How to write for your readers
By the time you are ready to begin writing your paper, you will have spent a great deal of time researching. You will have reviewed the literature, identified a significant problem area, done empirical studies, thought a great deal about what your results show and how they relate to the problem that you have been studying, and finally drawn your conclusions. At the end of this process, you are ready to present a significant contribution in your field to your fellow researchers and the community of practitioners.
The paper in which you present your findings constitutes a showcase for your research. It is on the basis of your written work, whether it be presented in journals or at conference or in seminars, that your contribution to your field will be judged by your peers.
The goal of publishing a paper is to communicate research findings to other researchers and to practitioners: in short, to readers.
In order to help you to write with your readers in mind, we here provide guidelines for improving your writing, with a specific focus on improving clarity. We used as a basis for the list over 1500 papers that have been edited by our sister companies, Cambridge Language Consultants and Genedits, over a period of 9 years.
With respect to the items of the list, you might think that in each case, it is not so important. In some instances, you may well be right. However, that is not sufficient reason not to take each one of them seriously. Unclarity in each of the cases stated, no matter how slight, places an interpretative burden on the reader. As the number of cases, and hence the amount of unclarity, increase, the interpretative burden increases, to the point at which the reader finds that he is having a very difficult time indeed trying to understand what you are saying.
It is logically impossible to extrapolate to a general case from one or two examples and it places a great interpretative burden on the reader when you expect him to do so. You must state your general point first and then provided examples that illustrate the point.
- Using strings of nouns as adjectives. This is a very serious source of ambiguity. Here are some examples:
Instead of using strings of nouns as adjectives, break down the clauses by using prepositions to convey your intended meaning unambiguously.
- "their risk and return expectations"
Does this mean "The risk that that they will face and their expected returns" or "their expected risk and returns"?
- "corporate governance standards and best practices"
- "audit and risk management mechanisms"
- "Sharia law compliant manners"
- "non-Sharia compliant earnings"
- "the conflict between social and shareholders' wealth maximisation"
- "assets, revenues, profit and expenses allocation"
- Misusing "Such xxxx" to refer back to something in the text. Often, the intended referent of "xxxx" is not clear because the author has not used the term before. For example, saying "such models" when it is not clear that the author has specified any models at all, or "In such a competitive environment", when the author has either never specified an environment or, if he has, has not specified the ways in which it is competitive.
In order to make your text clear when using "such xxxx", you need to actually use the term "xxxx" when you introduce xxxx; otherwise, the reader will not know what you are referring to.
- Misusing the quantifier "all". Usually, misuse occurs when "all" is used in conjunction with "not", as in "All surveyed banks do not follow the AAOIFI". Strictly speaking, this means "There is no bank that follows the AAOIFI" (in plain English, "None of the banks follow the AAOIFI"). However, the author might not mean this. He might mean "There is at least one bank that does not follow the AAOIFI" (in plain English, "Not all of the banks follow the AAOIFI").
Never use "All......not". Write either "None of xxxx are Y" or "Not all of xxxx are Y", depending on your intended meaning.
- Misusing "that" and "which".
Consider the following four sentences:
(i) The object that Fred is holding is red.
(ii) The object, which Fred is holding, is red.
(iii) The object which Fred is holding is red.
(iv) The object, that Fred is holding, is red.
(i) and (ii) are correct, but they each mean different things. The constructions in (i) and (ii) are often misunderstood and misused, which leads to unclarity and ambiguity. (iv) is grammatically incorrect. (iii) is correct according to many style guides, but can cause ambiguity because it can be construed to mean either (i) or (ii).
You should never use (iv) because it is incorrect and you should never use (iii) because it can lead to ambiguity.
You should only use either (i) or (ii), dependent on your intended meaning.
The difference in meaning between (i) and (ii) can be explained by appealing to what "is red" applies to. In (i), "is red" applies to [The object that Fred is holding], as opposed to other objects that Fred is not holding. In (ii),"is red" applies to [The object] alone. (ii) can be rewritten as "The object is red and Fred happens to be holding it". (i) cannot be rewritten in this form because "is red" applies to the entire composite "The object that Fred is holding". Here's another way of explaining the difference. When you say "The apple that Fred is holding", you are intending to refer to a particular apple, namely, the one that is in Fred's grasp. In contrast, when you say "The apple, which Fred was holding," you are intending to refer to the apple (whichever apple it is) by saying "The apple" and are intending to ascribe a property, namely being held by Fred, to that apple, by saying "which Fred was holding".
- Making sentences complicated by using more words than are necessary. For example, consider "The probability that X will occur is greater than the probability that Y will occur." It is better to write "X is more likely to occur than Y." Again, consider "More of the women used FluffyFace soap in comparison with the men." It is better to write simply "More of the women used FluffyFace soap than the men."
