Writing – Academic and otherwise

My method of writing is described below. It is inclusive of all my writing for publication.

I have written for publication, intermittently, since high school. My first published item was a letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, then Sydney's premier broadsheet newspaper. I still write letters to the editor of my town newspaper.

I have written articles for specialist magazines covering cycling and amateur radio, short pieces for medical weekly magazines and one published letter in the Medical Journal of Australia.

All require the same amount of attention to the writing.

Set a goal for the written communication

I need a broad plan for the intended effect of the published piece.

If I am discussing a problem, I want to talk about a potential solution.

If I am describing “My Commute” for the cycling magazine, I need a start and an end to the narrative, with good descriptive writing to fill it out.

If I am writing for the more technical audience of the radio magazine, I need to carefully explain the problem I am tackling, as well as the mechanics of the solution.

If I am writing a report for a Court hearing, or for an insurer, I need to adhere to the writing format required, for example an Expert Witness Statement.

Know your audience

Each time I need to know my audience. This data sets the tone for the article, the level of the English language used and the depth of the detail required. A general standard for newspaper publication is the reading level of a 9 year old child. The ideas may be more complex, but the language remains simple. This can be a complex task, to take statements full of specialist language and convert them into easily read English sentences. It requires a very good understanding of the subject material, and repeated editing to achieve good unambiguous prose.

Work written for magazine publication has to fit into the typical space allocation given to an article, which would be 2 to 3 pages, including header and illustrations. The language may be that used by a teenager, but should not demand higher education to comprehend either the language or the concepts.

Academic writing may be aimed at the level of any University graduate, for example an Honours paper, or at one's peers, in the case of of a doctoral paper. Specific additions of correctly constructed citations will be made, and appendices to supplement the text as necessary.

Write succinctly

The next task is to write succinctly. Although I recall at school I was often asked to write more, I prefer to write less and write it well. This concept is attributed to Blaise Pascal

Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.

(I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.)

and later to Mark Twain

I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.

The value is in the editing and thinking about the sentences. A shorter item that transfers the same information needs a better grasp of the material and the language. Relying on quotations to provide your basic information does not demonstrate your own understanding of the material, and the joy of paraphrasing is to edit for succinctness and preservation of meaning.

Write a narrative

Good prose also needs to tell a story, to produce a narrative, where one idea progresses easily through the paragraph, but is not verbose or flowery. Sometimes the narrative element is main part of the prose, but it needs to checked carefully to ensure that it will flow and keep the reader interested.

Set out the work

I look carefully at the setout, then use the tools of the word processor to produce a good looking document which can be visually parsed to find the information. Subheadings, bold and italic fonts make the document visually pleasing. I check the spelling, and add spacing to avoid widows and orphans.

Go back and revise

Sometimes a document can be revised and improved, and sometimes one just has to start again. The first effort was not a waste of time, usually it means that as you wrote you improved your understanding and can now produce a better text.

I look for words which are used repetitively and consider using synonyms to provide variety.

An editor may require a reduction in the space taken, and you have to critically revise which ideas are most important and can stay, and which will be removed, while retaining clarity.

Repeat all steps as necessary

I have to be prepared to do it all several times. Good prose is an art form and needs care and revision. Leaving it overnight and returning the next day is one strategy to ensure better written work.

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