Accessibility Version | Skip to content | Change text size

Table of contents

Previous page  | Next page

Readable Writing

In a thesis you often need to use technical and abstract vocabulary, and to express complex ideas. At the same time, your reader should not have to work too hard to understand what you are saying. What makes writing easy to read?

When we read, information perceived by the eye is held in working memory while it is processed by the brain. The more familiar we are with the subject matter of the text, and with the kind of text being read, the easier this processing task is. Our prior knowledge means that less visual information is needed, so reading is faster and easier.

So it is important to consider how much your readers know about your topic. This will influence your choice of terms, how densely you can pack in information and ideas, and how much explaining you need to do.

Some common problems

The following kinds of writing features place a heavy load on the working memory, even for readers who know something about the topic:

  1. very long and complex sentences
  2. using many words when one would do the job
  3. densely packed information
  4. text does not "hang together" (i.e. it reads like a series of unrelated statements)

1. Sentence too long?

Example:

The basic narrative outline of the treatise, of which there are eleven known manuscripts, was successively re-created at different times for different readers between the late 13th and 15th centuries, producing five redactions of the text: two for aristocratic female patrons, two that seem to have been made for women's religious communities and one, perhaps the earliest, that appears to have been associated with a lay religious movement.

Solution: Find a logical place to break it up:

The basic narrative outline of the treatise, of which there are eleven known manuscripts, was successively re-created at different times for different readers between the late 13th and 15th centuries. This produced five redactions of the text: two for aristocratic female patrons, two that seem to have been made for women's religious communities and one, perhaps the earliest, that appears to have been associated with a lay religious movement.

Tip: Read the sentence aloud. If you run out of breath before you get to the end, it's too long!

2. Too wordy?

Watch out for:

  • vague phrases that can be replaced by a single word
  • Example:

    A brief review of second language pedagogy literature provides a perspective as to why...

    Solution:

    A brief review of second language pedagogy literature indicates why...

  • pairs of words or phrases that mean the same thing
  • Example:

    This question is complex and has many ramifications.

    Solution:

    Use one word or the other-no meaning will be lost:

    This question is complex.

    or:

    This question has many ramifications.

3. Too much information packed in?

Example:

There is debate on whether initial language proficiency assessment is an accurate future academic performance predictor.

Solution:

Break up the long noun phrases "initial language proficiency assessment" and "an accurate future academic performance predictor". Change noun forms into verb forms: "predictor" > "predict", "assessment" > "assessing".

There is debate on whether assessing students' language proficiency at the start of their course will accurately predict their academic performance in the future.

4. Too much like a set of unrelated statements?

Click on the highlighted text to see the comments.

We tend to arrange information in a sentence in such a way that given or old information (i.e., information that we assume is already in the reader's consciousness) precedes the new information that the sentence is intended to convey. Often the following sentence begins with a phrase referring back to the new information in the preceding sentence; this is now given or old information, and provides a context for the further new information the second sentence conveys.

When this pattern is not followed, the reader finds it harder to orient new information in relation to old information.

Example: Read this short passage. Does it feel disjointed to you?

There are two approaches to assessing picture quality, the subjective assessment method and the objective assessment method. Observers view pictures under controlled conditions to rate the quality or impairment of these pictures on some pre-defined scales in subjective quality assessment tests. The detection of impairments in pictures, discrimination between two pictures, or the preference of one picture over another may be all that is involved in some types of subjective tests.

Solution: Look at how the information is arranged in each sentence.

Now have another look at the same passage with the new information and the given or old information highlighted. Words that link the sentences together by being repeated or paraphrased are shown in bold font.

There are two approaches to assessing picture quality, the subjective assessment method and the objective assessment method. Observers view pictures under controlled conditions to rate the quality or impairment of these pictures on some pre-defined scales in subjective quality assessment tests. The detection of impairments in pictures, discrimination between two pictures, or the preference of one picture over another may be all that is involved in some types of subjective tests.

There are two approaches to assessing picture quality, the subjective assessment method and the objective assessment method.Observers view pictures under controlled conditions to rate the quality or impairment of these pictures on some pre-defined scales in subjective quality assessment tests. The detection of impairments in pictures, discrimination between two pictures, or the preference of one picture over another may be all that is involved in some types of subjective tests.

In this example the first sentence is all new information. Note that in each of the following two sentences the phrases containing old information, linking back to the sentences before them, are at the end of the sentence, following the new information in the sentence. That is why the paragraph feels disjointed.

Try rewriting the original example using the "old-before-new" pattern. The first sentence is written out for you:

There are two approaches to assessing picture quality, the subjective assessment method and the objective assessment method.

Check this version against your own!

There are two approaches to assessing picture quality, the subjective assessment method and the objective assessment method. In subjective quality assessment tests, observers view pictures under controlled conditions to rate the quality or impairment of these pictures on some pre-defined scales. Some types of subjective tests may only involve the detection of impairments in pictures, discrimination between two pictures, or the preference of one picture over another.

Find out more about improving the flow of your writingOpens in new window by the way you organise old and new information.

download a word document Download a printable version of this page.
Problems? Questions? Comments? Please provide us feedback.

Need help? Library frequently asked questions and online inquiries: current students/staff | public users, online chat, or phone +61 3 9905 5054
Something to say? Send us your feedback and suggestions: current students/staff | public users

Monash University logo