Section 4.4: Your Own Style | Research


Fundamentals of Social Research

Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.


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When it comes to professional writing, the term style can mean several things.  One means sticking to the requirements of a particular style guide such as APA or MLA.  It can also mean the subjective elements of writing that lend your writing your own unique voice.  If you write often, you will inevitably develop your own unique style. This should develop within the context of some conventions of good writing that are widely accepted.  Some of these are discussed below.

Sentence Variety

Skilled writers use a variety of sentence types and lengths to communicate their thoughts effectively.  A long series of short choppy sentences can bore and distract the reader. Because this is an issue of style, it is ultimately up to the author to decide whether a complex sentence or a series of simple sentences its best.  However, the importance of clarity in social scientific writing must be remembered; if sentence length obfuscates the author’s meaning, it should be recast.

Example 1:  Crime is out of control in the United States.  Congress must act.

Example 2:  Crime is out of control in the United States, and Congress must act.

In the above example, both constructions are grammatically correct.  However, most people will agree that the second version is the best because the writer’s ideas are better connected.

Compound Words

The problem with compound words is usually spelling.  Specifically, are the words separate, joined, or hyphenated?  To add to the writer’s confusion, many words are hyphenated when they appear before nouns, but not otherwise.  Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. When questions regarding the spelling of compound words arise, a good dictionary becomes indispensable.     

Idioms, Clichés, Euphemisms, and Jargon

An idiom is a commonly accepted phrase that has a meaning other than its literal meaning.  In such common phrases as to drop someone a line, nothing is actually dropped—the phrase is idiomatic.  The formal writer should avoid idiomatic phrases. Idiomatic phrases can be confusing to people who speak English as a second language and to people from different regions or countries where the idiom is not commonly used.  This idea is especially important to those who plan to submit their work to international journals.

Clichés are trite, overused expressions that tend to rely on figurative language.  Careful writers will want to avoid these tired expressions, using them sparingly if at all.  Clichés involving figurative language should be carefully avoided. Formal writers who make comparisons such as pretty as a picture and as old as the hills damage their credibility.

Jargon refers to the specialized language of a particular field or profession.  Jargon is encountered often in criminal justice writing, much of it borrowed from law and the social sciences.  Generally, specialized language should only be used when no simple way can be found to express the writer’s exact idea (see audience).  When specialized terms are used, the writer should be extremely careful to observe the exact definitions of these terms.  

Similarly, formal writers should avoid using slang.  Social problems should not be referred to as heavy, and philosophical questions should not be referred to as deep.

Euphemisms are roundabout words or phrases that alter the impact of another term they replace.  For example, some writers may prefer economically disadvantaged to simply poor.  Often, euphemisms are used to take the place of words that might be considered painful or offensive to readers.  In this era of political correctness (PC), euphemisms are frequently used for this purpose.

Another less respectable use of euphemisms is to obfuscate true motives or events.  Formal writers may properly use euphemisms to preserve social amenities, but should not use them for deception.  When a question arises, always prefer the term that is most honest and direct. Also, consider why euphemisms exist and decide whether or not the roundabout treatment of the issue is merited.  Writers in criminal justice will find it hard to justify using adult video rather than pornography, or categorical inaccuracy rather than lie.

Writing Concisely

Struck and White (1979) offers the following concise introduction to writing concisely under the famous heading of Omit Needless Words:

Vigorous writing is concise.  A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.  This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only on outline, but that every word tell (p. 23).

Redundancy

Redundancy refers to phrases that convey the same meaning twice.  This is common in everyday speech, especially when writers are not aware of the precise definition of words that make up these phrases.  For example, the phrase close proximity is redundant because close and proximity are synonymous.  Another cause of redundancy is the use of common expressions with no real thought about what the phrase conveys.  Avoid such redundant constructions as blue in color, large in size, and few in number.

Tip:  Some word processors will point out redundant phrases, but these generally do not do a good job.  The author’s word processor only marked large in size for change in the above paragraph.

Selected Redundant Phrases

advanced warning completely unanimous new innovation
free gift human artifact unimportant triviality
advance planning consensus of opinion now pending
fundamental basis true fact yearly annual  
same identical more better end result
sudden impulse unexpected surprise rejected outcast
close scrutiny empty void exact same
advance forward retreat back leave from
lower down continue on return back
proceed forward cooperate together enter into
share in common raise up join together

Wordy Expressions

An expression is wordy if more words than necessary are used to convey a precise meaning.  Do not be afraid to write simply. What follows is a select list of common wordy expressions.  The wordy expression is in the left column, and the more parsimonious version is in the right column.

Wordy Phrases

Wordy Better Wordy Better
After the conclusion of after all of all
any and all any or all he is a man who is he is
at the present moment now in a place where where
by means of by in connection with about
due to the fact that because in order to to
for the purpose of to in spite of the fact that Although or though
for the simple reason that because in view of the fact that because
in the near future soon is located in is in
it often happens that often on the part of by
owing to the fact that because practice in the field of practice
rarely ever rarely the fact is that omit altogether
which was when when with the exception of except

Intensifiers

Writers often use words such as very, absolutely, positively, really, quite, etc., to add force to what they write.  More often than not, these words can be omitted with no loss to the writer’s intended tone or meaning.

There is, there are, it is

Many wordy expressions include there is, there are or it is.  Often, these add nothing to the meaning or tone of a sentence and can be eliminated.

Example 1:  There are many high school seniors that report using marijuana.

Example 2:  Many high school seniors report using marijuana.  [Better]

Passive and Active Voice

The use of the active voice rather than the passive voice reduced wordiness, as well as making sentences more energetic.

