Before you start writing a research document whether it be a research proposal, dissertation or paper you must get it into your head that it’s NOT CREATIVE WRITING. So throw away all your adverbs, fluffy descriptors, passive sentences and expressive punctuation. We don’t want to see it. Instead, focus on document structure and clear and concise sentences.
The top reason why we tend to write in the correct way for research is that we write like we speak. I clearly recall being told this when my honours supervisor threw my dissertation back at me the first time. I’ve no doubt already broken many of the items listed below just in these few sentences. But this is a blog not a research paper. So I may be excused.
Here’s a list of the top 25 writing mistakes/issues that I spend most of my time correcting in student work and journal paper submissions. Do your supervisor/journal editor a favour and check these out.
1. Don’t Apologise
By this, I don’t mean saying sorry to the reader directly, but rather through your language. First and foremost this refers to the use of passive sentences. Try to write actively. An active sentence puts the subject before the action. For some reason when we speak we tend to put the action before the subject. You’ll see this quite a bit in non-fiction. Maybe as it gives the text variety.
Here’s an example of the difference:[Active] Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of DNA.
[Passive] The structure of DNA was discovered by Francis Crick and James Watson. [Active] The lead researcher will perform the interviews.
[Passive] The interviews will be performed by the lead researcher.
Clues that you have a passive sentence is that you’ve used words and phrases including was, were, have been, has been, are being, will be etc. Before version 2016, Word used to show passive sentences by underlining in green. For some reason that feature has been taken away [?? why Microsoft?]. So if you want to thoroughly check your work I would recommend signing up for grammarly.com, shown below. It will also pick up a multitude of other grammar and punctuation sins that Word will miss.
Another way you apologise in research writing is to play down the significance of your work. Sentences such as:
“This research will most likely reveal …”
should be avoided. There’s no place for the words “most likely” anywhere in your document. Come to think of it you should avoid things like:
“This study may…”
“This study might…”
and words to that affect.
As research writing isn’t a creative writing task the format of the document isn’t open for negotiation (well, almost never). The type of document and its final destination will dictate the formatting you must use.
With respect to the paper’s layout check with the university, journal or conference as they will provide a template for you to use. The template will provide you with guidelines for the layout as well as the paper size, margins, fonts, font-size, image placement and referencing style. The International Journal of Games-Based Learning gives this advice to authors on their website.
Sometimes the best guidance you might get is something as vague as “see APA guidelines” which means you need to find a style guide for the particular style they are recommending and follow that. The style guide for the before mentioned APA can be found at apastyle.org with the specifics on document layout here. The style will differ from discipline to discipline so check with your supervisor or the journal’s website for more information.
And while we are on the topic of formatting, don’t forget to format your references correctly. Although you might consider this the worse job on the planet, like myself, it is necessary. If you don’t do it correctly you will have your work rejected until you can fix it. A useful feature found in Google Scholar is the variety of citation texts that you can copy and paste for use in your reference list. Its a great starting point, but be warned it might not be complete.
3. Up-to-date and Relevant References
Research is about providing ground-breaking knowledge to the community at large. With the speed at which information whizzes around the Internet it’s difficult to keep abreast of the latest developments. Having said this if you want to call yourself a researcher in a particular discipline, you will want to be on top of things. When you start out writing a research proposal or justifying the relevance of your own studies be sure to reference the very latest work in your field.
For example, the statement:
Contemporary research into artificial intelligence techniques used in computer games has stalled (Yue & de Byl, 2006)
in a 2016 publication is saying that the author is basing their understand of the state of the field on a ten year old document. For any technology based field this is indeed an out of date reference.
[As a side-line, the paper I’m referring to above, The State of the Art in Game AI Standardisation is a paper I co-authored in 2006 and it is still – to my amazement – being cited!]
If possible aim for references that were published in the last 5 years. Sure, this won’t always be possible and you might be referring to important seminal works such as Freud, S. (1900) The Interpretation of Dreams, but if you are ever establishing the state of the art in your field then you need the very latest of references.
While I’m discussing references it is pertinent to consider their relevance and validity. While I have a special place in my heart for Wikipedia, it shouldn’t appear in a reference list (okay – maybe if you are using it to define a term), but its not considered valid or peer-reviewed (and sure you might want to argue that it is). But cite it in your own research document at your own risk. However, Wikipedia is an excellent source of peer-reviewed literature. So if you find something you want to reference on Wikipedia work backwards. You’ll find the relevant literature at the bottom of the page. And remember – Donate to Wikipedia – it’s an excellent repository of information.
References that are considered peer-reviewed are documents that have been scrutinised by their peers (hence the term). Such works include books, book chapters, journal papers, peer-reviewed conference papers and higher degree dissertations.
