Developing clarity and focus in academic writing

Academic writing aims to be clear and precise, with a direct style that moves logically from one idea to the next. This page describes how you can structure sentences and paragraphs to achieve clarity and ‘flow’ in your writing.

Organising information in a sentence

In a direct style, the information in sentences tends to be organised from:

  • simple  to complex
  • old to new
  • familiar  to unfamiliar

Anthropology [1] studies what it means to be human in a globalising world, providing a critical vantage point from which to reflect on ourselves and others [2]. Its [3] distinctive methodology, based on intense, long-term participation in people's daily lives, allows for ideas to develop out of local experience and knowledge [4].

(Handbook, University of Melbourne, 2020)

[1] Simple beginning: one word, not a complex phrase.

[2] Complex sentence ending: contains more than one idea and elaborates on those ideas.

[3] Old / familiar information: ‘its’ refers to ‘anthropology’, which is an idea that has already been established for the reader.

[4] New / unfamiliar information: the end of the sentence informs readers of content they did not know. This may be a fact, an argument or a scholarly opinion.

Start sentences with your topic

When you start sentences with your main topic in ‘subject’ position, you provide a clear context for the new information at the end of the sentence. ‘Subject’ refers to the person or thing that is performing the action (verb), as in He walks’, ‘She recognised him’, 'Governments regulate...'.

Notice how the topic changes from the first to the second sentence in the following example:

One technique for writing clearly [1] is to place less important information at the start of a sentence and more important information at the end of a sentence. The end of a sentence [2] is often referred to as the ‘impact’ position [3] as this is the information which is new to your reader and which they are most likely to remember [4].

[1] The first sentence starts with a clear context for the information to follow.

[2] The end of the first sentence, which is new information, becomes the start of the next sentence, as the information is now familiar, or ‘old’.

[3] New terms or definitions go after the action (verb), where your reader expects to find them.

[4] Explanations or extra information about the definition also go after the verb, and usually after the definition.

End sentences with new or important information

Important information may include:

  • new terms that a reader may not recognise
  • information with emotional weight or high significance for your argument
  • ideas that will be further developed in the next few sentences

Each of the sample paragraphs on this page contain examples of placing new or important information at the end of sentences.

Sentence length

Use short sentences containing a single main point for information you want to highlight. Short sentences carry a lot of emphasis, so save them for important conclusions and arguments, or shifts in topic.

Supporting or background information should appear in the beginning or in the middle of a sentence. These sentences are often longer.

The lilly pilly [1], also known as the Australian cherry tree [2], is an evergreen distinguished by its bright berries, which range in colour from magenta to deep purple. This colour variation is accompanied by large differences in flavour [3], which is one reason why the public have been slow to adopt the fruit in their diet. However, certain varieties are both tasty and of high nutritional value [4]. 

[1] Topic

[2] Topic is paraphrased in the second phrase to provide extra information

[3] Supporting, elaborating or background information in the middle of the sentence

[4] Short, emphatic sentence, which changes the direction of the text.

Use topic sentences

A good topic sentence summarises the main message of the paragraph and helps the writer to stick to that topic.

Read this paragraph and note how the topic sentence ‘frames’ the remaining content of the paragraph. Also note how the sentences run from old/familiar/simple information at the start to new/unfamiliar/complex information at the sentence end.

One proposal for redesigning Elizabeth Street [1] is to restore the creek that runs through a drain under the road to the surface, using a practice called ‘daylighting’ [2]. Daylighting [3] involves uncovering a river, creek or stream that was built over during the development of a city to recreate an open-air riparian environment [4]. These environments [5] are valuable not only for their aesthetic qualities, but also for their capacity to reduce flooding and provide a habitat for local species [6]. Daylighting the creek under Elizabeth Street [7] would be an ambitious project because it would require major alterations to the public transport network [8], but it would help to manage seasonal flooding and create an attractive city park [9].

[1] Broader context for the paragraph topic

[2] Topic sentence which focuses on the main message of the paragraph

[3] New information from the previous sentence becomes the subject of the next sentence: ‘daylighting’

[4] New / detailed explanation of a concept at the end of a sentence

[5] New information from the previous sentence becomes the subject of the next sentence: ‘these environments’

[6] New information at the end of a sentence

[7] Familiar information, which has already been mentioned, at the start of a sentence

[8] New information, which may provide a link to information contained in the next paragraph

[9] Concluding sentence, which summarises the main message of the whole paragraph

Final tip

This style of writing gives your reader quick, clear access to your ideas and arguments and is suitable for many types of academic writing. Other styles may be more suitable for creative writing and writing to engage, such as in journalism.

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