Top Ten style checks for PhDs or creative non-fiction writers

Ways to assess your paragraphs or sentences

Style issues for writing creative non-fiction at a research level are rather different from the rules or guidance for fiction writers. As in many professional tasks, having a basic checklist can often help you develop your own practice. Here are some possible kernel questions that may help.

  1. How many words are there in your paragraphs? — Aim for around 150 to 200 words average. Never have paragraphs below 50 words [this makes your text look bitty and fragmented], or above c.250 to 300 words [readers will get lost]

2. Do your paragraphs follow a ‘topic/ body/ tokens/ wrap’ structure, like this?

  • First (topic) sentence — Clearly signposts the topic of the paragraph
  • Body (middle) of the paragraph — Sets out argument and gives detailed exegesis.
  • Tokens — handle evidence, examples, and supplementary elucidation supporting the main argument. Be careful, they can become digresive.
  • Last (wrap) sentence — Sums up the paragraph conclusion and signals the implication of findings. (Tip: sometimes the Wrap sentence gets displaced, so that it appears as the first sentence of the next paragraph, which then mis-signals what the next paragraph is about).

3. If not what is the structure? How easy or hard is it for readers to ‘glean’ what a paragraph is about on a quick view?

4. How long are your sentences? How long are the outlier (smallest and largest) sentences? [Check the ‘Tools’ menu in Word here] — Aim for c. 20 words as an average. Is there a decent variety of sentence lengths and structures? Or is your writing unvaried and repetitive-looking?

5. Are you using active verbs with real subjects?[good] Or passive verbs, whose subjects are abstractions, reifications or anthromorphized concepts? [bad] Word and other equivalents will identify every passive formulation in the Spellchecker facility — go through and change them all over.

6. In each sentence do you keep the subject, verb, and object (SVO) close together and clearly linked? Are the qualifying clauses in your sentences placed at the beginning or end of sentences [good]? Or in the middle, between SVO components [bad]?

7. Do your sentences generally have a Link/Frame/Deliver sequence — or some other pattern? Do you have some variety in your sentence lengths and structures?

8. How much jargon do you use? How many multi-syllabic words are there? How high would you score on the ‘fog index’? Do you keep acronyms to a minimum and explain well any that you do use? Are you minimizing on the use of capital letters, bold or italics (they all generally make your text less readable)?

9. Stand back and ask — Is this text attractive, involving, varied and interesting? How could it become more so?

10. Apply the BBC test. Does a paragraph or sentence

  • Build your argument, advance readers’ understanding, strike the right tone and reach the right level? — Keep this text intact
  • Blur your argument, perhaps repeating material, over-analysing already clear points, or waffling with no clear purpose? — Assess the usefulness of such text critically. Not all ‘blur’ materials or slack should be cut out if they help readers. But be skeptical.
  • Corrode the thesis, creating a liability by including material that is wrong, too crude, or is out of scope or irrelevant to the main argument at this point? — Always either cut out the text concerned; or radically upgrade it so that it is no longer corrosive.

 To follow up these ideas in more detail see my book: Patrick Dunleavy, ‘Authoring a PhD’ (Palgrave, 2003) or the Kindle edition, where Chapter 5 covers ‘Writing clearly’ and Chapter 6 ‘Developing as a Writer’.

There is also very useful advice on Rachael Cayley’s blog Explorations of Style.

And for new update materials see the LSE’s Impact blog and on Twitter @Write4Research

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