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Writing clearly and concisely

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Description: A helpsheet explaining how to write clearly and concisely. Includes sections on the use of long words and abbreviations.
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Category: Academic Writing Report Writing
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Better report writing isn't just about getting your information in the right place - it's also about communicating it appropriately. That means using the language, styles and conventions of academic writing. But 'writing academically' isn't necessarily the same as 'writing like an academic'. If you are a research postgraduate, journal articles can be a good model. But for most other students, this kind of written communication may be at the wrong level for the research you have been doing. The key is to think of your proposed readers - who are you writing the report for? Is your audience likely to include readers outside of your discipline who will not understand highly technical terms? Or is it for your peers or colleagues (real or hypothetical)?  

Writing clearly

Writing academically means writing in such a way that your information sounds credible and authoritative. It does not mean: • Using long words • Writing complicated sentences with lots of semi-colons and colons A good piece of advice is to ‘write to express, not to impress’. When you write a report you are communicating your knowledge about a set of actions to a reader. The key word here is communication. Long words, jargon, technical terms and overly complex sentences will make it more difficult for your reader to understand what you are trying to say. Here are some suggestions to make your writing better and more academic:
  • Write objectively – report what the evidence tells you even if it isn’t what you hoped to find. Don’t present unsupported or personal opinions: for instance, ‘Unsurprisingly, participants who recycled their refuse more regularly were also nicer people’. Take a balanced view.
  • Write accurately – give clear non-subjective descriptions (‘light blue’ is better than ‘sky blue’) and definite figures (‘after twenty five minutes’, ‘80% of the participants’). Avoid vague or ambiguous terms like ‘a long period of time’ or ‘most of the participants’.
  • Write directly – don’t leave it to your reader to work out what you are saying! Putting the emphasis on a strong verb can help the reader to see the important points: for instance, ‘an analysis was performed on the results’ is not as direct as ‘the results were analysed’.
  • Write critically – evaluate your own work as well as that of others. Have the confidence to say if something could have been done better if it had been done differently.
  • Write appropriately – Avoid using colloquialisms, informality and contractions: for instance use ‘do not’ instead of ‘don’t’; 'it might be argued' instead of 'you could say'. Exclamation marks, textspeak and emoticons are definitely not a good idea. (Top tip: If you're struggling to think of an appropriate way to say something, you might find the Academic Phrasebank useful.)
  • Write for your reader - identify the purpose of your communication and the audience you are communicating to. Give them the information they need to understand your work.

Writing concisely

Reports are a type of informative writing so conciseness is important in order to convey the crucial information to your audience as effectively and quickly as possible. Here are some strategies to help you write concisely:
  • Write to the word count – Find out your word count before starting to plan and research your report. Set approximate word limits for each of your sections so you stay within the overall target.
  • Edit ruthlessly - Go through a paragraph that you have written and cross out any words or phrases, or even a sentence, that may be unnecessary (or 'grey it out' – change the text colour of the words you might remove to light grey). Read it again to see if you have lost anything essential to the information or meaning; if you have not, then delete it permanently. Replace phrases with single words meaning the same: ‘The researcher wanted to find out’ becomes ‘The researcher enquired’.
  • Avoid unnecessary background description – Don’t include background details that aren’t relevant to the audience. For example, in a report on the defects of an old building, the audience don’t want to know the entire history of the building; they want to find out the problems with its current condition and how much it will cost to fix them.
  • Check the first sentence of each paragraph – Sometimes it can take you a while to work out what you want to say in a paragraph so the first few lines can be unnecessary filler. Make sure the first line is a clear and direct statement of the point you want to make in that paragraph.
    Important features of clear and concise writing also include accurate grammar and appropriate use of tenses and technical terms:  

Thinking about grammar

Grammar is the set of rules we all tacitly agree to use when we speak a language. Having a single set of rules is what makes it possible for us to communicate with each other by assigning meaning to words placed in a particular order. If you are a native English speaker, you have probably not thought very much about English grammar. However, careless use of grammar can distort your meaning and make your communication ineffective. A thorough description of English grammar is beyond the scope of this website but simple strategies like reading your work aloud will often make mistakes like fragmented sentences obvious. If you want to improve your grammar generally, an excellent resource with lots of exercises and activities is The Internet Grammar of English which is free to users from UK Higher Education institutions.  

Writing in paragraphs

The more you can impose control and structure on your writing, the easier it will be for others to understand what you are trying to say. So as well as structuring your overall report carefully, each paragraph you write should also be structured. Keep to one main point per paragraph. Start with an introductory 'topic sentence' which shows what the paragraph will be concerned with e.g. 'Another important thing to consider with psychological testing is the environment in which the testing takes place'. Follow this with your arguments or statements, supported by evidence and critical analysis where appropriate. Close the paragraph with a concluding sentence that sums up what's been presented.  

Writing styles and tenses

An important difference between essays and reports is that while essays are written in a single narrative voice from beginning to end, reports are written in sections which may use different styles of writing, depending on the purpose of the section. So, for instance, your Methods and Results sections will be factual and descriptive, your Introduction will be explanatory, and your Literature Survey and Discussion sections will be discursive and analytical.
  • Descriptive writing gives a detailed account of the characteristics of things.
  • Discursive writing investigates things by reasoning or making a reasoned examination.
  • Factual writing states the facts of the case exactly as they are, without embellishment.
  • Analytical writing examines complex things to discover how they work.
  • Explanatory writing makes things clear and gives the reasons for them.
There are also conventions for when you should use different tenses. The general rules are:
  • When you are reporting your findings, use the past tense (as you are reporting on something that has happened).
  • When you are reporting other people's research, use the present tense (as you are relating something that is established knowledge).
  • When you are discussing your findings, use the present tense.
So you might write: ‘Smith (2005) argues that the precise dimensions of this variable are not crucial. However, our experiment showed wide variations in results when the variable was altered even slightly. We conclude that the correct choice of dimensions is a significant factor in achieving success with this procedure.’  

Using the passive voice

It always used to be recommended in academic writing that you used the passive voice – ‘the experiment was conducted’ rather than ‘we conducted the experiment’. Most people recognise now that this can make writing pompous and overly complicated. Using the active voice (i.e. 'I did', 'we did' instead of 'It was done') makes your writing clearer and the actions you are reporting easier to understand. However, you should check any instructions you have for guidelines on this. If you are in any doubt, it may still be safer to use the passive voice.    

Technical terms, abbreviations and acronyms

Do use appropriate technical terms but try to avoid jargon – consider who is likely to read your report and whether they will understand the terms you use. Abbreviations and acronyms are used if you have terms that are likely to be used a lot and are commonly known by their abbreviated form or acronym (for instance, dia. for diameter; NSPCC for National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children). It may be helpful to briefly explain a technical term the first time you use it. Likewise, when an abbreviation or acronym may be new or unfamiliar to the reader, the first time you use it you should also show the full term, for example 'the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education (ALDinHE)'. Thereafter you should just use the acronym. There may also be lists of standard abbreviations that are used for the most important journals in your discipline. Ask in your department or check your library's Reference section. For some reports you may be asked to provide a glossary - a list of specialist terms used in the report. This may include technical terms, abbreviations and/or acronyms. You only need to include those terms that may be unfamiliar to the intended reader: for instance, you would not need to explain that 'Sept.' was short for 'September'.  

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