Language warning. It’s fruity in here people!
On the back door of the Greens office in Braddon, where I’ve been spending a lot of time lately, there’s a sticker with ‘unfuck the future’ right at eye height.
This sticker made me chuckle each time I opened the office during this long election campaign. The election is over and, from my point of view, Australia did the right thing and voted to unfuck the future. A lot of work was done by thousands of people just like me, on the left and the right side of politics, to convince voters that the lack of government action on climate change is a real threat to our future. It was amazing to celebrate this win for everyone at the Greens after party. I had a six vodka hangover by Sunday, but it was TOTALLY worth it.
It’s very nice to have my weekends back to write blog posts and stuff, but the message of this sticker has stayed with me.
Unfucking does not have a formal dictionary definition (yet!) but, to me, it means more than just stopping or reversing. Unfucking is about fixing what’s wrong AND changing the way you do things so you don’t keep fucking up. Thought about this way, unfucking sums up my whole approach to teaching writing.
I work with highly trained researchers who are already good writers. Strictly speaking, I don’t teach: I draw people’s attention to small, fixable problems in their text. Little problems with syntax (the arrangements of words) and lack of precision in word choice creates text that looks like a boat covered in barnacles. The boat stays afloat, but it doesn’t sail as well as it could. The more barnacles you carry, the lower in the water your boat sits and the harder it becomes to steer. My teaching is directed at helping people scrape off the barnacles so their writing boat carries the reader speedily to their destination.
I think I got as much out of that boat/barnacle metaphor as I could. Moving on.
A big shout out here to Katherine Firth from the Research Degree Insiders blog and Shaun Lehmann, who taught me a lot about how to unfuck writing. We wrote two books on writing together: How to fix your academic writing trouble and Level up your essays. I absorbed all their tricks and hacks into my own practice over the four years we worked together. I also stand on the shoulders of giants. I love books that put the technical aspects of language in relation to the purpose of the writing – there’s not many that really do this well, so I have put a list at the end for you.
I designed a two-day workshop around key concepts in both books, which were really popular at ANU and beyond. During the pandemic, when peoples’ attention spans were affected by lockdowns, I distilled this big workshop into a series of one-hour zoom sessions, filled with self-paced exercises. The exercises are designed to help people find and fix these little problems in their own text while I answer questions in the chat. This ‘How to write…’ series has been insanely popular: short enough to be bearable on Zoom, but long enough to learn one or two really useful writing hacks.
Quite a few people have asked for a checklist so they can apply these hacks in the ‘right’ sequence. I don’t think the order you apply these fixes is important, but I love a list. Here’s a few of my favourite hacks that, carefully applied, will go a long way to unfucking most pieces of academic writing:
1. No sentence should be longer than 50 words. Read the text aloud to check the ‘breathing rhythm’ is right. In his masterful book Venacular Eloquence: what speech can bring to writing’, Peter Elbow points out that people sub vocalise when silent reading (move their jaw and tongue, but not enough to produce sound). Readers also tend to breathe in and out around sentence structure. Try reading a couple of long sentences out loud – you literally start to run out of air. Running out of air makes humans feel anxious. Here’s the kicker: your reader is so used to sub vocalising they won’t realise their anxiety is simply a lack of air. They may assume the anxiety is caused by the text.
I have a theory that a whole thesis full of really long, complex sentences can make examiners more critical. Look I can’t prove it, but it can’t hurt to write your sentences with sub vocalising in mind.
Just like there is a habitable zone in our solar system where Earth-like planets can exist, so there is a comfortable sentence length. Aim to keep most sentences between 25-35 words long. Save shorter ones for emphasis and longer ones for when you truly can’t make sense with fewer words. And yes, references count as words because that’s how readers experience them (sorry not sorry). Always read a piece aloud before you send it to someone else – this will help you spot awkward phrasing. For more on sentences, there’s a heap in How to fix your academic writing trouble.
2. Search for every instance of the word ‘this’. Check that the reader knows what ‘this’ is. I got this tip originally from ‘The Writer’s Diet’ by Helen Sword. Writers use ‘this’ to recall a concept already put in front of a reader – a ‘semantic placeholder’ if you like. Functionally, when the word ‘this’ is used without immediately being follow by what ‘this’ is, ‘this’ is pointing at a concept or idea in the previous sentence. Often (and this is where academic writers tend to get in trouble) writers use the word ‘this’ at the start of a setence when they are trying to sum up the ‘vibe’ of the previous sentence. For example, consider the following two sentences:
The ramifications of the 2022 federal election in Australia are huge and the community consciousness-raising techniques of the so-called ‘Teal’ independents could be adopted in other countries, including the UK. This is potentially a seismic shift for democracies everywhere.
