The Path to Perfection: How to Improve Your Research Paper
By Viktoria Shabanova, manager at the Academic Writing Center. She graduated from Russian State University for the Humanities with a degree in Foreign (British) Philology.
Every author of a research paper inevitably faces the problem of editing and proofreading their texts as the text readability and accuracy determine whether the journal will accept the article or not. Some phrases may turn out to be difficult to read, or in some sentences, there might be way too much terminology — improving and polishing the text always rests on the author’s shoulders.
There is a difference between proofreading and editing. Editing occurs throughout the revision process while the author improves the readability of the text and assesses its clarity, logic, and style. Proofreading appears on the final stage of the writing process to eliminate errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
Last year, I had an opportunity to attend a course “Proofreading for Publishing: Polishing Your Academic Writing.” It was taught by Lisa Chou, a brilliant expert in academic writing. I was the participant for whom much of the information was new. The course helped me understand what to focus on for successful text revising.
I decided to share some tips for improving an academic text, as well as the things that native editors usually pay attention to. If you are just beginning your journey in academic writing, read on!
A novice writer can start with the following strategies to enhance the text readability:
1. Strengthen verbs
Look through your text and try to avoid:
- nominalization (signal word endings: -ment, -ion, -ance, etc.)
No good: We took all the facts into consideration. Better: We considered all the facts.
- weak verbs (signal words: to be, have, do, make, provide, perform, get, seem, serve, etc.)
No good: The theme has many different reflections in Russian culture. Better: Russian culture reflects this theme in different ways.
- passive voice (signal words: to be + past participle + by…)
No good: Intermediality in Russian culture was examined in this project. Better: In this project, we examined the intermediality in Russian culture.
2. Clarify pronouns
- pronouns “there”, “it” with “to be” & relative pronouns “that,” “which,” or “who”
No good: Culture always goes hand in hand with art, but it is related to creativity. Better: Culture always goes hand in hand with art, but the latter is related to creativity.
3. Decrease prepositions
- prepositions (signal words: of, by, to, for, toward, on, at, from, in, with, etc.)
No good: The focus of this project was to study intermediality in Russian culture. Better: This project examined intermediality in Russian culture.
4. Cut unnecessary words
No good: The theme of intermediality in Russian culture has not been studied much. Better: The theme of intermediality in Russian culture remains understudied.
5. Check the consistency of style
It is also essential to look at the text organization. Headings and subheadings help structure the text and attract the reader’s attention. All headings should be short and consistent in terms of phrasing. The author also needs to design the headings according to the style they are following (APA, Chicago, MLA, etc.).
A citation style is a set of guidelines on how to cite sources in academic writing. You always need a citation whenever you quote, paraphrase, or summarize a source to avoid plagiarism.
6. Think of a strong title
Lisa Chou has given some criteria that a strong title should follow:
- use keywords that capture the content of the article
- use sixteen words or fewer
- avoid unnecessary jargon or abbreviations
- do not include “study of,” “analysis of,” or similar constructions
- never include a period
- first word
- last word
- content words
- first word of a subtitle
- subordinate conjunctions.
Capitalization and the number of words, however, vary depending on the style. For example, MLA recommends capitalizing only the first and last words, but APA is a “down” style, meaning that words are not capitalized unless there is specific guidance to do so. For a further dive into the subject, read our blog on creating a successful title.
Machines are gradually becoming better in catching inaccuracies in the text. But it’s advisable not to rely heavily on automatic spelling and grammar checkers. There are four common mistakes that the writer needs to watch out.
Even if one is good at English, grammatical mistakes happen sometimes. It takes time to practice and make changes, but before you do that, you need to be aware of your own fossilized mistakes. The most frequent grammar problems are word order, subject-verb agreement, non-parallel constructions, sentence fragments, and articles. Here are the examples that may help you avoid such cases:
- word order
No good: He asked the researcher what difficulties had they encountered in their work. He also wanted to know who were the leading researchers in the team. Better: He asked the researcher what difficulties they had encountered in their work. He also wanted to know who the leading researchers in the team were.
- subject — verb agreement
No good: Everybody were expected to agree that this is a good research topic. But neither of us are interested in politics. Better: Everybody was expected to agree that that was a good research topic. But neither of us is interested in politics.