Information from blogs, magazines, newspapers, youtube, pod casts and similar are not seen as suitable references. Even though they might be written by prominent researchers. The issue is that they are not peer-reviewed. Though in the case you are at the very forefront of technology related sciences you may find the only references that exist are in these formats. I personally don’t have a problem seeing them appear in research documents but they should make up at most 10% of all the references.
An interesting article exploring this very issue can be found here.
But my advice on this – unless you are a well published and prominent researcher best to stick to the classics and not get embroiled in a political debate with your editors or supervisor as they are at liberty to reject your work outright.
4. Examples and Context
I’m not sure why research students and early career researchers are hesitant to include examples in their writing, but none-the-less it happens – a lot. A sentence in a research document I saw recently, and I paraphrase, went something like this:
There are many examples of procedural generation of virtual terrains in computer games.
And that was it. “What are these examples?” I hear you ask. Good question as the student didn’t elucidate. I want examples! Not a ship load, but one or two would be nice. The number will depend on how many you have hinted exist. If you describe the number as ‘a plethora’, then 3 or 4 would be suitable, whereas, with ‘numerous’ you may get away with 2.
Having said this, if you are providing a full coverage of the research discipline with a paragraph beginning,
There are a multitude of learning style theories.
Then an expansive coverage of all these would be appropriate in a dissertation literature review. A lesser coverage would be acceptable in a journal or conference paper where you are limited by word count. In this case pick the most well-know or relevant to your study.
The types of examples that you pick is also important. Keep them relevant and in context to the topic you are writing about. Let’s say you are giving examples of the use of gamification in education, then presenting a case study on Lee Sheldon’s Multiplayer Classroom is going to be more appropriate than one on American Airlines Frequent Flyer program.
5. Keep it in Order
Whenever you make a list of items that are about to be discussed further, keep the list and the following prose in order. For example, the statement:
Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences lists eight categories including bodily-kinaesthetic, interpersonal, interpersonal, linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, naturalistic and spatial (Gardner, 1983).
Following this you should provide a definition each of the items listed in the same order beginning with bodily-kinaesthetic and concluding with spatial. The same goes for sections of a paper. If you’ve provided a list of these section before-hand then you’ll want to write them in the same order. For example,
Section 2 Gamification
Gamification is [insert stuff here]…… The core mechanics used in gamification include points, badges and leaderboards. These will now be discussed in detail.
Section 2.1 Points
Section 2.2 Badges
Section 2.3 Leaderboards
6. THAT THE
This one was where my PhD supervisor used a lot of red pen in my dissertation; the superfluous ‘that’ before a ‘the’. Again this comes from writing the way we talk. For example,
The study shows that the residents prefer recycled water.
works fine as
They study shows the residents prefer recycled water.
The research supported Bill Hardy’s opinion that the recycled water made no difference to their drinking habits.
doesn’t work as
The research supported Bill Hardy’s opinion the recycled water made no difference to their drinking habits.
To know when to leave out ‘that’ just read it out aloud and judge for yourself if you can do without it. For more information check out these pointers.
Footnotes and Endnotes are used for including extra information or citations on the document text that you can’t work into or is not relevant to the content of your paragraph. I was brought up on the policy that footnotes and endnotes are a big no no. And the APA style guide doesn’t allow them. Most journals don’t accept footnotes as they are a formatting nightmare and seem to give the author a right to go over the word count.
From a reading point of view they are just plain annoying. You have to divert your gaze from the main body of the text, down to the bottom of the page or to then end of the chapter so read the note disrupting the flow. In my opinion if you are writing something that needs footnotes then you’ve not explained yourself adequately enough.
In some cases there might be the need to give the reader a lot more information on a topic that won’t fit into the main body and this is what appendices are for.
Did I mention that research writing isn’t creative writing? In creative writing it is good to use synonyms to mix things up and keep the reader on their toes. It reduced the repeat use of words that would otherwise make the writing dull and dry. Synonyms in research writing though can confuse the topic for the reader.
I’ll use one of my recent post-grad student’s topics to illustrate (and by the way he didn’t do this – but it makes for a good example). The topic focused on eBooks. Now in literature an eBook is know as an ‘electronic book’, ‘Ebook’ (with and without a capital ‘E’), ‘E-book’, ‘digital book’, ‘online book’, ‘electronic text’ and so on. Depending on who is reading the document a book and a text could be very different things. For example, book might be construed as non-fiction where as text thought of as non-fiction. In addition, the words electronic and online while both similar in origin also mean different things. So in this case picking just one way to refer to the topic is critical to reader understanding.
So pick a term that you will use throughout. Define it clearly at the beginning of your document and don’t stray into the thesaurus.
9. Don’t Change Your Research Question
I think the roots of this particular issue arise from point 8 when we try and rephrase things to make the writing more interesting. With the research questions clearly stated early on in the document it is compelling when you have to write them again to add some creative flare by wording them differently. The problem is though that in the rewording you also change the meaning.
