Academic writing tips from William Zinsser

As I’ve continued to revise my dissertation over the past week, I’ve also been reading William Zinsser’s advice on writing nonfiction. I actually wish I had read On Writing Well before I started to write, but it’s better to have found Zinsser late rather than never.

Writing isn’t something we discuss much in graduate school, and in fact many of Zinsser’s recommendations challenge some of the unspoken rules of scholarly writing. But the general principles Zinsser espouses–clarity, simplicity, and efficiency–are good ones for any academic writer to embrace.

Here’s a partial summation of the suggestions I think are most useful. I’ve used my own words here, not Zinsser’s, since I’m writing this for myself as much as for anyone else.

Writing principles to live by:

-The purpose of a piece of writing is not to demonstrate how much you know. The purpose is to explain a subject with clarity and precision, provoking readers’ interest.

-It’s okay to say “I.” The first person is a useful tool. Even in disciplines where it is not “allowed” to write in the first person, it’s helpful to write a first draft utilizing the first person.

-It’s okay to use the same words repeatedly, especially to describe the same concepts. If word variation is getting in the way of clarity, it can and should be jettisoned. Clarity is always more important. Similarly, it’s fine to use simple words. SAT vocabulary words aren’t inherently better.

-The human element is most important for most types of writing. For those of us who write about people, people should remain centralized throughout a piece of writing. This means using specific nouns rather than general concepts whenever possible. (i.e. Instead of, “There are many emotions attached to nationalism,” “People attach many emotions to their national identifications.”)

-In the interest of clarity, statements should be posed definitively. While we in academia tend to cling to safe, hedging words such as “possibly” and “somewhat,” such qualifiers aren’t always necessary and can cause meaning to become muddled.

-Passion is a writer’s friend. Those of us in academia chose our subjects because they excite us, yet we often adapt a detached tone in the interest of being “scholarly.” But all of the best writers, scholarly writers included, show their passion for their subjects through their writing.

These are only some of the gems I picked up from Zinsser; I recommend reading the book for yourself. Unlike many other books on writing, it really is more liberating than prescriptive.

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