In part two of this series, Sophie Shorland outlines some of the biggest stylistic mistakes you might be making in your writing. Here’s how to avoid these and ensure your thesis does its job of communicating your original ideas with style!
If you haven’t already yet, I’d highly recommend reading part one of this series on how to create and use a style guide for your writing. Once you’ve got a handle on the style basics, it’s time to think about crafting your writing. To get you started, here are the three biggest areas of confusion when it comes to writing style:
What the heck is passive/active voice?
People are often advised to write in the ‘active voice’ without having a clue what this means!
Here’s an example:
- Active voice: The student unsettled the invigilator.
- Passive voice: The invigilator was unsettled by the student.
In the active voice, the subject (the student) proactively does the action, while in the passive voice the subject receives the action.
Writing in the active voice can make your sentences shorter and punchier, but the passive has its uses too: if the subject of the sentence is unimportant or unknown, or where what’s happening (the state of being unsettled in our example) is more important than the subject. The passive voice can also be used authoritatively, e.g. Undergraduate students are not allowed into the library! The undergraduates are on the receiving end of a pretty forceful command.
How should I use hyphens?
This is probably the most abused piece of punctuation in the English language! Mostly, words can be separated or joined and don’t need a hyphen;
- e.g. twentieth century, lost boy, prefigure.
However, if you’re combing two words to make a new adjective, it’s time to use a hyphen!
- e.g. well-timed, figure-hugging.
Check on the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) if you’re not sure. If you stop being a student and don’t want to personally subscribe to the OED, Collins is the only credible, free online dictionary. Accept no imitations!
Pro tip: hyphens are not generally used to create pauses in the line. This is the role of the en dash, that much-overlooked piece of punctuation. It’s great for creating parentheses, e.g. The students – tired of bureaucracy – staged a very loud protest. However, you don’t have to think about this too much, as most word processors convert hyphens to en dashes automatically.
What are semicolons for?
The second worst treated piece of punctuation in English, semicolons are most frequently used to present a conclusion. For example:
- Studies have shown that PhD students are drinking more caffeine than ever before; as a result, wild expressions have been observed in the labs and libraries.
However, their usefulness often leads to semicolons being randomly scattered around the text. They are most often misused when confused with a comma, as in this sentence:
- Because students drink caffeine; they look wild.
- I went to Tesco’s and I bought: coffee, which makes me do more things faster and less efficiently; tea, coffee’s best friend; and milk, to go in both.
You’ll notice that to start the list in that example I used a colon rather than a semicolon.
Style is, to an extent, a matter of aesthetics. This makes a lot of decisions very person-dependant. So have fun experimenting with how you want to write your thesis! And if it gets too much, remember this quote from novelist Margaret Atwood: “A word after a word after a word is power.”
This is part two of a two part series on writing a stylish thesis. Read part one here.
What’s the biggest writing mistake you’ve made in your writing? How have you learnt to overcome ingrained, incorrect writing habits? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
Sophie is a PhD candidate working on Early Modern Literature at the University of Warwick. She’s interested in Shakespeare, celebrity culture and early modern women’s writing. You can find her on twitter @sophie_shorland.