This entry outlines a number of factors to consider when beginning the academic writing process as well as basic elements of good writing that will assist communication students and scholars when undertaking a writing project. This entry first discusses the importance of determining the appropriate audience or outlet for the writing project as well as following the specified format based on the chosen outlet’s requirements. Specific elements that will improve an author’s writing ability, including style, voice, verb tense and choice, transitions, and citations and attributions, are then discussed.
When beginning the writing process, it helps to organize the process by starting with a few questions such as who is the audience and what is the purpose? A term paper written for a professor has a different audience than a research article written for journal reviewers or a thesis or dissertation written for a committee. Likewise, writing for an academic audience is different than writing for a lay audience such as professional organizations or news media.
While determining the audience for a course paper is easy, often a research-based manuscript has a few potential venues. For example, a researcher looking to publish in a peer-reviewed journal usually has a handful of journals to choose from and therefore must determine which journal is the best fit. Here are a few criteria a researcher considers when determining a good journal for submitting a manuscript: (a) Has this journal published this topic before? (b) Has this journal published articles using the same methodology? (c) What are the goals of the manuscript? Is the manuscript theoretical or applied? Is it a meta-analysis or review of the literature? (d) What types of articles have been published in the most recent issues? (e) Where did the authors cited in the manuscript publish their research? (f) What is the acceptance rate and/or impact factor of this journal? (g) Is this journal considered rigorous enough to be able to count toward your institution’s research and promotion process?
[Page 1895]After considering the audience and outlet, researchers must also consider how they will write up their research. A researcher has certain guidelines to consider, and these guidelines vary depending on audience or outlet. For example, a manuscript written for a peer-reviewed journal article typically has to follow certain regulations for formats and citations. Communication research journals typically call for American Psychological Association (APA) style but journals vary on manuscript length and the outline or format of the paper. For example, some journals are stricter in calling for the use of typical manuscript sections (i.e., introduction, literature review, method, results, discussion, and conclusion), whereas other journals allow researchers more flexibility.
In addition to determining and adhering to a journal or other outlet’s requirements or style guide (e.g., APA), other elements of good writing include style, voice, verb tense and choice, transitions, and citations and attributions. The next sections explain these elements in more detail.
An effective writing style contains many elements. Perhaps the most important stylistic tip is to write as simply and concisely as possible. Many novice writers think that a more formal paper (and in turn, its author) sounds more intelligent based on how overindulgent the author’s use of vocabulary may be. Instead, remember this rule: The more complex the topic, the simpler the writing needs to be. In other words, research can be complicated enough; writing style should provide clarity, not obfuscate.
Following are some ways to write clearly:
- Avoid the use of slang and colloquialisms.
- Similarly, avoid jargon or vocabulary unique to a particular field that may be unfamiliar to readers.
- Be specific and do not assume the reader is aware of the topic and current literature. A writer should assume the reader is intelligent but an outsider to the field.
- Use active voice instead of passive voice. Instead of writing, It has been argued, write Smith argues. Instead of The relationship between violence and video games has been studied, write Researchers have studied the relationship between violence and video games.
- Use gender-neutral language. This means avoiding sexist language. Gender-neutral language also means writing he or she, or him or her. This also means using terms like firefighter, chairperson, or mail carrier instead of fireman, chairman, or mailman. An easy solution if sentences become cumbersome is to use the plural form of a noun and then use their instead of his or her. For example, instead of writing, A researcher must be strategic when deciding where to send his or her manuscript, use the plural version: Researchers must be strategic when deciding where to send their manuscript. Just remember to be consistent in use of noun and pronoun (i.e., singular or plural) within a sentence.
These examples lead into two more tips: (a) be consistent in use of person (i.e., first or third person), tense (past, present, or future tense), and singularity versus plurality and (b) make sure that every pronoun used has a clear antecedent. In other words, a writer must ensure that every pronoun (its, this, those, these, or that) clearly connects to a noun (e.g., These variables, That argument). A reader should never ask, “This what? Those what?”
Together, style and voice are often a combination of an author’s writing style and requirements of an outlet (e.g., a journal vs. an editorial). This entry considers voice to be both the use of first and third person and passive versus active voice. Researchers often use third person in their articles, as it is considered more traditional and formal. In recent years, however, journal editors have become more accepting of first person. However, articles written in third person often lead to overuse of passive voice (e.g., Thirty people were interviewed for this study instead of I interviewed thirty people). Critics of first person say it sounds too informal and less academic. Regardless, good writing uses more active voice than passive voice, even when using third person. For example, The three hypotheses were proven correct (Smith, 2015) versus Smith (2015) proved her three hypotheses correct.
[Page 1896]One problem with passive voice is that it can be unclear who has ownership of actions. For example, when a writer says, It was found, it is unclear who did the finding and when. Other examples indicate the confusion behind passive voice:
- It was discovered . . . [Who discovered? And in this study or previously?]
- It was discussed . . . [By these authors or others?]
- A study was conducted . . . [When? And by whom?]
- Long-distance relationships were said to be difficult to maintain . . . [Who said that?]
- Surveys were distributed . . . [By whom?]
Most of the above examples can be fixed easily, even when using third person:
- It was discovered . . . → Smith (2015) discovered . . .
- It was discussed . . . → Smith and Doe (2015) discussed . . .
- It has been found . . . → Smith, Doe, and Jones (2015) found . . .
- A study was conducted . . . → Smith (2015) conducted a study . . .
- Long-distance relationships were said to be difficult to maintain . . . → Smith (2015) argued that long-distance relationships are difficult to maintain.
