Last week I was in Readings bookstore, with a $100 book voucher burning a hole in my pocket, when I spied a book called ‘On writing well: the classic guide to writing non fiction’ by William Zinsser. According to the cover ‘On writing well’ has sold more than a million copies, which piqued my curiosity (just as the publisher had intended). Since book vouchers are like academic candy – impossible not to spend instantly – I bought it straight away.

If you have been reading this blog for awhile you will know that I am a sucker for any book on writing. I thought I already owned everything worthy in the genre, but clearly not. The difference between Zinsser’s book and many others is that it deals with technicalities at the same time as being an inspiring call to action. Zinsser is all about the audience and how to make their reading experience more enjoyable without dumbing down your text – something all thesis writers must be interested in. I encourage you to go right out and buy this book if you don’t own it already. To convince you further here’s 5 ways to declutter your text based on some of Zinsser’s ideas:

1) Use brackets to diagnose ‘fuzz’ in your text

All writers (will have to) edit their prose, but (the) great writers edit (it) viciously, always trying to eliminate (words which are) ‘fuzz’ – (excess) words (which are not adding anything of value). Zinsser compares (the process of editing out) ‘fuzz’ to fighting weeds – you will always be slightly behind (because they creep in when you aren’t looking for them). One of my (pet hates) is (the word) ‘also’. (If you search and replace all instances (of this word) you will find you can live without it and your writing will improve (instantly). (Likewise the word)’very’.)

Let’s try that again:

All writers edit their prose, but great writers edit viciously. The point of editing is to eliminate ‘fuzz’, or excess words which don’t add value. Zinsser compares removing ‘fuzz’ to fighting weeds – you will always be slightly behind. Two examples of fuzz are ‘also’ and ‘very’. Work at keeping them out of your text and your writing will improve.

2) Pay attention to your adverbs and such

I’m a child of the 70’s, when, it seems, they gave up teaching grammar. I can’t explain what an adverb is, but I know one when I see it. Zinsser points out that “smile happily” doesn’t say much more than “smile” and that the tall in “tall skyscraper” is redundant. If you start to mentally put brackets around these words as you read you will start to see adverb abuse everywhere – which unfortunately makes reading trashy novels (very) irritating.

3) Get rid of qualifiers

Zinsser claims that qualifiers “weaken any sentence they inhabit”. Phrases like “in a sense”, “a bit”, “sort of” have no place in a thesis. Worse – they imply that you are apologetic or unsure of your ideas. This is not a  message you want to send to your examiners.

4) Strive for nuance

Grammar hurts my brain. It’s like trying to understand how I am walking as I walk and makes me dizzy. So I will make this next point without resorting to technical explanations. This advice comes out of Chapter 7 of Kamler and Thomson’s excellent book “Helping doctoral students to write”, but I think Zinsser would have approved. Consider the following sentences:

Inger argues that the words you use to describe the work of others is important
Inger asserts that the words you use to describe the work of others is important
Inger states that the words you use to describe the work of others is important
Inger outlines that the words you use to describe the work of others is important

There’s quite a difference between ‘argues’ and ‘asserts’. The first implies that Inger is making a case, the second implies that Inger is defending a position without necessarily providing any evidence for it. ‘Asserts’ adds a whiff of arrogance, but without over playing it (remember that academia is in a state of polite warfare). Likewise ‘stating’ something is different from ‘outlining’ it – the latter implies that some explanation is supplied which will help the reader understand what is being discussed.

Paying attention to the words you use to describe the work of others saves you the trouble of adding another sentence to explain to the reader what you think of the work. It’s the thesis writer’s equivalent of a nod and a wink to the reader. It’s hard work to remember all that nuance, so I keep a handy list of verbs on my wall.

5) Get comfortable with pruning the excess

It’s hard to write well on a subject if you don’t understand it clearly. Sometimes the only way to get to the idea is to write it out. It’s likely that you will generate far more text than you can, or should, use. It can be tempting to ‘dress up’ your writing to appear more intelligent. Resist the urge. The ideas and findings in a thesis are important; style is secondary. A simple and precise style is like painting your walls white – a backdrop against which your ideas can pop. It can be hard to do the necessary pruning, but remember that examiners are likely to view a thinner thesis as a sign that you are confident and in charge of your material.

Happy gardening thesis writers!

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