Example 1: The windows were smashed by vandals during the night.

Example 2:  Vandals smashed the window during the night.  [Better]

Organizing Writing

One of the most important concepts in good writing is the idea of orderliness.  Ideas should be presented in a way that is clear and meaningful to the reader. An important aspect of this is in continuity.  Continuity refers to “flow” of writing.  One way to ensure continuity is the proper use of punctuation and grammar.  The use of transitional words is also helpful in maintaining continuity from sentence to sentence.  On a higher level, the use of sections and headings provide continuity between ideas and concepts. Regardless of the level of thought, organization is important to understanding.

Students of literature and creative writing learn many literary devices that add interest to fiction.  The person of the author shifts unexpectedly, facts are left ambiguous or unclear, or the topic is suddenly shifted.  These devices are entertaining in fiction, but have no place in scientific writing. Scientific writing must be logical, complete, and precise.  

The Formal Style

Many of us—especially those of us who grew up communicating with technology—have developed a very informal style of writing.  When you are writing a scholarly paper, a grant proposal, program evaluation, or other professional documents, then you need to use the formal style.   Unlike casual conversations and Facebook messages to friends, formal writing needs to be clear, literal, and well structured. The formal style has some important rules that lead to clarity and effective communication.  Other conventions have developed that—quite frankly—serve no real purpose. They are just rules that we follow because they are the rules.

Formal writing is not a conversation.  You should not write the way you speak.  In a conversation, you have cues that the person you are speaking to does not understand what you are saying.  With formal writing, you must make sure that everything is crystal clear without these contextual cues. One thing this suggests for the formal writer is the use of organizational tools.  The best formal writing is far more difficult to write than it is to read. Reading it is easy because formal writers take the time to organize their thoughts and arguments around a predefined organizational strategy and a central thesis.

Formal writers make their thesis obvious throughout the document.  Fiction writers use all sorts of literary tricks to keep the reader guessing until the right moment to reveal important, often shocking plot twists.  Formal writers should avoid such devices at all costs. With formal writing, you want to state what you are talking about (your “thesis”) very early on in your introduction, and you want to restate it in your conclusion.  All of your content should (obviously!) relate in some way to your central thesis.

Formal writers transition smoothly.  Each sentence in your paper should follow smoothly from the previous sentence, and each paragraph should follow smoothly from the previous paragraph. The real world may be an amorphous heap of ideas, but anything that you expect the reader to read from beginning to end needs to be a direct advancement along a single path.  The careful use of headings and transition words and phrases are largely what accomplishes this.

Transitions

“One clue that your writing needs better transitions is if you find that you can cut and paste paragraphs from one section to another without doing substantial rewriting of how the paragraph begins and ends. If making such rearrangements is easy, then you have not been linking your paragraphs into a coherent narrative that reads well from start to finish” (Bednar, 2015).

Formal Writers avoid colloquialisms.  A colloquialism is an informal phrase that a particular group of people often use, but that cannot be interpreted literally.  In other words, the meaning that the phrase conveys is different than the literal meaning of the words. “Going the extra mile” often involves no travel at all.  These expressions are so much a part of our everyday language they are hard to spot and eliminate from our formal writing.

Formal writers avoid abbreviations and contractions.  Contractions are never appropriate in formal writing.  Abbreviations should only be used in parenthetical notes, not in the text of your paper.  This includes Latin abbreviations such as viz., etc., and e.g.

Formal writers pay attention to formatting and grammar rules.  Nothing can ruin the credibility of your professional writing like faulty grammar.  This fact will follow you for the rest of your life. The extra effort it takes to master the rules of grammar is well spent.  Do not put too much trust in your word processor. Grammar checkers are useful tools, but often miss incorrect grammar and identify correct grammar as incorrect.  Different academic disciplines use different style guides. This course uses the APA Style.  Make sure that all of your work adheres to the Style Guide!

Formal writers avoid the first person.  Never use the personal pronoun “I” in formal writing, and do not include the reader by using “we.”  Also, do not address the reader as “you.” Stick to the third person throughout your documents.

Formal writers avoid direct quotes.  This statement may not be true of historical and literary scholarship, but it holds in the social sciences.  Only use direct quotes when the original words are of paramount importance, such as when discussing a particular law, or a technical definition.  Using lots of long quotes that you cut and pasted together is a terrible way to write a paper. When you write a paper, it is your analysis that should take front stage.  When you use too many direct quotes, it ends up being a collection of other people’s ideas rather than a cohesive whole. The ideas tend to be disjointed, and so does the “voice” of the writer.  In other words, it “sounds” choppy and lacks “flow”

Formal writers avoid vague language.  An important aspect of science is precision.  That is, we measure things as precisely as we possibly can to get the most accurate results we can.  When we choose words in our writing, we should make the same effort. Avoid tired expressions that have lost their meaning.  Examples: a lot, very, many, kind of.

Formal writers avoid informal sentence construction.  Don’t use exclamation marks or construct sentences with dashes.

Formal writers avoid sexist writing.  Avoid sexist language, such as chairman, mankind, and policeman.  Don’t use the informal he/she, himself/herself ‘slash construction’; instead, make the subject plural and refer to them as they.

Formal writers always cite their sources.  Cutting and pasting someone else’s words is stealing.  So is taking their ideas and putting them into your own words.  Both forms of conduct are unethical and are collectively known as plagiarism.  Plagiarism is very serious, and you could ruin your academic and professional career by doing it.  The best way to avoid plagiarism is to properly cite your sources. This text assumes that you will cite using the APA Style.

Modification History

File Created:  07/25/2018

Last Modified:  07/25/2018

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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