. The student simply said, “I thought we had to use that kind of language.”
Here, then, is a bit more explanation and discussion about what I do and don’t mean by this suggestion.
What I Do Mean
Complex ideas are best explained in the most straightforward language that can accommodate them, and less complex ideas are not made more sophisticated with inflated language.
or: Why the Best Critical Reader for Your Academic Paper Probably Isn’t an Expert in Your Field
When writers seek out editors, they usually have some excellent search criteria in mind: experience overall, experience editing in their writing genre, availability within their timeframe, reliability, communicativeness, budget, and so on.
One piece of criteria that I sometimes see in job listings from authors, though, is something like “Must be an expert in < name a field here >.” This field might be as broad as psychology or economics, or it might be as specific as accounting-based valuation models or religious perspectives held by the Romantic poets.
When I respond to these job postings, I do my best to explain why I think I’m the editor for the job despite my lack of expertise in the author’s (sometimes very) specific field of research. I confess that I seldom get those jobs.
Let’s use the dissertation as the focal point for this discussion, though most of it applies just as easily to papers written at an earlier level of education and those written later in one’s career.
A doctoral dissertation or thesis is the paper written to establish the writer as an expert in one particular topic within his or her field of research. It’s the writer’s contribution toward advancing that field of research by introducing findings, theories, or concepts that are brand new to the field. One of the ways in which a graduate student identifies a completely new topic is by specializing. A dissertation addresses a sufficiently narrow topic in great depth (as opposed to discussing a broad topic superficially).
We covered dot dot dot dash last week. Here comes dash dash!
Whatchoo talkin’ about, John Anthony Gillis? This doodad: – If you’re not used to looking for the difference, you might think it’s a hyphen, but it’s not. It’s a teensy bit bigger.
When to use it: The primary use of an en dash is to indicate a number range. The next most common use is to indicate some other kind of range, like a route from one location to another or a time span represented in words. After that, there are some style-specific uses, such as in the names of university campuses.
When not to use it: Don’t mistake it for a hyphen. Also, depending on the style you’re using (as dictated by a publisher or journal, or if you’re just blogging or producing copy for your own use), there will be a particular way you’re supposed to use dashes for setting off pieces of text. Most use em dashes (coming up next), but some use en dashes. If you’re using a style that requires an em dash for that, then an en dash isn’t interchangeable.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.