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How to Write Clearly

How to Write Clearly




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Thursday, June 23, 2011 - page 5 of 7

How to write an A-grade college essay

Keep abbreviations under control

The conventional advice when using abbreviations in your essay is to write them out in full with the abbreviated form you intend to use later in the text. Although this is better than no explanation, these defined abbreviations are often the ones to avoid. Each time you define another abbreviation, you set a memory test for your reader. We have tested this by asking people to read a two-page document with two abbreviations explained on the first page. When they turned the page and read the abbreviations, we asked them what they stood for. Only one person got one correct answer — a 95% failure rate. When writing an essay, keep your abbreviations under control.

Here are the rules for using abbreviations when writing an essay:

  1. Use the abbreviation without explanation, if everyone knows its meaning.
    • IBM, USA, Washington DC, BMW, PhD

Note: avoid using an abbreviation if it’s commonly understood as one term and you mean another. For example, do not use PC for politically correct or for Privy Council as most people think of it as meaning personal computer.

  1. Use the shortened word form to avoid most abbreviation:
    • Kennedy Space Center becomes Center on the second use — not KSC
  2. Use the ten to twenty most common and understood abbreviations in your field without explanation to an audience (your tutor) you know is familiar with them. Prefer the full form and the shortened word form when writing to wider audiences.

  3. Use common sense. If the abbreviation is the better shortened form and causes no problems for any of your readers, use it freely.

  4. Limit your use of shortened forms to two or three in any document, no matter what its length.

  5. If you use a word processor, use your spelling checker to find acronyms and abbreviations — it constantly reminds you not to overuse them.

So, when you draft your essay, use Accident Data Recorder shorten it to Recorder rather than ADR when you use it later. Write alt in the full form of altitude, prefer satellite communications rather than sat comms and sea level to SL. You’ll find no one misses your shortened forms and your writing style will sound more natural.

Avoid padding in your essay

Make your writing style much stronger by making every word count. Every word in your sentence, paragraph and document must earn its place. When you edit your document, assume you can delete around 20 percent of the words. Here’s an example, where the original 84-word paragraph becomes 40 per cent shorter by cutting out wasted words.


Some people are predicting, because of the length of Internet calls and the amount of bandwidth the calls take, that one day in the not so distant future, the entire telephone network, or at least a great portion of it, will cease to function, and all telephone calls will fail to connect. This idea is referred to by some as the “Gridlock Theory.” Others advise that steps can be taken to avoid such a disaster, such as upgrading telephone lines and limiting Internet use.
(84 Words)


Many predict gridlock on the Internet as telephone networks collapse under the weight of higher traffic outstripping available bandwidth. Others believe measures such as upgrading telephone lines and limiting Internet use can avoid the disaster Gridlock Theory suggests.
(48 Words)

Two key writing techniques can help you cut out padding.

  1. Write most of your sentences in the ‘Who-Does-What’ order.

Using the Who-Does-What order means starting the sentence with the main subject, followed by a strong active verb. For example:

Padded: This idea is referred to by scientists as the Gridlock Theory.
(11 words)

The Who-Does-What order places scientists first, followed by the verb refer. This shortens the sentence to:

Concise: Scientists refer to this as Gridlock Theory. (7 words)

The Who-Does-What order will cut out wasted words and encourage you to write your sentences with active verbs.

  1. Write with specific nouns and action verbs close together.

This technique takes the idea of Who-Does-What rule one step further. You may have noticed the Who-Does-What technique encourages you to start your sentence with the main noun and follow it with the most important verb.

Nouns (the scientist, oxygen) are the content and verbs (proved, leaked) the actions in your writing. Adjectives add to or describe the content (the difficult experiment) and adverbs qualify the actions (the thoroughly reworked experiment). The other parts of the sentence glue together the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Let’s take a simple example:

Example: Lawson quickly criticized Lovell because of his unscientific investigation into the pollution in the river.

Nouns: Lawson, Lovell, investigation, pollution, river

Verb: criticized

Adverbs: quickly

Adjectives: unscientific

Glue: because of his, into the, in the

The key words for meaning are the nouns and the verb. We can write: Lawson criticized Lovell’s investigation [of] river pollution. The meaning is in the nouns (content) and verbs (action). Although you need adverbs and adjectives for more description — we turned the noun river into an adjective (river pollution), they are not essential. The words of least meaning are the glue words — those present to hold the other parts of speech together in a coherent sentence.

To write a strong style you must keep use specific nouns and action verbs close together. This means cutting the glue words and questioning whether you need the qualifying adjectives and adverbs. If you need adverbs or adjectives, you must place them next to the words they qualify. This changes our original 15-word sentence to eight words.

Original: Lawson quickly criticized Lovell because of his unscientific investigation into the pollution in the river.

Redraft: Lawson criticized Lovell’s unscientific investigation of river pollution.

The quickest way to learn this technique is to cut the glue words cementing your nouns and verbs together and placing any necessary adjectives and adverbs close to the words they qualify. Look how many words we can cut from this sentence:

Original: What I propose to do, therefore, is to identify the equivalent conditions in the two experiments and then go on to explain the reasons for the importance of these conditions.
(30 words)

Redraft: I propose to identify the equivalent conditions in both experiments and explain their importance.
(14 words)

The redraft packs the nouns and verbs together and cuts out redundant words.




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