How to engage your reader with academic writing?

1. What does it mean to engage your reader?


So first off, we just want to talk about the word “engage.” What does the word “engage” even mean? And, according to Merriam-Webster here, it’s to really grab the attention, hold the attention of, attract or hold by influence or power. And to induce or participate.

I know a lot of times when we talk about writing in an academic sense, we talk about it as a conversation, because really, writing is a form of communication, and communication goes two ways. So you want to be able to invite your readers to participate with you in this academic journey, whether that’s a course paper or a dissertation.

[Source: Walden University. ]

2. Syntax


The first example is with syntax. This is the way that words are put together to form a sentence. So oftentimes, I will see repetitive syntax in student writing because, you know, a student maybe is very comfortable in one style of sentence writing, and so that’s what the whole paper ends up being. But if you think about this example, if I were telling you a story: I went to the store. I bought eggs. I got in my car. I drove home. I made dinner.”

Okay, that gets a little monotonous, a little burdensome. As a reader, a listener, rather than saying that, I could simply say, “I went to the store and bought eggs because I had to make dinner,” or something along those lines. I can combine some of those sentences and change the syntax, the way that the words and the grammar is arranged, to keep my reader interested.

[Source: Walden University. ]

3. Sentence Structure


The next tool that you have is your sentence structure. And this is sort of related to the syntax. But the sentence structure really refers to the way that you group the words in your sentences. So, if you remember from, you know, either grammar school or you may have seen previous webinars where we’ve talked about phrases and clauses—phrases and clauses are kind of those grammar geek terms that just talk about the way words are combined, and they’re groups of words in a sentence. So they’re groups of words that work together in a sentence. And each sentence is made up of a combination of these phrases and clauses.

So if we use these, the nice thing about phrases and clauses is that you can intermix them and change the order of them to, again, vary the way that your sentence is portrayed to the reader. So let’s look at a few examples here. If you look at the examples, we have the examples:

  • Teachers create lesson plans.
  • Teachers revise lesson plans.
  • Students benefit from good teachers.
  • Students learn more from good teachers.

Okay, each of these are kind of an individual group of words together. If we combine them, though, we can have some sentences that have a mix of these phrases and clauses.

Teachers are responsible for creating and revising lesson plans. When teachers do this well, students benefit in many ways. One benefit can be increased learning.

Especially in the second example there—when teachers do this well, comma, students benefit in many ways—this is a great example of where there are a couple phrases and clauses mixed together, and one comes before the other that maybe wouldn’t always come in that order. So the way that you mix those up, and match—mix and match—those phrases and clauses, really gives a sense of variety and a sense of variation for your reader. So again, they are more engaged in your writing.

Take a look at the examples on this page. I’m going to read the last two, simply because I want to show you how these use the exact same words but in a different order. So the middle example here says, “Because counseling can be emotionally draining,”—that’s one chunk—“counselors must ensure that they take care of themselves”—that’s another chunk—“before they will be able to take care of their patients”—that’s another chunk. Ok, so we have those three groups of words working together.

If you look at the next example, it takes those three groups and puts them in a different order. “Counselors must ensure they take care of themselves [pause] because counseling can be emotionally draining [pause] before they will be able to take care of their patients.” We have exactly the same words; there was no variation in words whatsoever, but there was a variation in the way that the sentence was ordered and the way that those groups of words showed up in the sentence. So again, there’s lots of variation, lots of ways you can vary your sentences to better engage your readers.

[Source: Walden University. ]

4. Punctuation


Punctuation can be used, really, to just, again, give some difference in sentence structure and help you use those other two tools, the syntax and the sentence structure, and then still show different relationships between the ideas. So whether you use a semicolon or a period or a comma, they show different things.

So a semicolon is going to show two related ideas that are complete sentences. A comma is going to, you know, maybe separate items in a list or maybe separate, if it’s used with an and, maybe separate two complete sentences. If you have two commas, you’re making that phrase kind of like a “by the way” side note. So for example, the third one down here, we have, “Managers, responsible for accurate and effective communication, must tell employees about organizational changes.” That internal part—“responsible for accurate and effective communication”—that’s sort of like a side note, so it’s set off with those commas. And the last example uses a colon to kind of set off a list or an important or emphatic part of the sentence. These can definitely help you to vary the structure and to engage your reader in a different way.

