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Improve choppy writing

The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (American Psychological Association [APA], 2010) provides tremendous amounts of information about creating citations and references, but did you know the manual also addresses writing style? As the American Psychological Association (2010) noted, “establishing a tone that conveys the essential points of your study in an interesting manner will engage readers and communicate your ideas more effectively” (p. 65).

For the purposes of this writing tip, I’m referring to writing style as how an author chooses to express his or her ideas (e.g., word choice, sentence structure). Sections 3.05-3.11 in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association address many different aspects of style, but in this article, I will highlight a few of their suggestions for improving the flow of the writing, or as it’s called in the manual, “smoothness of expression” (American Psychological Association, 2010, p. 65). If you’ve ever received feedback that your writing is choppy or hard to follow, applying these suggestions should make your work more accessible to readers:

  • Avoid using techniques often used in creative writing that may cause confusion for readers, such as “setting up ambiguity; inserting the unexpected; omitting the expected; and suddenly shifting the topic, tense, or person” (p. 65). Remember that academic or business writing doesn’t rely on inserting surprises or suspense to engage readers; instead, it’s the precise expression of information that grabs and keeps readers’ attentions.
  • Check for errors that you’re no longer seeing because you’re so familiar with your text (p. 65). Whether you have someone else read your text for you or put away the text so that you can come back to it with refreshed attention, check for “omissions, irrelevancies, and abruptness” (p. 65). The APA Style manual also encourages authors to read text out loud (p. 65), and that’s an approach to self-editing we frequently encourage writers to try as hearing the text often helps authors to catch small grammatical and spelling mistakes. For other self-editing techniques, please visit “Edit the draft”.
  • Consider using transitional words or expressions to show the connections between ideas (p. 65). As the author, the connections are probably totally obvious to you, but your reader may need more information to understand how you’re connecting the ideas. For more information, see the links to resources in the “Transitional expressions” section of Paragraphs. Another suggestion from the American Psychological Association is to consider if “you may have abandoned an argument or theme prematurely” (p. 65). In other words, are you assuming that your reader will understand the significance of an argument or theme without you fully explaining those details? If so, you may need to return to the text to provide additional information.

The APA Style manual has more to say on the effects of unnecessary shifts in verb tense (p. 65-66), noun strings (p. 66), and the dangers of unintentional shifts in meaning through using synonyms (p. 66). For more information on how you can improve your writing style, please refer to pages 65-70 to learn more about:

  • “Tone” (p. 66-67);
  • “Economy of Expression” (p. 67-68);
  • “Precision and Clarity” (p. 68-70);
  • “Linguistic Devices” (p. 70); and
  • “Strategies to Improve Writing Style” (p. 70).

The APA Style Blog also provides a tremendous amount of information on writing style (e.g., see the posts tagged under “Grammar and Usage”). Finally, the Writing Centre has information available via the Grammar section of the website and the “Grammar” and “Academic Writing” topics in WriteAnswers.

Do you have questions about this writing tip? Please contact the Writing Centre as we’d be pleased to assist you.

Theresa Bell
Writing Centre Manager

Reference

American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: Author. 

(Originally published in Crossroads March 27, 2018)

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