For example, something I see a lot goes something like this:
Research question stated early on:
What positive emotions are elicited in players by real-time strategy games?
Then later in the document:
The aim of this study is to examine how computer games make players feel.
This research will evaluate the way developers build emotions into their games.
The results will present player emotions with respect to the type of game.
Now, without intending to, the writer has confused the reader as to what the study is really about. Is it about positive emotions, emotions in general, or feelings? Is it all games or just real-time strategy games? Does it focus on the game developers or the game players? This is what will happen when you try and paraphrase your research question. It will confuse. So don’t to it. There’s nothing wrong with repeating your own words where you have to.
10. Unsubstantiated Statements
There’s nothing I love more than to see as the justification for research in a document state:
No previous research on this topic has been done before.
First of all this is passive and the second half of the sentence is superfluous so it should better be written as:
There is no previous research on this topic.
When I read this, my immediate thought is “Really? You know this for sure? No one else in the entire world has looked at this topic?”. By making such a statement you immediately open yourself up for criticism. It might be more true to say:
Previous research on this topic is scarce.
Even if it is the case that you’ve looked high and low across the Internet and in the dustiest corners of your university library and found nothing on the topic, it’s still a bold statement to make without substantiating it with references. For example,
Previous research on this topic is scarce (Bill & Jones, 2016; Toms & Philberth, 2016).
Note, you’ll want a pretty up-to-date reference to back up your statement as something like:
A rocket will never leave the earth’s atmosphere (NYT, 1920).
won’t cut it.
11. Too many direct quotes
A direct quote from another’s work should only be included if it is iconic and you really can’t say it another way through paraphrasing or the way they phrase it is not rephrasable. The inability to paraphrase tells me as a supervisor that you don’t thoroughly understand what is being said by the researcher and are unable to critically analyse it.
If you are using a term someone has coined such as Prensky’s “Digital Natives” or stating policy then direct copies, with the appropriate referencing is fine.
12. Underlined Font
I’ve added this in to pay homage to one of my mathematic’s professors, Tony Roberts. He really hated to see anything in a document with an underline. Do you see it in other research documents? No! Then don’t use it.
13. Repeating Words in Close Proximity
This is one taken from creative writing and just makes sense. For example,
The aim of this study is to study the study habits of habitual rituals of the 17th century monks.
Sure, this sentence is overkill but you’d be surprised how often people use the same word twice in a sentence or even use big unusual words many times in the same paragraph. Its not good practice and jarring for the reader.
14. Mention figures and table in text BEFORE they appear and please number them
Without exception all figures, tables and lists should be numbered and have a title. They should also be mentioned, by number, in the text before they appear in the document. ALWAYS! Never refer to a figure, table or list as being above or below in the text as text can move around as it is changed and formatted.
The data gathered from the survey is displayed in the table below. [WRONG!!!] [insert table here]
or[insert table here] The data gathered from the survey is displayed in the table above. [WRONG!!!]
The data gathered from the survey is displayed in Table 4.5. [CORRECT]
Table 4.5 Data gathered from the survey.
[insert table here]
15. Thesis versus Dissertation
This one is for post-grad students. The document you are writing is called a dissertation. Your thesis are the ideas you are putting forward.
You do not write a thesis. You write a dissertation.
16. Inappropriate Punctuation Marks
This is for one of my favour students [you know who you are]. It goes without saying there is no place for an exclamation mark in research writing even if you feel one is deserved. For example,
The results of the study were significant!
This also goes for one I see a lot, the ‘-‘. As a hyphen it’s fine. As an em dash (used as a substitute for commas, parentheses or colons) it is not necessary as you have ready access to commas, parentheses and colons. In creative writing it is often used to change thought mid sentence, indicate an interrupted train of thought or suggest a dramatic pause. There’s not place for drama in research writing. So please leave the ‘-‘ for your next novel.
17. Affect versus Effect
Another red pen magnet for my PhD supervisor and to complicate matters I was researching emotion commonly referred to in literature as affect. But if you aren’t talking about emotion then the rule is that affect is a verb (doing word) and effect is a noun (thing).
The effect of the drugs was to increase the rate of serious crime.
How does the rate of drug taking affect the rate of serious crime.
The rule? If it has a ‘the’ in front of it then use effect.
18. Then and Than
These two words are often mixed up, even I do it. You probably also do it unknowingly when you speak. Than is a conjunctive. Its used for comparisons. For example,
The results of the second experiment were less conclusive than the first.
Then, is used when talking about time or additions. For example,
Subjects were exposed to cold water, and then tested again.
19. First Person
The majority of research documents are written in third person. That means I don’t want to see:
I did this….