I think you probably are familiar with, you know, the use of an exclamation point versus a period. If you get an e-mail from your boss that says, “Great job!” with an exclamation point, that makes you feel pretty good. If you get an e-mail from someone that just says, “Great job, period,” you don’t know whether they are enthusiastic or sarcastic…. it’s difficult to know, right. So punctuation makes a big difference in how you engage your readers.

[Source: Walden University. ]

5. Transitions


Using transitions can really help to engage your readers and keep them connected to your writing because without transitions, it can be very abrupt to jump from one topic to another. And transitions actually help to show relationships between your ideas. So, some of the different types of transitions might be transitions that show time frames; they might show relationships that are cause and effect; they might be transitions that show addition; or they might be some that show how ideas contrast with one another.

So, for example, in the category of time, there are the words: then, next, after, and so on. Cause and effect might be: because or consequently. In the category of addition, you might say: also, similarly. And then, if you had a category of contrasting, you might say: however or but. So you can see how these show different relationships.

The thing with transitions is if you’re going to use them, and especially if you’re going to use transitional phrases or words, use them sparingly and carefully because you really do want to make sure that you are accurately conveying the relationships that they show. So a lot of times, you can tell that, you know, a good transition also uses repeated words or phrases. And now I know I just told you, don’t use extra repetition if it’s not necessary. But sometimes a way to keep the reader engaged and keep the thought and concept flowing is to repeat just a word or a phrase that’s a keyword or phrase that helps the reader continue moving on. So for example here, we have:

A key danger for patients in hospitals are falls. Falls can result in more injuries that pose a threat to patient health.

Notice the word falls is repeated but kind of necessary to keep the reader moving forward. And also punctuation can help to keep the reader moving within the direction of the paper. Instead of using a period, for example, which is a little more abrupt, you might consider using a semicolon, which indicates that you have two complete sentences but the ideas are related to one another.

[Source: Walden University. ]

Examples of Transitions


So in this example paragraph there are no clear transitions.

I’m going to read it aloud, and I’d like you to follow along and really listen to how this sounds and the choppiness and the abruptness of these sentences.

“There’s a problem within public schools today regarding meeting no child left behind, NCLB legislation. NCLB mandates that all children achieve benchmark levels for the subject areas of reading and mathematics. Standardized test scores typically do not reflect successful attainment. The cause is the traditional teaching practice toward a single approach to learning, instead of the differentiated introduction practice of teaching toward a variety of modalities. Tomlinson, 2001, page two. Traditional instruction has not worked at all for students. The focus of this study is to explore how teachers can best make use of differentiated instruction to help children learn.”

So here is an example. This is actually fairly well written. The ideas seem clear, it seems like it’s well-presented in that it’s not confusing. The grammar is clear. But there’s really no transition. So it’s sort of list-like.

There’s a problem within the schools. NCLB mandates there. Standardized test scores do not reflect this. The cause is this. Traditional instruction has not worked. So you can see, it kind of feels more like a list than a cohesive paragraph or cohesive group.

So if we look at the next example, though, we’ve added a few transitions. And these help to combine the ideas, make the work flow a little and throw out the list-like feeling.

So we have, “within public schools there’s a problem. Traditionally, NCLB mandates that all students—”Again, we have kind of a repeated word. “All students achieve benchmark levels. However, standardized test scores show that typically students do not achieve these benchmarks.”

So again, we’re repeating “benchmarks” now, too. “The cause for specific lack of achievement is the traditional teaching practice; thus far, traditional instruction has not worked for all students because of this lack of achievement.”

So you can see, all of these ideas are kind of being put together. Their relationship is a little bit clearer with words like: “traditionally,” “however,” “thus far,” “because of.” And then you have these repeated words, “all students,” “benchmarks,” “lack of achievement.”

So because these are all put together in this paragraph, as a reader, it’s easier for me to follow. And I don’t feel like there is so much of an abrupt stop between each idea.

[Source: Walden University. ]

6. Avoid Wordiness and Redundancy


Don’t be overly wordy. You don’t need to use twice as many words to say the same thing if a smaller number of words is going to be sufficient. So beware, as you’re writing. I think a lot of times when we think about academic writing, we think, “I have to sound smart. I have to put lots of words in there. I have oh, to put lots of big words in there.” That’s not always the case.