In addition, scholars have noted that the use of third person and passive voice also removes the researcher from his or her own research. The reader knows who the author is at the beginning of the article but then the author “disappears” throughout the rest of the article. Conventionally, scholars use third-person voice to imply formality and objectivity. However, using sentences such as, Ninety people were surveyed, or It was found, removes ownership from the author. Regardless, if a journal calls for third person instead of first person, writers should work on identifying and then avoiding the use of passive voice whenever possible.
Style manuals often agree on what verb tense should be used in articles. For example, APA style calls for past tense [Smith (2015) argued] and present perfect tense [Smith (2015) has argued]. Writers should use past tense when referring to studies that have already been conducted [Smith (2015) interviewed 15 people . . . ; Smith (2015) found . . . ] In other words, anything already published uses past tense.
Then, when writing about their own studies, researchers using APA style should shift to present tense, regardless of whether writing in first or third person [Results suggest . . . Our findings have theoretical and practical implications.] A researcher should also switch to future tense when discussing future research [Our/The next study will build on these findings by examining . . . ]. One more note on verb tense: Students writing a research prospectus or proposal also should use future tense in the methods section when discussing what they will do for their study [Third person: Thirty students will be interviewed. First person: I will interview 30 students.].
When it comes to choosing verbs, many writers use too many words and choose too many “weak” verbs. For example, instead of writing They came to the conclusion, a writer should simply write, They concluded. The latter uses fewer words and concluded is a more active verb than came. Other common examples (with suggested improvements) include the following:
- a conclusion was made [note: this is another example of passive voice] → concluded
- reached a conclusion → concluded
- brings up the argument → argued/contended
- article talked about → article discussed
- surveys were given to students . . . → students completed a survey
- authors backed up argument by . . . → authors supported their argument by
- researchers looked at the role of . . . → researchers examined
- researchers provided an analysis of → researchers analyzed
- researchers provided an examination of → researchers examined
- the participants were split up by the authors → the authors divided participants
- author put emphasis on → author emphasized
- getting information out → distribute
- did a good job in their explanation → explained clearly/thoroughly[Page 1897]
- gave a visual explanation → explained visually
- researchers took a sample → researchers sampled
- the research can make a substantial contribution → the research can contribute substantially
Writers should also try to minimize their use of is/are or was/were. While common in everyday conversation, a writer should practice rephrasing sentences to use more diverse verbs. For example: In this article, online dating is looked at among college students sounds better when rewritten as, This article examined online dating among college students. In the next example, the first sentence uses both was and is: The author was clear in describing the methods for studying a crisis where image restoration is involved. A simple change in the verbs results in a sentence with four fewer words and stronger verbs: The author clearly described the methods for studying a crisis involving image restoration.
Because many research articles are not only lengthy but cover complex topics, the writing must be as clear as possible. One way to write for clarity is to pay attention to the way sections connect and also how individual paragraphs connect. The use of transitions and transitional words helps articles flow from section to section and paragraph to paragraph. Even though an article uses headings (e.g., Literature Review and subheadings within the literature review), a writer must still use transitions. For example, an article discussing media coverage for female athletes includes one paragraph that discusses the lack of media coverage compared with male athletes and then the next paragraph discusses problems with media coverage. A good transition between paragraphs could be as follows:
Not only does media coverage for male athletes greatly outweigh female athletes’ coverage, when media does cover female athletes, recent research suggests that the coverage differs significantly from how male athletes are portrayed.
In addition to full-sentence transitions, writers cannot forget about transitional words or phrases. Examples include also, additionally, in addition to, similarly, next, first, second, third, finally, therefore, thus, likewise, among others. When a writer wants to change direction, transitional words or phrases are even more crucial because otherwise, the reader cannot see how two sentences or ideas do not fit together. Examples include however, on the other hand, in contrast, despite (as in despite these findings . . . ), unfortunately, although, whereas, nevertheless, and regardless.
The last element of good research writing involves avoiding plagiarism, which is taking another’s ideas without proper acknowledgment. Ethical writers ensure they properly attribute others’ work by citing them, regardless of paraphrasing ideas or using direct quotations. When writing research reports or articles, a writer is supposed to cite other sources. Writers build their credibility by showing a deep understanding of prior research, how prior research fits together (e.g., what are common themes in research on college students and social support?), and how prior research informs a researcher’s current study. As mentioned earlier, different outlets have different requirements for how to attribute sources, and the communication field largely uses APA style. Here are a few examples of citations in APA style:
Likewise, Smith and Jones (2015) recently identified a strong correlation . . . .
The same two researchers also discovered in their meta-analysis that the majority of studies focused overwhelmingly on college students (Smith & Jones, 2015).
Notice how the two examples above vary in putting the attribution within the sentence or at the end. Writers should similarly vary how they use citations, which includes avoiding an overreliance on “according to” citations: According to Smith and Jones (2015) . . .
Instead, here are two more alternatives to “according to” citations: Research published by Smith and Jones (2015) found . . . . and[Page 1898] Smith’s (2015) research uncovered . . .
While in-text citations are critical to avoiding plagiarism, writers cannot forget to include references at the end of the paper (APA style uses the term references, not bibliography or works cited). A writer should not consider the references an afterthought to a paper (even if a deadline is looming) but rather as an important part of a paper. Every source cited within the paper must be included in the references. During the editing process, the writer must also ensure that any sources cut from in-text citations must also be deleted in the references. In other words, the sources cited within the text should match the references page perfectly. A reader should never wonder from where a writer pulls his or her information.
Colleen E. Arendt and Audra K. Nuru
See also Academic Journal Structure; Acknowledging the Contribution of Others; American Psychological Association (APA) Style; Citations to Research; Communication Journals; Ethics Codes and Guidelines; Peer Review; Research Report, Organization of
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