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Keep it Simple, Student.

09/11/2010
A stain glass window representation of Polonius.

Polonius in stained glass

The perfect article must say something new; be interesting; & be relevant. (K.O. Friedrichs Jnr.)

The ideal research paper is a brief, elegantly written, well-informed report of a simple, clearly designed study. Sadly, very few are ever written.

I have sat at the feet of masters and, over a long career, I cannot think of many such papers. Perhaps three; written by a theologian and a couple of psychiatrists. Their books were a joy to read and their research papers were famous for their mental acuity and delightful use of language. But they were rare.

Students who write for publication, are often advised to observe the KISS principle – Keep It Short and Sweet. There are many variants of this but it is as true of public speaking (Stand-up, speak-up and shut-up!’) as it is of writing a research paper (‘Your eraser is your best friend’). Nobody likes long-winded, meandering, aimless texts, do they?

Surprisingly, however, some of the greatest advocates of textual brevity are the very bureaucrats who run our universities or commission research, because they inhabit a world strewn with impenetrable jargon. The function of this language is, of course, not to communicate meaning but to bolster power. It is exclusive and divisive and most commonly used by those who are insecure about their authority.

If, on the other hand, you actually want to apply Polonius’s maxim – that ‘brevity is the soul of wit’* – I would counsel you to reject all jargon and excess wordage. You will do better if you also observe Gertrude’s advice: reporting with ‘more matter and less art’.*

But there are some dos and don’ts. Do use the correct technical terms, but keep them to a minimum. Where your paper requires you to discuss your sampling strategy, you should do so with clarity. Don’t, for instance, include a critique of the formula for calculation of sample size in your general summary. It is a question of understanding the purpose of the different parts of your paper and their intended audiences.

Your goal in writing a research paper is to say what you wanted to find-out and why, how you did this, what you found and what it means for future work in the field. That’s it.

Perhaps the key to all this is to set-out with a simple question and study design. After that, with luck, your field results will be uncomplicated and the numbers manageable, so that you can get to the truth in a trice. But, as we are fallible humans and the world complex, our designs are flawed and the phenomena we observe behave unexpectedly – especially if they involve other people!

Then our job is to make order of chaos – summarising the complicated process of redesign and revision that is the reality of most research.

So, though the truth is rarely pure and never simple, as Oscar Wilde put it (1895), perhaps the ambition of those writing for publication should be.

* Hamlet Act II:2; Shakespeare

Assistance If you want any further information about writing research reports, please contact Life Research. To tap into research training or research support, check out the Data Zero website. I am always happy to help in any way I can.

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One Comment
  1. Vic permalink

    Fowler’s Modern English Usage (2nd Edition) (ISBN: 0192813897 / 0-19-281389-7)
    H.W. Fowler is a very good guide to writing clear English. A bit old fashioned perhaps but may be even better for being so.

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