In this example, the word ‘this’ could refer to the election, Australia, community conciousness, campaigning techniques, so-called Teal independents or even The UK. The writer probably means all those things acting together – ‘the vibe’. Help the reader by adding a bit of text summing up the vibe, like so:
The ramifications of the 2022 federal election in Australia are huge and the community consciousness-raising techniques of the so-called ‘Teal’ independents could be adopted in other countries, including the UK. This change in the way Australians conduct elections is potentially a seismic shift for democracies everywhere.
Have a look at my slide deck ‘How to write clearer sentences’ for more. Fun fact – the careful handling of ‘this’ was one of the first university-level writing tricks I taught Thesis Whisperer Jnr. when he was about 14. Now, he tells me, every time he writes ‘this’ in a university essay he hears my voice screeching: “What is This?! What is ‘This’ doing here?!”…
Ah – academic parent Love. The gift that keeps giving.
Be like Thesiswhisperer Jnr. Every time – and I mean Every Single Time – you write the word ‘this’ ask yourself: ‘does my reader know what ‘this’ means here?’ If there’s more than one word in the previous sentence that could be ‘this’, or if it’s just the vibe of the thing, add a word or two to make ‘this’ crystal clear. The same principle applies to words like ‘that’, ‘they’ and ‘them’. My friend Stan, who edits rulings at Australia’s High Court, has the same advice about ‘it’. You really need to know what kind of people, things or situations are ‘it’ when you are trying to apply the law. Any word being used as a semantic placeholder is potentially confusing for readers: handle with care.
3. Make sure conjunctions send the right ‘signal’ to the reader about where your argument is going. Conjunctions wield a subtle kind of magic in your writing. They help readers understand logical relationships between statements or propositions. Get the conjunction wrong and the reader is left wondering where you are going with your argument. Consider the following sentence:
The so-called ‘Teal’ independents dominated the inner-city seats, who embraced the socially but fiscally conservative messages. Therefore the ‘Teal wave’ didn’t take hold in regional areas of Australia.
The word ‘therefore’ signals a cause and effect relationship between the two statements. It suggests the city voted one way so the regions will vote another way. Logically there is no way this can happen because they voted at the same time. In this case, the writer probably just wants to highlight the contrast in voting patterns. The relationship between the two sentences can be made clearer by picking a word that does the right kind of meaning-work to indicate contrast, for example:
The so-called ‘Teal’ independents dominated the inner-city seats, who embraced the socially but fiscally conservative messages. However, the ‘Teal wave’ didn’t take hold in regional areas of Australia.
If your supervisor always writes ‘what are you trying to say here??’, look first at your conjunctions. If the conjunctive word choice is sloppy, your reasoning is probably sloppy too. Academic arguments can be very complicated and conjunctions do a lot of heavy lifting. I’ve written at more length about them in this old post. Slides 6 to 12 in my ‘How to write logically connected sentences’ has more information.
4. Stick your sentences together better by ‘referring back’ to ideas in the previous sentence. I first encountered this trick in ‘Helping Doctoral Students Write’, By Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler. I reckon it’s the reason I got the faculty medal for my own thesis, despite being a largely self taught academic writer. Linguists describe sentences as having two units of meaning: the theme and the rheme. The theme is (usually) everything up to the first verb; the rheme adds further information, clarification or complication to the theme. For example, in the following sentence, the theme and rheme are separated by ‘were’, a verb form of ‘to be’:
The so-called Teal independents were victorious at an election the Conservatives expected to win narrowly.
The theme of the sentence is about ‘Teal Independents’ the rheme is about the electoral delusions of the Conservatives (ahem).
If you want your sentences to ‘flow’ nicely without using conjunctions, pick up an idea from the start or the end of the previous sentence to start the next one. In this case, the next sentence needs to say something about ‘the Teal independents’ or ‘Conservative delusions’.
