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Advanced Writing

Getting Creative with Academic Writing


Nathan Boutin, Associate Editor

March 2024

Quality writing means something different to everyone. The Internet, professors, journal editors, colleagues, and industry leaders will give you a wide array of opinions on the matter. Indeed, there is an avalanche of information out there about what constitutes “good” writing. This is especially the case for academic writing, where communicating the details of a study and the ideas espoused by the authors can affect the reception and adoption of the work.

There is a great divide between the formality of scientific writing and the freedom of creative writing. Regardless, they share a goal: to effectively communicate ideas. The unfortunate consequence of formality is that academic writing can be deemed dull and unimpressive, and there is a perception of scholars droning on about their ideas with “five-dollar words” like “germane” and “fastidious”. Meaning, then, is obscured within this language and cannot effectively reach the common reader. Creative writing is not immune to this phenomenon, but there are some tactics you can use to get “creative” with your writing: ways to minimize the clunkiness of academic prose.

Spice up Syntax

One common problem with academic writing is it can feel repetitive. Sentences are often structured the same way throughout a text. Subject, verb, object. Short, choppy sentences or long, draw out messes of commas. We all have ways that we like to write. We have unique voices, but our voice is frequently consistent to a fault. A good practice is to mix up the way you arrange words and phrases in your writing. For example:

The open porosities decreased. The grains expanded as the sintering temperature increased. The optimal sintering temperature was 1000°C. The median size was approximately 340 nm.

There is nothing technically wrong with the above writing, but it is rather dull. Each sentence begins with an article (the) to introduce the subject. Let’s vary these sentences just a little.

The open porosities decreased in the sample materials. However, as the sintering temperature increased, the grains expanded. After the sintering process, an optimal temperature of 1000°C and median size of 340 nm were recorded.

The above provides essentially the same information. However, it is presented in a non-formulaic manner. Lists of information are important, but such information can be expressed in other forms like tables and figures. There is no set way to structure a sentence, but it is best to avoid a repeating pattern. Long sentences and interspersed with short, impactful statements can make readers stop and think.

Make use of metaphors

Using simple metaphors can be an effective way to communicate observations and findings. In fact, we use metaphors in scientific communication all the time. Consider, for instance, genetic “blueprints” or ecological “footprints”. We might refer to the brain as a “computer” or the mitochondria as the “powerhouse” of the cell. These are not literal terms. Instead, they evoke an image that can be used to understand an abstract idea.

How can you apply metaphors in your work? Metaphors are fantastic to use when describing the background of your study or how a mechanism works in an easy-to-understand way, making them best suited for the introduction and discussion. It can be tempting to write out the intricacies, and this is often necessary in the methods. However, a mental image can help those unfamiliar with the context understand the basic principles. For example, describing an artificial intelligence model that determines the most effective treatment plan for a patient given their history, symptoms, and imaging could be described as a “judge”. The model is not wielding a gavel or dressed in black, but it gets the point across that the model determines the best course of action with some degree of accuracy. Such metaphors could even be presented in the title if the journal allows it.

Here are a few points to keep in mind when using metaphors in your work.

Don’t use metaphors as the foundation of your argument — Be sure the framework of your discussion is solid before dipping into metaphor. Metaphors should be used only to simplify a complex idea that is already fleshed out.

Consider your primary audience — Are you appealing to a wide audience, or is the scope of your paper limited? A paper that reaches across multiple disciplines increases the importance of concrete language.

Avoid overuse — Stick to one or two core metaphorical concepts in your work. Avoid describing your method, process, or system in different ways. Ground your ideas. Otherwise, metaphors could confound your meaning.

Slash adverbs and filler words

Prolific writer Stephen King in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft tirades against the adverb (usually, they end in -ly). He argues that adverbs are used when the author is afraid they are not expressing themselves clearly enough. The problem is that adverbs so often convey little information. Instead, the writer should use a strong verb that does not necessitate the help of a descriptor. Although King is looking through the lens of creative writing and advocates for the use of strong action words, scientific writing can benefit by removing superfluous adverbs as well. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

(1) Surprisingly, our results show that the increase in temperature was beyond the accepted threshold.

The use of the adverb “surprisingly” presupposes that the findings were not expected. While this may be the case, it is better for the audience to come to that conclusion on their own to not influence their interpretation

(2) Figure 7a clearly shows the normal distribution of data.

It is understood that a figure should present clear information, so the word “clearly” is not needed.

(3) One patient experienced even more discomfort during the trial than the other patients.

The word “even” is unnecessary in this case and serves only to bloat the sentence.

(4) Fluctuations in salinity are almost always problematic.

The words “almost always” make the sentence awkward. Be confident in your ideas and state that the fluctuations are, in general, problematic.

Abolish redundant terms and clichés

A hallmark of good writing is eliminating redundant items. While creative writing may employ the clever use of repeated words to some effect, academic language should be as concise as possible. It should strive to be clear and simple. Despite this, it is common for writers to use more words than necessary to convey their meaning. Here are some widely used phrases that can be cut down to size or removed altogether.

Redundant Concise
It can be seen from Figure 2 that Figure 2 shows that
Due to the fact that Because
It should be noted that group A experienced lower risks Group A experienced lower risks
It is worth mentioning that the solutions responded differently to stimulus The solutions responded differently to stimulus
In the event that If
Despite the fact that Although
Analysis of the dataset was performed The dataset was analyzed
At 6 pm in the evening At 6 pm

The creative writer will also tell you to remove clichés in your writing. These are overused phrases that serve little purpose. Phrases such as “time will tell”, “at the end of the day”, and “at long last” should not be used.

It can be challenging to make your academic writing sound natural. By strategically using a few of the strategies above, you can improve the readability of your text and ultimately communicate your ideas more effectively.

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