Writing a journal article

Structure: the sentence

Direct sentences are easy to understand, whereas indirect ones are difficult to understand.

This was an example of a very direct sentence. It has a few properties:

(1) The most important notion comes first and tells you what the sentence is about.

(2) It has a simple structure, in this case two parallel phrases with identical grammar.

(3) It uses simple words and avoids jargon. I used ‘direct’, because it is a short and simple word. And to contrast it with something else, I used ‘indirect’. I could also have used ‘convoluted’ or some other word, but the simplest word is the one that creates the sharpest, clearest, black-and-white contrast to the other one. Note that the era of big words is finished, at least in scientific writing! The simpler the better. You don’t come across as smart if you use (unnecessarily) big words, but as overly complicated.

(4) It uses unambiguous words. For example, I used ‘whereas’, which has only one meaning – I avoided ‘while’ because this has a temporal meaning as well as a contrasting meaning. Similarly, I used ‘difficult’ and not ‘hard’, because hard has multiple meanings.

(5) It is short! Many short sentences are much easier to follow than few long ones.

Two additional questions concern tense and voice. Most academic writing is in past tense, unless you report generic facts not related to your findings or other recently reported empirical findings. Most importantly, make sure you do not accidentally jump between tenses.

The use of passive voice was common in academic writing in the past. For example, an ecologist might have reported “All animals heard or seen were recorded by two experienced observers”. Today, this sentence would probably read “We counted all animals heard or seen”. Although writing in active voice is now preferred by many journals (some have it in their style guide!), this is not to be mixed up with necessarily using the first person. In the example above, ‘we’ is the first person plural, and so in this case, indeed, the active voice wording also uses a first person perspective. But take a typical sentence from a results section, such as “Companies used a variety of strategies to market their green credentials”. This is an active voice sentence (in third person plural), and there is absolutely no need to somehow try to turn it into a first-person sentence. For example, adding “We found that…” at the beginning of sentences is not necessary (though you will find that some authors now do just that) – in fact, it makes the sentence longer and unnecessarily complicated.

Finally, a warning for those operating in a German academic context…: modern academic writing in English is very different from classic academic writing in German. Avoid nested sentences, long sentences, hidden meanings or clever metaphors.

See also:

  1. Phrases to use and phrases to avoid

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