What I have learned from my academic writing class

A common complaint among Duke graduate students is the (almost compulsory) academic English classes. Although outstanding students can be exempted from writing and/or speaking classes, seldom do people fall into such category. My academic writing this semester, however, has turned out to be useful and fun. Among all required readings for this class, I have found the article The Science of Scientific Writing by George Gopen and Judith Swan extremely enlightening. Their central argument is that academic writers should write with their readers in mind. Here are some specific suggestions:

1) Place the important information at the stress position (end of the sentence) so as to maintain the momentum of reading. Academic writing needs to take into consideration the “mental breath” of the reader.

2) Focus on elucidating one idea in a single unit of discourse (a sentence or a paragraph). The reader can get lost if you provide too much information without linking them logically to your main argument.

3) Use appropriate verbs to clarify the actions of subjects. Deciding the proper strength of verbs is an art.

We also discussed about how to write the results section in our class. The main takeaway is: do not state the obvious. Expect questions from the reader and try to answer them. Graphs should be displayed clearly and logically. Never present a regression table with too many columns — the reader will lose track of what you’re trying to say.


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