When you want to really engage your reader, you want to sound as if you know what you’re talking about most definitely, and you want to be evidence-based and research-based if you’re doing your research project. But you can do that in a very direct and concise way. You don’t have to use extra words.

So we have a few examples here.

One thing that comes up with wordiness, a lot, are unnecessary words like “very” and “really.” These not only make your writing wordy, but they also kind of give an emotional feel to your writing, and so you want to avoid, you know, putting any kind of emotion like that into your writing. While you might be passionate about the subject, you still want to maintain an objective, authorial distance as the author of the work.

So instead of saying, “the teachers were very well informed” you could say “the teachers were well informed as illustrated by the lengthy discussion they had about the English Language Learners.” Here we know why they were well informed. It may even have more words to describe something, but it’s –it’s much more precise, and specific.

So instead of saying, “the manager really understood his employees.” You could say “the manager understood his employees in depth, valuing them as people as well as employees.” So again, you know, you may actually use more words to be more specific, and that’s okay. But it’s definitely to your benefit to avoid any unnecessary words. And very and really are often used in that way.

Also circumlocution is another word that goes into wordiness. Talking about wordiness, that’s really wordy! It’s really another way to say that you’re talking around the point instead of getting to it.

So in the example here, instead of saying that, “the woman was the patient, had lived 30 years, and was located in an area outside of New York City but not far away.” You could simply say, “the female patient was 30 years old and lived in a New York City suburb.” You can see there’s a difference here. Instead of talking around the idea, just saying it directly is always the best way to go. It avoids sort of that circular reasoning and those roundabout explanations.

Redundancy is another thing that happens when we think about wordiness. And redundancy means unnecessary repetition. If you don’t need to repeat it, don’t. There’s no need for it. So instead of repeating information, even if it’s in the next sentence, it’s just a good idea to be specific and try to group your information together in a way that all of the information related to a certain topic is all in one place. And then you don’t have to go back and repeat unnecessarily.

So you can see an example of this here. Where we talk about, it says, “to be a counselor, it is important to have good listening skills for counseling patients. As good listening skills for counseling patients leads to better understanding of a patient, which, as a counselor, is the entire purpose of a counseling session.”

You can see even in that example, the word “counselor,” “listening skills,” “good listening,” “good counseling” are repeated multiple times. And as a reader, I find that very difficult to articulate, even just reading it out loud.

So, again, being precise and specific will help there.

[Source: Walden University. ]

7. Avoid Casual Language


Casual language. Now, I think a lot of times when we enter into the realm of academia, when we start to write in an academic way, it becomes challenging for us as writers because we want to write how we speak. And that’s actually not a good way to write. Because we are writing for different audiences, different, what we would consider discourse communities, you know, writing is a very different kind of communication than speaking is.

So when we’re writing in the academic audience or for an academic audience, rather, we want to be sure that we are using academic tone and avoiding that conversational language.

So things like, metaphors, things that are considered clichés or maybe idioms, you know, those are things that we want to avoid because they can’t always be translated to readers that maybe are not familiar culturally with the language. And it might even just confuse some readers, even, you know, native readers who are strong readers, might just be confused by the use of language.

So when I think of clichés and idioms, I think of an experience that I actually had where someone asked me in — from another culture – asked me if I had fallen out of a sugar sack as a child, and I had no idea what she was saying. And I came to find out that it was — it was a cliché for, you know, an idiom for, you are a very sweet person. So it can be very confusing as a reader to read those kinds of things in your writing.

So instead of saying “the doors were closed to advancement,” you can actually say “there was no way to advance.” Or instead of “it was a slippery slope to failure.” You know, you could say “failure occurred easily.”

And so avoiding those kind of more metaphorical, more cliché phrases will definitely help to keep your readers engaged because they won’t be confused. And I think it’s — it’s a little bit different than what we would expect, because when we think of engaging writing, we don’t think, “I have to be creative; I have to really, you know, draw my readers in with my creativity,” but you can do that while still staying within the bounds of the rules and standards of academic writing. And that’s where the syntax and the style, and the punctuation and sentence structure all kind of work together.

[Source: Walden University. ]


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