From Bad to Good-Technical and Academic Writing


concise.blogpromo2Academic and technical writing are far different than literary writing, such as novels and poetry. The primary purpose of academic and technical writing is to provide information about a defined topic to a specific audience. Whether you write graduate papers, professional journal articles, dissertations, white papers, manuals, websites, reviews, or similar documents, you are writing academic or technical documents.

Academic and technical writing can be bad writing. They can be complicated, tedious, and confusing. They can be terribly boring. Unfortunately, bad academic and technical writing is common (which makes bad writers nearly indistinguishable from their crowd of peers).

Why do people write badly? Possibly, they think the writing is supposed to be dull and confusing, or perhaps they think it sounds more professional. Maybe they have read a lot of poor writing, so when they review their writing, it sounds “right.”

On the other hand, academic and technical writing can be good writing. They can be clear and straightforward, logical, persuasive, and useful. They can be wonderfully interesting. Unfortunately, good writing is uncommon (which makes good writers stand out from their peers).  Continue reading

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Correct Use of “Rather Than”


Which choice is correct? Please explain your reasons.

“Rather than . . . the truth to them, Peter takes pleasure in deceiving the family and receiving credit.”

a) breaking
b)to break
c)break

Thanks.

Answer

This is a great question, and it is one I don’t often see. On the other hand, it reflects a concept that confuses many people: parallelism.

Correct use of “rather than” 

“Rather than” indicates a parallel structure in which two things are compared. To be grammatically correct, the two things being compared need to be equal, meaning they have the same grammatical structure or form.

Here are two simple examples to demonstrate the parallel structure created by “rather than.”

Example 1: “He enjoys driving rather than walking.” In this example, “driving” is being compared to “walking,” both of which are gerunds.

Example 2: “I would rather drive than walk.” Here, “drive” and “walk” are being compared. With the “rather than” expression divided, it is simple to see how “rather than” indicates a comparison.

Here is a slightly more advanced example that gets closer to your question. “Rather than repair the car, I prefer to buy a new one.” This sample compares “repair” to “to buy.” When using “rather than” to compare something with an infinitive, and when the “rather than” expression is in an introductory descriptive phrase, use the base infinitive without the “to.”

Now that we see how “rather than” creates a parallel structure, let’s look at your question.  Continue reading

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The Most Common Grammar Mistake


The most common grammar mistake involves the ability to count. Fortunately, you only have to be able to count higher than 1.

If I write, “A man buys a house,” you can count the number of men: 1.
If I write, “Men buy houses,” you need to count higher than 1 because this sentence describes more than 1 man.

Now, let’s look at these two samples more carefully.

In the first sentence, “A man buys a house,” the subject is 1 man, described as “a man.” The verb “buys” ends with the letter “s.” When we conjugate verbs in the present tense, we can see that verbs for the third person singular end with the letter “s.”

First person, singular subject: “I buy.”
Second person, singular subject: “You buy.”
Third person, singular subject: “He buys.” (Notice the “s” at the end of the verb. It will be important in a moment.)  Continue reading

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The Boring Passive Voice


“Your writing bores me.” “I am bored by your writing.”

Not only do these two sentences demonstrate the difference between the active and passive voice but also they communicate a central reason for avoiding the passive voice.

In the active voice, the subject of the sentence does the action described by the main verb. Thus, the subject is active. In the passive voice, the action is done to the subject. Thus, the subject is passive. Passive voice is a problem for direct writing and for reader interest.

Direct writing answers the readers’ question “Who did what?” It tells the reader what the subject is and what the subject did. This is, by definition, the active voice. Let’s look at an example, using the first two sentences above.

“Your writing bores me.” The subject is “writing” (or “your writing”). The subject is performing an action: boring me. This sentence is in the active voice. It is also more interesting than the second sentences. Readers will focus on the subject of the sentence, and in this sentence, the subject is doing something.

“I am bored by your writing.” The subject is “I.” This subject is not doing anything. Rather, the action is being done to the subject. This sentence, therefore, is in the passive voice. It is less interesting than the first sentence because the subject, which is the focus of the sentence, isn’t doing anything.

If you write many sentences in the passive voice, the reader may feel the sentiment expressed in the example sentences: boredom.

As we can see from these examples, the passive voice is not direct writing and is less engaging than the active voice. Clear, direct, and interesting writing, by contrast, uses the active voice. Continue reading

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Be More Active with Your Writing


Active and Passive Voice: When you are active, you do something. When you are passive, things happen to you. This is the same concept as the active and passive voice in sentences.

In the active voice, the subject performs the action described by the main verb. In the passive voice, the action described by the main verb is done to the subject.