Here I have referred back to start of the previous sentence (the theme) at the start of my second sentence. The theme of the first sentence is the concept of ‘the Teals’ (verbs highlighted so you can distinguish themes and rhemes):
The so-called Teal independents were victorious at an election the Conservative party expected to win narrowly. The Teal independents subverted the Conservatives’ expectations by offering the voters promises to take real action to fight climate change.
You can use the exact language when you refer back, or you can reach for alternative ways of expressing the same concept. The second sentence here has picked up on the rheme of the first:
The so-called Teal independents were victorious at an election the Conservative party expected to win narrowly. The Conservatives’ expectations were raised by only listening to the sections of the media that supported their point of view.
Here I’ve picked up the idea from the end of the first sentence (‘conservative expectations of winning’) and referred back using a variation on the basic idea (‘expectations being raised’).
Picking the start (theme) or end (rheme) creates different patterns in your writing, but we are aiming to be brief here so look at my slide deck ‘How to write logically connected sentences’ for more. See what happens when you just put another sentence next to the first without any referring back:
The so-called Teal independents were victorious at an election the Conservatives expected to win narrowly. The Greens party had the strongest promises for action on climate change.
These two sentences read more like a list than prose – the reader is left wondering, what’s the point? Random, unconnected sentences turn up all the time in academic writing because we assume the reader has the same ‘big picture’ details in their head. You can’t rely on readers to remember and process (parse) what you said in the last paragraph or even chapter. In reality, they only parse a couple of sentences at a time. A new sentence that appears without a conjunction or a ‘refer back’ is like a person wearing a Greens Tshirt on Sky news – people will wonder why theTshirt is there. If your writing starts to feel repetitive when you ‘refer back’ all the time – good. Readers need repetition.
5. Get rid of gerunds (verbs with ‘ing’ at the end that are acting like nouns) lurking near the start of sentences. Since you’ve had a language warning already, I’ll just say gerunds are really fucking confusing. To understand gerunds you need to first understand the difference between nouns and verbs and how verbs can pretend to be nouns. No small feat for this grammar challenged Gen-Xer, believe me. I owe a lot to ‘The Reader’s Brain’ by Yellowlees Douglas.for understanding why gerunds can be problemmatic.
English sentences should have a subject-verb-object pattern somewhere in them. Briefly, in English, Someone (or Something) is always doing something to Someone (or Something). Unless the sentence is passive, in which case the subject has gone missing. By acting like nouns, gerunds enable a bunch of other words to ‘stick’ together and create long, abstract subjects.
Basically, gerunds turn the ‘doer’ of the sentence into a being from the 32nd dimension. In the sentence below I have highlighted the long, complex subject the gerund (‘reading’) enables in red. The verb (‘tax’) is in blue and the object (‘political tragic like Inger’) in pink:
Reading all the media articles about reasons the Conservatives lost the 2022 election could tax even a political tragic like Inger.
The reader has to imagine Reading all the media articles about reasons the Conservatives lost the election as a person or thing that is doing something (specifically ‘taxing’) to Inger (a political tragic).
Look, in skilled hands, gerunds are absolutely fine. Most readers can handle all the grammatical twists and turns. But in a dense thesis filled with complex sentences, lots of gerund-enabled subjects are really hard on your reader. Less skilled writers are more likely to make mistakes with gerunds. One slip of a preposition and these sentences collapse into word salad.
Luckily, the fix is easy, just search for ‘ing’ and find the pesky verbs-pretending-to-be-nouns near the start of sentences. Simply cross out the gerund and challenge yourself to rewrite the sentence a different way. Try putting an actual person or thing to act as the subject. In this case, I pinched the person (Inger) from the end of the sentence and put it up front:
Even a political tragic like Inger will get tired of reading media articles about the Conservatives losing the 2022 election.
For more about subject-verb-objects, and how our brains grapple with English language ‘schemas’ more generally, I highly recommend ‘The Reader’s Brain’ by Yellowlees Douglas.
6. Eliminate ‘left branches’ of sentences, or make them shorter. As Peter Elbow points out in his book ‘Venacular Eloquence: what speech can bring to writing’, readers tend to enjoy text when it is ‘speech like’. In speech, we tend to do what is called ‘right-branching syntax’, where the subject-verb-object appears near the start of a sentence.
In academic writing, because you are thinking complex thoughts, the tendency is to explain before getting to the point. For example, in the following sentence, the subject–verb–object pattern appears near the end:
With a grassroots ‘activist’ campaign, which focussed on connecting the community, the so-called ‘Teals’ won key seats off so called ‘moderate’ Conservatives.