- non-parallel constructions
No good: Dictionaries are worthwhile only if are used correctly and effective. Better: Dictionaries are worthwhile only if are used correctly and effectively.
- sentence fragments
No good: Offices can easily become more environmentally friendly. For example, by using recycled paper. Better: Offices can easily become more environmentally friendly by, for example, using recycled paper.
No good: There is an awareness of unstable well-being of this demographic group. Better: There is awareness of the unstable well-being of this demographic group.
To learn more about grammar usage, you can check out our Online resource base — there is a Grammar subsection with really useful portals and tools.
Punctuation may present difficulty for a non-English-speaking author. The most typical problems are the use of commas and apostrophes:
- use of commas
No good: Editing is important, because it helps refine the content. Better: Editing is important because it helps refine the content.
- use of apostrophes
No good: This David’s and Freddie’s performance was memorable for its performative nature. Better: This David and Freddie’s performance was memorable for its performative nature.
- apostrophes vs. contractions
No good: Its uncertain whose to blame. Better: It’s uncertain who’s to blame.
We sometimes miss a few inconsistencies such as:
- Dates — 4 July 2016, July 4 2016, 4th July 2016, July 4th 2016
- American and British English — colour/color, programme/program, licence/license
- Headings: Title Case, Sentence case, UPPERCASE
- Times — 3.00pm, 3pm, 15.00, 3 o’clock
- Numbers — 3, 5, 9/three, five, nine
- Symbols — %/percent, +/plus, &/and
Homophones have the same sound but different meanings. They occur when we type quickly, and we do not usually see them. These are some commonly overlooked homophones:
break/brake, fair/fare, hear/here, its/it’s, new/knew, peace/piece, to/two/too, see/sea.
Of course, advancing computer technology makes both learning and writing much easier. Lisa Chou recommended using data-driven corpora, which contain a huge number of English words and expressions. It can help the author improve their texts stylistically and grammatically. The list of the most widely used online corpora can be found in English Corpora. You can also read our blog about using corpora.
Finally yet importantly, we have a Useful links section on our website. It is constantly being updated. In the Tools for Text Analysis section, the author can find a number of instruments to use before proofreading a text themselves. This will make the task a lot easier. These include portals such as Grammica, a text grammar checker that uses an advanced machine learning algorithm to detect errors in your text. Or else, Gunning Fog Index, a tool that calculates the balance between the number of words per sentence and the number of long words per word. And you can always look at the blue underlines in Word — they’re great for spotting what’s best to replace.
Thanks for taking time to read this article. Hope this information could be useful and applicable to future research papers.
A Title that Works: Characteristics and Tips / HSE Academic Writing Center: Blog on Medium. Link: https://awc-hse.medium.com/a-title-that-works-characteristics-and-tips-7fe33c5aef67
APA Style. Link: https://apastyle.apa.org/style-grammar-guidelines/capitalization#:~:text=APA%20Style%20is%20a%20%E2%80%9Cdown,starts%20with%20a%20lowercase%20letter
Best Edit & Proof. https://besteditproof.com/en/academy/10-common-grammar-mistakes-in-academic-writing
Chou, Lisa. Materials for the course “Proofreading for Publishing: Polishing Your Academic Writing”
Empowering Your Writing with Corpus Tools / HSE Academic Writing Center: Blog on Medium. Link: https://awc-hse.medium.com/empowering-your-writing-with-corpus-tools-3c5e8bd4e1a7
English Corpora: Most widely used online corpora. Link: https://www.english-corpora.org/
Lorraine Forrest-Turner. Writer. Trainer. Events & Workshops. https://www.forrest-turner.co.uk/the-the-5-most-common-proofreading-mistakes/
Online Writing Training: Online writing and grammar courses. Link: https://onlinewritingtraining.com.au/turning-verbs-into-nouns-nominalisation/
Purdue OWL: Purdue University. Link: https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/research_and_citation/index.html
Suchkova, S., Dudnikova G., & Adayeva O. (2015) Learn to Write with Us: A Process-based Writing Textbook. Ofort.
The Writing Center: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Link: https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/editing-and-proofreading/
Useful Links / HSE Academic Writing Center Website. Link: https://academics.hse.ru/en/awc/links/
Wordvice: Proofreading & Editing Services. Blog. Link: https://blog.wordvice.com/improve-writing-eliminate-prepositions/