Example D.1a, active voice: “The service team collected the parts.”
(subject: service team; main verb: collected)
Example D.1b, passive voice: “The parts were collected by the service team.”
(subject: parts; main verb: collected)

In example D.1a, the subject did the action, so the sentence is active. In example D.1b, the action was done to the subject, so the sentence is passive.

To determine whether your sentence is active or passive, first find the subject and main verb. Then ask, “Is the subject doing the verb?” If the answer is Yes, the sentence is active. If the answer is No, the sentence is passive.

If we describe this concept as a formula, we get this:

S >> V = active (the subject does the action)
V >> S = passive (the action is done to the subject)

Grammatically, the active voice looks like this:

Subject – Verb – Object (i.e., Who did what to whom?).

On the other hand, the passive voice uses the object as the subject of the verb, resulting in

Subject&Object – Verb (i.e., To whom was it done?). Continue reading

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Comma with “Including” Changes the Meaning


I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Where you add or leave out a comma can change the meaning of a sentence.

Let’s look at a news story I read this morning to learn how a comma before “including” changes the meaning of the sentence. In this example, I think the writer left out a comma, thus communicating something that probably isn’t true.

“The Chicago Teachers Union has [sic] announced that it will send a bus to the 50th Anniversary March on Washington, a full week of events to be hosted by the four children of Martin Luther King, Jr. and several organizations including Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.” (http://news.yahoo.com/chicago-teachers-union-headed-washington-fight-trayvon-against-124604748.html)

Leaving out the Comma before “Including”

The central concept to remember here is that commas separate information. On the other hand, leaving out a comma connects the information.

In this example, the writer chose to leave out the comma before “including.” By doing so, the writer connects the phrase “including Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” to “several organizations.” This means the organizations include (are involved with, collaborate with, have as a partner) Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. Indeed, “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” describes “organizations.”

To say it another way, the organizations hosting the march are those that are involved with Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. If this is true, then organizations that are not involved with Al Sharpton’s organization are not hosting the event.

This is a bit tricky to understand, I know, so let’s look at a simpler example that follows the same pattern, uses “including,” and leaves out a comma.

“I enjoy making desserts including chocolate pudding.”

In this short example, the desserts I enjoy making are those desserts that have chocolate pudding in them. I may enjoy making many types of desserts, but here I’m talking about the desserts that have chocolate pudding as an ingredient. Thus, “chocolate pudding” is part of the description of the desserts. In question and answer format, the sentence means this:

“What type of desserts do I enjoy making? Those desserts including chocolate pudding.”

Now let’s go back to the original example.

“What types of organizations are hosting the event? Those organizations including Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.”

I don’t think this is what the writer meant to say.

Adding the Comma before “Including”

If leaving out a comma indicates that “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” describes “organizations,” then putting a comma in separates “organizations” from “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.” With a comma, “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” is no longer a description of “organizations.”

So what does the sentence mean if we put in the comma? Simply, Al Sharpton’s National Action Network is one of the organizations hosting the event. It doesn’t describe all the organizations but is, rather, one of them.

This, too, may be a bit tricky, so let’s look at a simpler example.

“I enjoy making deserts, including chocolate pudding.”

In this simple example, one type of dessert, among several, is “chocolate pudding.”

Now, back to the original example. “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” is one of several organizations hosting the event. With the comma, the word “including” is similar to “for example” and “such as,” as follows.

“…a full week of events to be hosted by the four children of Martin Luther King, Jr. and several organizations, such as / for example Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.”

I think that this is what the writer meant. However, without the comma, this is not what the writer communicated. What the writer meant and what the writer actually said are different.

What’s the Point of This?

When you use commas correctly, you are more likely to communicate what you mean, and the reader is more likely to have the correct understanding of your intended message.


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4 Strategies for Objective Writing


Good technical or academic writing is objective, yet many writers inadvertently insert their own opinions about, and responses to, the content. In this way, they damage their credibility and reduce the value of what they write.

Feelings, emotions, opinions, and beliefs are called, collectively, individual perspective. An individual perspective indicates the perspective of one person: the writer. In all forms of technical writing, your individual perspective is inappropriate.

Think about your reader. Your reader is seeking believable, credible information. Your opinions, etc. are not believable, credible information. They only apply to you; they do not apply to your reader.

The most obvious cases are sentence that contain such phrases as I feel that, I believe, and in my opinion. If you can express the idea as a fact, do so. If you cannot express the idea without those phrases, remove the sentence entirely.

Writers also interject their individual perspectives by using particular words and by making judgments, as explained below. Continue reading

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