We conducted the study…
We analysed the results…
Instead write yourself out of the text with:
The study was conducted…
The results were analysed…
Some journals and conferences will accept first person perspective but I personally don’t like it. Check with your paper’s destination before you start writing.
20. Talking about other researchers by name in text
When discussing other’s research it is more common to mention it and then cite the researchers rather than talk about the researchers themselves. Writing in this way seems to be a hangover from undergraduate essays that I commonly see. I guess there’s nothing wrong with writing like this except that is not usually done and rather than focusing on a whole bunch of names in your text you are focusing on the research.
Baillie (2002) suggests emotion is a non-concise term in many of the domains that boast an understanding of the topic. These range from Pert’s neurology theory (1997) and Smith and Kirby’s psychology model (2009) to Picard’s artificial intelligence (1997).
is better written as
Emotion presents itself as a non-concise term in many of the domains that boast an understanding of the topic (Baillie, 2002). These range from neurology (Pert, 1997) and psychology (Smith & Kirby, 2009) to artificial intelligence (Picard, 1997).
The only time you need to refer to the researcher by name in your text is when they are a field leader, well-known or you want to point them out as key people.
21. Ending Sentences with Prepositions
So they told you throughout your entire learning of the English language that you should never, ever, finish a sentence with a preposition. Well that’s not entirely true and for the answers I defer to the experts.
Once again, research writing is not a creative writing task. If you are overly expression or include sentences that doesn’t really saying anything just to bulk up your word count or hide the fact that you don’t really know what you are talking about – the reader will notice.
One thing my editor friend Kayleen really hates is words that end in ‘ly’ (you might have noticed I’ve thrown a few around in this post just for her 🙂 ). And she is correct. Words that end in ‘ly’ otherwise known as adverbs are used in creative writing to modify verbs, adjectives, nouns and phrases. They are overly expressive and not appropriate in a research document when used to describe things. For example,
Amazingly, no participants were found to have an adverse reaction to the drug.
This research is extremely important to the community of the Gold Coast.
Sometimes you might get away with an ‘ly’ word when leaving that word out changes the meaning of the sentence. For example,
The degree of difficulty plaguing this subject matter is that a person rarely experiences a pure emotion (Koestler, 1967).
that I’ve taken from one of my recent papers but now on further reflection I could have written it:
The degree of difficulty plaguing this subject matter is that it is rare for a person to experiences a pure emotion (Koestler, 1967).
So even I’m not perfect. 🙂
Something else that adds fluff to text is starting a sentence with a word that doesn’t really need to be there. For example,
So, the research will reveal..
doesn’t need the ‘So’.
A good rule of thumb here is that if you have single word followed by a comma at the beginning of a sentence then you probably don’t need it.
Have you finished the research, about to perform it or doing it right now? That is the question. How you answer this question will assist you with the correct phrasing. If you are writing a research proposal then you won’t have done the research yet so the phrasing will be:
The research will reveal…
If you are finished then
The research reveals…
Another area where tense gets confusing is in talking about other’s research – which we assume has been completed. Do you say:
Researchers at Bond University suggest…
Researchers at Bond University suggested…
Well it depends on the context. In a literature survey as you are wading through the research you can phrase it in past tense for the historical and outdated theories or for when talking about researchers who have passed away. But for theories that still hold then you’ll want to phrase it in present tense.
24. Words to avoid
Some words don’t belong in a research document including maybe, a bit, got, etc, done, did and other little words for which there is a better alternative.
- performed instead of done
- it may be the case instead of maybe
- obtained instead of got
Don’t use phrases such as ‘a bit’ or ‘a few’ when you can quantify the terms more precisely. For example,
There are a few theories on emotional intelligence.
There are five theories on emotional intelligence.
In the case of ‘etc‘ don’t use it. Etc assumes the reader knows what the end of a list of words is going to look like, but you can’t assume. You need to spell it out.
Last but not least, the word significant should not be used in relation to your results unless you have statistical analysis that they are indeed significant. In fact qualifying your results as valuable, meaningful, representative, compelling or pronounced is unacceptable unless you can prove through rigorous analysis that you have the numbers to support your statements.
So, that’s my top 25. I’m sure after I post this that many more issues will come to light. But for now, do yourself (and your supervisor/editor) a favour and try and remedy as many of these as you can before submitting your drafts.
BTW, not included on my list are emojis. But this is a given, right? :p
P.S. Research writing isn’t a creative writing activity!!
P.P.S. As I alluded to above I thought of another thing immediately after I posted this, so …
Researchers love to make up and use acronyms. And this is fine. I don’t have a problem with acronyms as long as they are defined the very first time they are used and always spell them out first with the acronym in brackets. For example,
The Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) is an information systems framework that models user adaption to the use of technology. TAM has been applied in many research studies including …..
after which TAM can be used every time to refer to the Technology Acceptance Model. Note also the capitalisation in the words that make up the acronym.