How to Write Simple, Direct Academic Prose that Enlightens and Impresses Readers

I’ve written before about the need for simpler language and sentence structures in academic writing. Using simple prose clarifies your meaning, makes your work accessible to larger audiences, and lets your ideas be the star of the show.

But how can academic writers avoid the confusing swamp of academic speak?

This series of blog posts will explore three different ways we can improve and clarify our writing right now. Today’s topic? Active versus Passive voice.


Use active, not passive, voice.

Don’t write lazy, unclear sentences. Write powerful, active ones!

The grammatical concepts of active and passive voice may immediately give you a migraine. I know they used to have that effect on me. But I suffered for years from too many english classes taught at a small, under-funded school by people without the right qualifications to teach those classes.

I had to learn how to identify and correct passive voice mostly on my own, with the help of a few diligent and patient college professors along the way.

But the academic writer struggling with active voice isn’t alone in the digital age. There are a variety of great online sources, including videos, to help you learn how to make your sentences more active. Some even use zombies!

But WHY is active voice so important? After all, some academic disciplines use passive voice quite often to articulate their ideas. In fact, in the sciences, passive sentences seem to be widely accepted, if debated.

Using active voice is important because it tells you what is being done and who is doing it so that the reader can see the action being done in a logical manner.

Here’s the truth: an action cannot be done without a DOER of that action, so the reader needs to see the DOER first in the sentence so that they can then see the doer DOING the action.

Confusing enough for ya?

Hang in there.

“The dog barks” is a clearer sentence than “The barking came from the dog” because the doer of the action (the dog) is at the beginning of the sentence.

And “Researchers have discovered new methods of…” is clearer than “New methods of… have been discovered” for the exact same reason. New methods could not be discovered without those researchers, so give them their due and put them at the beginning of the sentence!

Using active voice helps us communicate in a way that is easiest for readers to comprehend, and reader comprehension is what writing–all writing–is about.

Even scientific writing should consider sentence structure carefully. Yes, sometimes passive voice is the way to go, but sometimes it simply confuses your meaning. Confusing passive voice sentences are the bulk of what I’ve corrected while editing scientific papers for clients.

And after the revisions, it was always much clearer who was doing the action, which means the idea the writer was trying to communicate in the first place is clearer as well!

The end result.

By slogging through lesson after lesson on using active voice, by mastering the use of it in your own work, you’ll help your reader understand your ideas immediately, which is the goal, after all.

We research to share our results with the world, right? Mastering active voice will help you do just that.


If you enjoyed this week’s foray into simpler writing, join me next week when I’ll discuss how splitting long sentences into shorter chunks can make your amazing ideas easier for a reader to understand. After that, I’ll be talking about academic writers’ tendency to use four words when one would do just fine.

In the next weeks, we’ll take our writing from foggy to clear in three easy steps. I look forward to hearing from you!

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