The reader will be happier if the subject-verb-object pattern appears near the start, so they know what is being explained before the explanation is offered, for example:
The so-called ‘Teals’ won key seats off so called ‘moderate’ Conservatives by finding new ways to connect people through grassroots activism.
Right branching sentences just have more ‘zip’. They are also less defensive: you aren’t bending over backward to qualify a statement or idea before you make it. Have a look at my slide deck on ‘How to write more compelling sentences’ for more.
That’s probably enough grammar nerdery to digest for now. There’s heaps more in How to fix your academic writing trouble and I have provided an extensive reading list below. I hope this checklist helps you unfuck your writing a bit. I am running the ‘How to write’ zoom workshop series in the evening over June and July 2002, for ANU students only (you can register here). If you want to organise a workshop at your uni, I am solidly booked through till November, but have a look at my workshops page for details, including links to the slide decks.
In solidarity (with vodka hangovers)
How to write a more compelling sentence
Academic writing is like a painful, upper middle class dinner party
I’m back in the On The Reg Podcast cave with Dr Jason Downs. In the latest episode, we revisit the bullet journal and discuss the seven varieties of stupidity. Listen and subscribe here.
Ever thought of starting your own Podcast? Jason and I live in different cities and use Riverside to record and mix the pod – it’s the best platform to avoid sound problems. Enter code: ONTHEREG for a 15% discount or use this link.
Great books on Writing
All these books sat on my desk while Katherine, Shaun and I were writing How to fix your academic writing trouble. All of them lay out the principles of good academic writing.
The difference between How to fix your academic writing trouble and the books on this list is we went the other way. Instead of starting at general principles, we structured our chapters around the feedback we saw on the side of manuscripts: things like ‘this doesn’t flow’, ‘what are you trying to say?’ and ‘this doesn’t sound academic enough’. Each chapter tackles the reason why supervisors give you that sort of feedback and then some fixes.
The books below deeply informed the fixes:
‘Helping Doctoral Students Write: pedagogies for supervision’, By Thomson and Kamler. This dynamic duo also wrote a more student friendly version called ‘Detox your writing: strategies for doctoral researchers’. Either is good, but I prefer the one aimed at supervisors, probably because I read that one first. It’s also shorter 🙂 Pat blogs regularly about writing and being an academic – if you don’t already subscribe, you should!
‘The Reader’s Brain’ by Yellowlees Douglas. A fantastic book that more people should read. Content warning: it’s super technical and nerdy. Don’t let that put you off though! It’s a book written by someone who really understands how the reading brain works, so it’s a surprisingly easy read. The kindle version is pretty rubbish though (the formatting is whackadoodle) – buy or borrow the print version if you can.
‘The Writer’s Diet’ by Helen Sword Much of what I say above about ‘this’ is drawn from this tiny, but ever so useful book. If you only have enough money to buy one book on this list, this one is probably the most bang for buck.
Style: 10 lessons in clarity and grace by Williams and Bizup This was the first book on writing that I picked up when I realised I was bad at it and needed help during my masters degree. The book was a shock to the system, and took a lot to digest, but it helped me build a foundation of good practice.
‘Venacular Eloquence: what speech can bring to writing’ by Peter Elbow Unlike his other books, which are more polemic and fun, this is a thick dense tome that is only for the most nerdy. Rewards the effort spent reading it, but maybe not while you are also trying to do a PhD.
‘Disciplinary Identities : Individuality and Community in Academic Discourse’ by Ken Hyland. Not about language function per se, but about how language operates in academia. Again, only for the most serious nerds, but very enlightening. I have read most of his books and actually once sent him a gushing fangirl email. He probably thought I was very weird, but he wrote back and was very kind 🙂
Love the ThesisWhisperer?
I cover all the expenses of operating the Thesis Whisperer out of my own pocket. If you’d like to support my work, please consider becoming a $1 a month Patreon
Or buy a copy of my (cheap!) ebooks: Tame your PhD or The Year of Living Covidly. Jason Downs and I have our first ‘On the Reg’ podcast book – on TextExpander. This book shows you how to use TextExpander to reduce your everyday cognitive load.
You can find links to print versions – and my other books through conventional publishers – on the Buy Books page