Academic writing Writing

On Writing: It’s All About Actors and Actions and Cutting the Flab

This post is about two key elements in good writing, one of which is to focus on actors and actions.  Who’s doing what to whom?   In academic writing, the actors are often not people but social entities — bureaucracy, racism, curriculum, schools, universities — but the principle is the same.  Some force or factor or person is exerting an impact on some process or structure or outcome.  

Actors

  • Make main characters or initiators of action the subjects of sentences.
  • Figure out who is doing what and put that up front, preferably in the opening paragraph.
  • Try using “you” as the subject, then maybe substitute an appropriate actor
  • Using the first person is ok; it’s your paper, so you’re an actor too
  • Sort out necessary complexity from unnecessary complexity so the line of action is clear

Actions

  • Use verbs to convey important actions instead of turning verbs into nouns; the latter is known as nominalization, which is itself an instance of the problem
    • Manage vs. management; teach vs. pedagogy; induce vs. induction; stratify vs. stratification
    • But some nominalizations are ok, since they simplify the sentence, refer to previous action, or are so familiar they act as nouns (abortion, taxation without representation, etc.)
  • Avoid abstract nouns if you can
    • They’re often necessary, since abstract forces are a central factor in shaping social life
    • But you rely on them too heavily — a central characteristic of turgid academic writing — you clog up the text, slow down the action, and diffuse the focus of the story you’re trying to tell.
  • You need the passive voice sometimes, but you shouldn’t use it too often because active verbs propel the story forward and engage the reader
    • Readers don’t want to hear that things were done; they want to who did them to whom and why

You’ll find more about using actors and actions in the Williams and Bizup book, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, which I used in my writing class.

A second key element of good writing is to remove the flab from your sentences.  Flab is any verbiage that is nonessential in telling your story.  These superfluous words and phrases create barriers that make it more difficult for readers to understand what you’re trying to say.  Don’t make the reader work any harder than is absolutely necessary.  As Stephen Toulmin once said, “The effort the writer does not put into writing, the reader has to put into reading.”  You do the work of telling your story with clarity and narrative vigor so readers can just breeze right along through the text.  Toward this end, consider some of the following points:

  • Be wary of any main clause that makes you wait too long to get to the verb (excluding introductory phrases) 
  • Avoid empty verbs
    • “Conducted an investigation” instead of “investigated”
    • Overuse of the verb to be – which carries no action
      • It doesn’t do anything; it just “is”
  • Avoid “there is” followed by a nominalization, which is another case of words that add nothing to the story except length

There’s an easy — if jarring — way to see how tight or flabby your own writing is.  Try using the test that Helen Sword provides online.  She’s the author of Stylish Academic Writing — which she shows is not an oxymoron.  I’ve used this book in my class on academic writing.

  • Try pasting a text (up to 1,000 words) into Writer’s Diet, the Sword’s website
  • It will provide you with an assessment of how flabby or fit your writing is in this case
  • Notice what she’s testing for:
    • Use of the verb “to be”
    • Nominalizations/abstract nouns
    • Prepositional phrases
    • Adjectives and adverbs
    • It, this, that, there
  • Also check out this site: http://www.hemingwayapp.com/

Let me show you an example from a renounced sociological theorist of the 20th century, Talcott Parsons, who was famously difficult to follow.  It didn’t hurt his standing in the field (turgidity can pass for professionalism), but no one reads him any more.  Check out this passage from his book, The Social System, which sociologist C. Wright Mills used in his own book, The Sociological Imagination (pp. 30-31) as a prime example of bad writing in his field.

Attachment to common values means, motivationally considered, that the actors have common ‘sentiments’ in support of the value patterns, which may be defined as meaning that conformity with the relevant expectations is treated as a ‘good thing’ relatively independently of any specific instrumental ‘advantage’ to be gained from such conformity, e.g., in the avoidance of negative sanctions. Furthermore, this attachment to common values, while it may fit the immediate gratificational needs of the actor, always has also a ‘moral’ aspect in that to some degree this conformity defines the ‘responsibilities’ of the actor in the wider, that is, social action systems in which he participates. Obviously the specific focus of responsibility is the collectivity which is constituted by a particular common value-orientation.

Finally, it is quite clear that the ‘sentiments’ which support such common values are not ordinarily in their specific structure the manifestation of constitutionally given propensities of the organism. They are in general learned or acquired. Furthermore, the part they play in the orientation of action is not predominantly that of cultural objects which are cognized and ‘adapted to’ but the culture patterns have come to be internalized; they constitute part of the structure of the personality system of the actor itself. Such sentiments or ‘value-attitudes’ as they may be called are therefore genuine need-dispositions of the personality. It is only by virtue of internalization of institutionalized values that a genuine motivational integration of behavior in the social structure takes place, that the ‘deeper’ layers of motivation become harnessed to the fulfillment of role-expectations. It is only when this has taken place to a high degree that it is possible to say that a social system is highly integrated, and that the interests of the collectivity and the private interests of its constituent members can be said to approach coincidence.

This integration of a set of common value patterns with the internalized need-disposition structure of the constituent personalities is the core phenomenon of the dynamics of social systems. That the stability of any social system except the most evanescent interaction process is dependent on a degree of such integration may be said to be the fundamental dynamic theorem of sociology. It is the major point of reference for all analysis which may claim to be a dynamic analysis of social process.

This passage has many of the hallmarks of turgid academic writing.  Bizarre words like “gratificational,” lots of scare quotes for little reason, a flood of nouns in a verb desert, and lots of prepositional phrases that could be easily dispensed with. 

Mills conveniently provides a concise translation into simple but not simplistic language.

When people share the same values, they tend to behave in accordance with the way they expect one another to behave. Moreover, they often treat such conformity as a very good thing – even when it seems to go against their immediate interests. That these shared values are learned rather than inherited does not make them any the less important in human motivation. On the contrary, they become part of the personality itself. As such, they bind a society together, for what is socially expected becomes individually needed. This is so important to the stability of any social system that I am going to use it as my chief point of departure if I ever analyze some society as a going concern. (end of translation)

Finding himself on a roll, he goes on to summarize Parsons’ entire book in four lean paragraphs.  What a tour de force.

So I pasted the Parson’s quote into Writer’s Diet.  Here’s a screenshot of the diagnosis:  Heart Attack!

Parsons in Writers Diet

Note that provides a highlighted version of the text that shows each example of one of her Practices to Avoid.  Try pasting the text in yourself and then scroll through to see how she identifies the problems. 

Now take a deep breath, prepare a stiff drink, and paste in some text from a paper you’re writing.  Not a pretty sight.  But it helps you catch the flab in your own work.

To boost your ego at this point, try pasting in some text that you have worked over pretty well and feel good about, and you’ll see how this work pays off.

As another boost to your ego, insert text from some bigshot scholar in your field about you are harboring a grudge.  It’s very gratifying to see your enemies get creamed.

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