Tips to make your writing more complex

During appointments, students often ask what they can do to make their writing less simple. There are many things which can be done to increase the complexity in your writing, so I thought it may be useful to post about it here. First, let me address a common misconception: making writing complex is different from making it complicated or difficult to read. Complex has a positive meaning (consisting of many different and connected parts) and complex ideas often require techniques in writing in order to effectively express the relationship between points which you are developing. The following is a brief list offering 3 tips on how you can make your writing both complex and clear.

1. Use complex sentences

A complex sentence comprises at least a dependent clause and an independent clause in any order. Through effective use of this sentence structure, the relationship between ideas can be coherently and concisely expressed. Vary the position of the clauses so that the structure is not repeated too often in your paragraphs.

*note* You should aim to vary your sentence structure throughout a piece of work, as this will improve the overall ‘flow’ of your writing.


Punctuation, which is commonly misused,  performs a very useful function. If used effectively, it can help convey your intended meaning clearly to your reader. If misused, it can change the meaning of what you write (as in the example above).

There are rules governing the use of punctuation; we cover these in our Advanced Academic Grammar class.

3. Nominalization

This is a technique used to cut the clutter in your work. Put simply, it’s about packing meaning into fewer words. Consider the following example:

the disease which affects the cardiovascular system could change to the cardiovascular disease

Some writers have a tendency to write too many words when trying to express an idea. The results are: fewer words with which to express further thoughts and complicated sentences. Aim to be succinct when you write.

A more in-depth look at this can be found in Chris Sowton’s book.


I want to hold your hand

Helping your reader # 1. Put your argument out there right at the beginning.


This is post #1 of a series on Helping your reader.

Help your reader find your argument – spell it out

Whatever your worthy personal motivations are for writing your essay, in reality there is only one person you are writing your essay for, and you need to keep this person in mind at all times . This person is your lecturer (or examiner)  and you need to do whatever you can to guide them through your writing so they can be in no doubt that your essay is brilliant.

You need to make sure is that your lecturer knows exactly what your argument is, so spell out your argument in your introduction. It may be that you need to go back and write or rewrite your introduction at the end of your essay,  but whenever you do write it,  make sure it leaves your reader 100% certain about what your argument is.

Remember, reading an essay shouldn’t be a guessing game, and the bets are that if you don’t understand what your argument is, then your lecturer doesn’t either. Don’t make them trawl through your writing trying to look for an argument. Put it right out there at the start. Yes that’s risky, because they might disagree. On the other hand, even if they do disagree, as long as your argument is well supported, they’ll still know your essay is brilliant!

For more information on helping your reader see chapter 5 of  Students Must Write  by Robert Barrass.


Read right, write right


As a student you will almost certainly be faced with an overwhelming amount of reading material. Reading lists full of journal articles, reference books and online resources can seem daunting. There are though, several techniques you can employ in order to become a more effective and efficient reader.

Read with the question in mind

Just as you should always write with the essay title in mind, your reading should be guided by the question you are working on.

Before you dive into your books, it is worth spending some time thinking about how you want to answer the question. Make a rough plan. Divide your answer up into sections, then target your reading so that you have an even spread of material relating to each part of the essay.

Obviously you will have to be flexible when using this approach, as during the course of your research you might decide to change your approach to the question.

Locate key passages.

We’ll let you into a little secret. You very rarely have to read all of a text to find the information you need. Once you have decided on the key terms for your essay, you should spend some time sourcing the areas of your reading list that will be most relevant to you. Here are a few techniques you can use to locate passages in a text that will be key to your essay.

  • Scan the Contents and Index pages. Underline the key words in your title and then search for them in the chapter lists and indexes of your texts. Very often the index will detail the exact pages which focus on the key word. Repeat this for all sections of your essay.
  • Read just the introductions and conclusions. You should be able to tell whether an article or chapter is useful to you by quickly reading the introduction and conclusion. If it does not seem to relate to what you are looking for, the likelihood is your time will be better spent elsewhere.
  • Read the Topic Sentences. Even within a chapter or article there will be some information that is relevant to you and some that isn’t. The topic sentence of a paragraph (the first 1 or 2 sentences) will tell you what is to come. Scanning these allows you to be selective.

Time to get serious!

You can’t avoid the fact that at some point, you are going to have to read in more detail. Once you have located the texts likely to be most useful to you by using the techniques above, it’s time to get down to some serious reading.

To ensure you get the most from your reading you should try and engage as fully with the text as possible. This involves taking notes, but there are effective and not so effective ways to take notes as you read. Here are a few tips:

  • Read the whole text through once first without taking any notes. Too many students start to underline everything straight away. This can make it difficult to differentiate between really important and not so important points. Put down you highlighter the first time you read something.
  • Distinguish between different elements of the text. If you underline everything of importance in a text in the same colour it can make it very difficult to return to the information when you need it. You could highlight arguments for a subject in one colour and arguments against it in another, or box off potentially useful sources.
  • Summarise. Summarising a point or an argument in your own words as you go is one of the most useful reading techniques. This could take the form of a note in the margin or a post-it note on a page. When you have finished reading a section of text you should write a short summary of everything. By engaging with it in this way you really begin to understand it. It can also be useful to mention whether you agree or not with what is being said.