Always try to express yourself in simple language and always look for a more concie way of conveying your intended meaning. Do not use many words when a few will suffice.
- Making sentences complicated by using a lot of big words.
Consider this sentence: "Assessing the probability that a person will secure gainful employment within a month conditional upon registering with an online job board presents a great challenge." Why not make things easy for the reader and write "It is not easy to determine how likely it is that a jobseeker will find a job within a month of registering with an online job board"?
Always use straightforward, simple language whenever possible. Nothing is gained by making things complicated and communication is impaired.
- Misusing "thus" and "therefore".
The words "thus" and "therefore" can only be used to connect two propositions when the second proposition is a logical consequence of the first. However, authors often use "thus" and "therefore" when the connection is not logical, but causal or a matter of someone's intention/decision.
Consider the following example:
"(1) a better understanding of how to assess marketing performance would help marketing practitioners to quantify their contribution to firms’ financial performance. Thus, (2) the research objectives are:
(i) to review the current status of research on marketing performance; and
(ii) to develop a comprehensive yet concise model for measuring marketing performance."
In the above example, (2) does not follow logically from (1) because the connection is not a logical connection at all. That the objectives of the research should be such and such is not determined logically by any matter of putative fact, such as that a better understanding of how to assess marketing performance will help marketers to quantify their contribution to their firm's financial performance. Rather, the objectives of the research depend on a decision on the part of the researcher about what to do, given the matters of putative fact. Obviously, what someone decides to do when presented with matters of putative fact is not determined, logically or causally, by the facts themselves. Different people can decide to do completely different things when presented with the same data. A better way of putting (2), which reflects the fact that the researcher is making a decision, would be "In the service of contributing to such understanding, this paper has the following research objectives:" In different contexts where the researcher decides to do something when presented with certain matters of fact, you could write "Given these findings, we decided to...." or "Using xxxx as a basis, we decided to......".
Consider another example.
"(1) A large proportion of the sales staff were struck down by flu in December and it was not possible to hire temporary staff. (2) Thus, the firm's revenue suffered." Again, (2) does not follow logically from (1) because the connection is not logical at all. In this case, it is causal. So, rather than use "Thus", you should say "As a result".
- Omitting words for brevity.
- Using gerunds as covert relative clauses.
Very often, authors use gerunds (the "-ing" form of a verb) as a substitute for a relative clause (one that uses "that" or "which"). While this helps to keep the word count down and may even, in some cases, help the language to flow better, it can also introduce ambiguity. Hence, it should be avoided. Here are some examples.
(i) "a model for measuring performance linking nonfinancial and financial performance is needed." Here, when the reader encounters the word "linking", it is not immediately clear how the word is functioning in the sentence. He will not know until he has reached the end of the sentence and reads "is needed" that "linking" is functioning as a relative clause. It is better to make things easy for the reader by making the relative clause explicit. You should write "a model for measuring performance that links nonfinancial and financial performance is needed."
- Using pronouns when their intended referent is not clear.
- Ambiguous use of "since".
"Since" can mean a number of things. Its primary usage is to indicate temporal order, as in "Productivity has been increasing ever since 1901." However, it can also be used as a substitute for "given that", "due to the fact that", or "because". Here are some examples:
(i) "Since the concept of marketing performance is multidimensional and has been less controversial, the term 'marketing performance' will be used throughout this paper." Here, "since" means "given that". In this case, you could also rewrite using the construction "X; hence, Y", or "X. That being so, Y", respectively, as follows: "The concept of marketing performance is multidimensional and has been less controversial; hence, the term 'marketing performance' will be used throughout this paper", or "The concept of marketing performance is multidimensional and has been less controversial. That being so, the term 'marketing performance' will be used throughout this paper."
(ii) "Since the supply of beef had fallen significantly in the first two quarters, the firm decided to close a number of its restaurants temporarily." Here, "since" means "because", but it is not permissible to begin a sentence with "because", so you should write "due to the fact that".
(iii) "The firm decided to close a number of its restaurants temporarily, since the supply of beef had fallen significantly in the first two quarters." Here, "since" means "because".
It is best to use "since" only in its temporal sense. For all other possible usages, replace "since" with other terms that convey the precise sense that you want to convey.
- Ambiguous use of "as".
Like "since", "as" can mean a number of things: "as", "because", "due to the fact that", "given that", and "when".
- Unclear formulation of hypotheses.
- Using an example as a substitute for a general case instead of stating the general case explicitly.
- Using words when you have not thought about what follows logically from their meaning.
- Failing to state clearly how the paper is organised.
- Failing to state the objectives of the study clearly.
- Describing the shape of a curve on a graph instead of describing the phenomena that are plotted by the curve.
Missing words: that is/was, there are/were