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VII. Using APA Style in Academic Writing: Precision and Clarity

Feb 05, 2015 by Jeff Hume-Pratuch

It’s sometimes a good idea to pause in the midst of a task and ask, “Why am I doing this?” This is particularly true of writing projects. We may write to entertain or persuade, to communicate ideas, or simply to prove that we did enough research to complete the assignment. (That last reason may be a common one, but it doesn’t produce the best writing!) The goal of academic writing is to present your research findings, your analysis of those findings, and your conclusions in a persuasive way to your readers.

The need for precision and clarity of expression is one of the distinguishing marks of academic writing. Therefore, the APA Publication Manual emphasizes that authors should “make certain that every word means what you intend it to mean” (3.08, p. 68). Choose your words wisely so that they do not come between your idea and the audience.

Avoid Ambiguous Expressions

In informal speech and writing, the word feel is often used interchangeably with believe and think. In academic writing, however, the results of your research must be conveyed more precisely. Consider the difference in meaning between “I feel that the correct dose is 25 mg,” and “I believe that the correct dose is 25 mg.” Which statement would give you more confidence in following a prescription? Confine the use of feel to situations in which emotion or sensory perception are under discussion.

  • Correct: Tesla believed that alternating current was more commercially viable than direct current.
  • Correct: Tesla felt a jolt when he grabbed the severed electrical cable.
  • Incorrect: Tesla felt that alternating current was more commercially viable than direct current.

Limit the use of while to writing about events that happen simultaneously. It’s not ungrammatical to use while in the sense of although, but it can lead to confusion.

  • Tom enjoys eating mashed potatoes while Henry eats french fries.

Is Tom’s enjoyment of mashed potatoes dependent on or chronologically related to Henry’s consumption of french fries? If so, the sentence above is fine; if not, use whereas/although/but to emphasize the contrast between the two events.

  •  The salmon swim upstream while leaves float downstream. [Fish and leaves are moving at the same time]
  • The salmon swim upstream, whereas leaves float downstream. [Movement of fish is contrasted to movement of leaves]

Likewise, the use of since to mean after conveys a clear sequence of events. If you don’t intend to convey a chronological sequence, use because instead.

  • We knew the car was stolen since it was parked in the garage. [The car was first parked, then stolen]
  • We knew the car was stolen, because it was parked in the garage. [The car’s presence in the garage was evidence of theft]

Avoid Approximate Language

Vague language weakens the impact of your ideas and makes it more difficult for your readers to evaluate your work. Avoid terms such as very few, practically, mostly, and marginally, particularly when reporting the results of empirical experiments. Tell your readers precisely how much, how many, where, and when you made your observations.

Avoid Euphemisms and Jargon

Every field has its own technical vocabulary, a sort of shorthand that communicates ideas in compact form. This is one meaning of the word jargon, and it’s not a bad thing. The problem enters when writers use a technical vocabulary where it’s not applicable. Extremely technical language may be justified in a dissertation or a lab report, when you are writing for a narrow audience. When you are writing a journal article, however, consider whether the use of scientific jargon may be a barrier to readers outside your subspecialty. Your article will find a broader readership (and thus be cited more often) if you avoid unnecessarily obscure language.

Jargon can also refer to the substitution of a euphemism for a familiar phrase. The federal bureaucracy provides ample evidence of this usage (e.g., enhanced interrogation for torture, shelter insecurity for homelessness), but academic writers need to fight the tendency as well. “Rats were sacrificed by decapitation” is a euphemism, intended to create distance from the reality of killing and beheading rodents. Don’t fear to be direct about unpleasant topics; address them head on. Your readers will respect you for it. 

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