Obviously the reading for every different subject area differs in some way, but applying the techniques above should help you feel less daunted next time you receive a 2 page long reading list from your lecturer!


It’s only words… and words are all we have

Often, the nature of issues in student writing are more complex than just spelling mistakes. We’re pretty lucky that most word processors include spell checkers which pick up on unintended extra letters or recognisable spelling errors. One thing that spellchecks can’t pick up on is collocation.  ‘Collocation’ is a grammatical term which refers to the usual position of words in relation to other words. As a simple example, consider the following sentence:

I watched TV until 2:20am.

Here, the collocation watch/TV is much stronger than a variation on it, e.g. I saw the TV until 2:30am.

While the example above is very basic, the premise applies to other vocabulary… Vocabulary which may be specific to your discipline and if misused, may cause difficulty for the reader in ‘getting your point’. It is reasonable therefore, that if your expression is not as clear as it could be, your marks will be affected. Unfortunately, word processors don’t tend to advise on your choice of words, so applying this is your responsibility when writing and proofreading.

  • Think about how you’ve seen the vocabulary presented in the texts you’ve read.  Look for patterns. Which words usually follow, or come before key vocabulary?
  • Identify key vocabulary in the title, and consider the different ways in which it can be phrased. It is likely that you will want to use as many of these as possible to try to avoid repetition in your work.
  • When proofreading your work, think about your choice of words. Do they make sense?


First impressions count

First impressions are important. We all know this is true when we are meeting someone, but it’s also true when we’re reading.

The introductions you write to your essays are the ‘first impressions’ your lecturer will have of your work. If they are well organised and clear it makes the right impression – i.e. that you have understood the topic. Write a good introduction and you have taken the first step towards a good grade.

Here are a few basic tips to get you started…

Start with the General and Get Gradually More Specific.

Whatever the topic, a good introduction will usually start with a statement that provides background or contextual information. This does not have to be a bland generalisation – try and make it interesting by starting with a related quote, incident or something else that will allow you to lead nicely in to the topic. You could also define key terms in this part of the introduction.

Map out your Essay.

Any good essay should provide the reader with a clear idea of what they are about to read. Orientate your reader by listing the topics you are going to cover in order. State how you are going to cover them as well.

Thesis Statement

Most good introductions contain a thesis statement. These put forward your particular take on the subject and the argument you intend to put forwards. You will expand on your thesis statement in your conclusion.

Write it Last!

As you write your essay you may well change your ideas, add or delete points or change the order. Therefore it is a good idea to write your introduction last, as you will have a much clearer idea of ‘what the essay will do’ when you have already written it.


What to do with that mountain of notes all over your bedroom floor

Are you a student working on longer piece of work? (say a 5,000 word essay or a dissertation) Have you already done quite a bit of reading? Do you have an outline or plan to work with? This is for you! However, some of the techniques below may work for those who need to write shorter pieces of work as well. The following are tried and tested methods and what I find really works for me (believe me, I have tried a lot of different techniques). The techniques below are about getting that first draft down on paper so make sure you leave plenty of time for re writing and editing afterwards.
So, my top tips for increasing writing productivity are:

1) Write first
This is the number one most important piece of advice I have found. For me, my most productive time is in the morning, so as soon as I sit down at my desk (with a strong coffee), I start to write. This is before I have breakfast, before I get dressed, and certainly before I check email, facebook or twitter. Once the creative juices start to flow and I can see some words on the pages, these other options won’t seem nearly as enticing and I can have a shower and sit down to enjoy my breakfast with a glow of 500 words behind me.

2) Set achievable targets
Instead of thinking ‘I have to finish a 10,000 word essay by the end of the month’, I work out the number of sections I want to include in the essay and then divide this by the time available. Then I set myself a absolute deadline for each section and don’t miss a single one, even if it means a serious lack of sleep the night before. This way of working is easier to sustain for short periods of time and you will really start to see progress in your work. Then, once you have all your sections, you can go back and perfect them later.

3) ‘Park on a downhill’
This piece of advice from Joan Bolker is especially useful if you know you won’t be able to return to the same piece of work for a few days. I have a document which I update at the end of every session telling me what I did last and what I need to do next. In this way I can start working in the middle of a piece of writing. Parking on a downhill means I don’t need to read through from the beginning of an piece of work every time I sit down, a process which can easily take a few hours of each session.

4) Tackle small tasks as you go
Have a list of small mind numbing tasks that need doing, so that when you are brain dead there is still something you can do, even if it is finding references, formatting the document or numbering tables.

5) Write often
A little each day is the best way to work. Even on those days when you feel you really can’t write, you will be able to write something. Just tell yourself you need to write 500 or 1000 words or for 1 hour or whatever it may be, and the rest of the day is your own. Often, once you start, you will find you want to carry on, as each word gets you closer to the target.

6) Don’t polish and write
Leave making your writing into a masterpiece until you have got your first draft. For example, don’t write the transitions between paragraphs until the end of your essay. For such a long piece of work, it is probable that you will want to move things around. Once you have decided what goes where, then you can work on perfecting those transitions between main ideas.

For some great blog posts on writing productivity (or when it is appropriate to write quickly) see the following:

Explorations of Style: A Blog about Academic Writing

The Thesis Whisperer