Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Too Long … Wait! Too Short (the Fate of Academic Writing Sentences)

Every time you start writing your academic paper, the first things you think about are a structure, proper language style and grammar. Then, you consider different arguments, refer to authoritative sources and bla bla bla. But you never stop on the sentence length in your writing because you take it for granted. When the thought is covered, only after that you put the full point. The same thing was with me until I realized that sometimes I lose the thread of my point myself, not to mention the reader.

So, let’s face it. Sentence length is a common problem for academic writers. Why? Because too short sentences make you look incompetent and too long – presumptuous. That’s why I’ve decided to develop a formula for a standard academic sentence.

Let’s have a look at the sentence:

‘The methods of qualitative and quantitative research possess different focus points as the former aims at a detailed and more explanatory description of the research topic while the latter concentrates its tools on counting and categorizing features or gathering essential figures to prove the point in research but they are both widely applied in studies due to their complementarity.’

It’s clear that the sentence is about methods of research but the main point is not really detectable. It is said that 20-25 words is an average length of a sentence for academic writing. So, let’s try to divide and shorten it.

‘Qualitative and quantitative research methods differ due to their focus points. Hence, the former aims at a detailed and more explanatory description of the topic while the latter concentrates on counting and categorizing features and  gathering essential figures. However, taking into account their complementarity, together, both methods make an integral part of any consistent research.’

As you can see, I’ve divided it into three sentences, each carrying one separate point, cut some words from too long clauses and added where it was necessary. And it became much easier to distinguish the main idea and message of this extract.

So, my formula for the average sentence is:

1 clause   +   1 clause = standard academic sentence
(7-10 words)       (7-10 words)


1 clause   +   1 clause   +   1 clause = standard academic sentence
(5-7 words)         (5-7 words)        (5-7 words)

That’s the formula I use BUT you should bear in mind that it’s not perfect and shouldn’t be used all the time because your writing must be balanced with long and short sentences to appear natural. Moreover, different kinds of academic writing may have different requirements. For example, sentences in natural science texts turn out to be shorter than the ones from social science and humanities.

And the last thing that must be kept in mind is sticking to the point. Believe me, I know the urge to use more and more words to describe some approach or explain the difference. But be careful with that; don’t try to squeeze in unnecessary details that won’t do more than trash your sentences. The shorter, the better.

All in all, things that you must take into account while writing academic papers are sentence length (the formula), sphere of academic writing and sticking to the point. That’s basically it.

Hope it helps you in your writing endeavours!