Written by: Juliette Holder
In my years of coaching students through essay writing, I’ve noticed my students tend to have similar taste in writing styles. There are certain structures and voices that the vast majority of them find impressive or effective. The problem is that those sentences are not the sort that impress teachers, graders, or most readers.
Here’s what I mean. Most students are drawn to sentences that sound a bit like this: “In the article, there are multiple instances in which the concept of anecdotes is applied, one such location being towards the end of the article.” Sure, from a distance, this sentence sounds smart and compelling–but only from a distance. When we actually think about it, this sentence doesn’t actually communicate much of anything, just that the article contains anecdotes. In fact, the more we look at the sentence, the less sense it makes, especially since “the concept of anecdotes” and “anecdotes” themselves are not the same thing. In general, sentences like this ask readers to do a lot of work for very little pay off. Put simply, it doesn’t “flow.”
On the other hand, academic writing–the genre of writing you’re dealing with when writing for school or standardized tests–prioritizes clarity and concision. It would find a sentence like this one more compelling: “Frequent anecdotes ensure the article’s impact.”
This version isn’t as “flashy” as the original, but it is, in some ways, a better sentence. What’s impressive about this sentence is that it packs a ton of meaning into very few words. It’s precise and detailed, but also simple and easy to take in. It’s not about leaving ideas out or “dumbing things down”; rather, it’s about making your ideas accessible and clear. This sort of writing rightly centers around the ideas of the sentence; communication is its goal.
So, how do you go about writing like this?
- First, develop your vocabulary. You want to find words that are precise, ones that communicate with specificity. So instead of saying a concept is “not very easy to fully understand,” you could simply use the word “abstract.” “Making something easier or possible to accomplish” becomes “feasible.” Instead of “very strongly criticizes,” say “condemns.” By learning or remembering more words, you not only equip yourself to communicate your ideas with more clarity, you’ll actually equip yourself to come up with more precise, powerful ideas in the first place.
- As you write, be aware of how many prepositional phrases you use. Most students use too many. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a prepositional phrase, but ensure that you aren’t overusing them. There’s no need to say “The claims of the author made in this passage through the use of imagery serve to heighten the engagement of the readers in the topic at hand” when you can rework the sentence into “The author uses imagery to engage the readers.”
- That same principle holds true for the entire sentence, paragraph, and passage. Make sure every word is working for you. Delete any needles “ramp ups” or “filler” words. In particular, watch out for phrases like “the concept of” or “in my opinion.” Almost always, those phrases are just taking up space.
Changing your writing style takes time. That’s okay. The best practice is to write your first draft as you normally would, then go back in line by line and make edits. No powerful piece of writing or compelling idea was ever created in one draft, so don’t settle for the “first thought” version of what you want to say.