Five Tips for Clarity and Power in Academic Writing

This weekend, Real Clear English hosted a workshop for the faculty of Foreign Trade University in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Our presentation was simple.

First, participants read the abstract of Professor Tâm Trần Thanh’s master’s thesis on bid-rigging in Vietnam.

Then, we focused on Professor Tâm’s first sentence, cutting and shaping until his key idea emerged. By the end of the conversation, participants had five new tools at their disposal – techniques for writing with more clarity and punch.

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Professor Tâm’s Abstract

Bid rigging is an irregularity in the tendering process under public procurement rules which prevents public procurers, either local or central, from obtaining the best value for money. While public procurers are advised to be vigilant as to bid rigging collusion in public markets, administrative practices of public procurement authorities as well as public procurement rules, are integral contributors to the formation and stability of bid rigging. By looking at factors facilitating bid rigging in public procurement, this paper determines the extent to which current regulations and administrative practices of Vietnamese public procurers facilitate bid rigging. The findings reveal that Vietnamese public procurement legislation as well as administrative practices of public procurers do unintentionally facilitate the formation and stability of bid rigging. Of particular concern are unnecessary and excessive selection criteria leading to limited participation of bidders, regulation of joint-bidding, information disclosure and frequent communication between bidders. These findings provide valuable lessons for both Vietnamese and international policy-makers by emphasising the need for assessing the practical impact of public procurement rules and practices on bid rigging practices.

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Professor Tâm’s abstract would look right at home in a professional journal. Nonetheless, some of his colleagues – trained scholars themselves – had difficulty understanding what he was trying to say. Each of the following sections names a problem with Professor Tâm’s first sentence and suggests a solution.

 

Inconsistent Levels of Detail

An abstract should focus on high-level claims. Mixing the general and the specific can interrupt the flow and cause confusion.

Original Sentence: Bid rigging is an irregularity in the tendering process under public procurement rules which prevents public procurers, either local or central, from obtaining the best value for money.

“Public procurers” suggests that the problem affects all levels of government. Adding “either local or central" might be appropriate during a detailed discussion later in the paper, but it’s not necessary here.

Revised Sentence: Bid rigging is an irregularity in the tendering process under public procurement rules which prevents public procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

 

Relying Too Much on Modifying Phrases

We’ve shortened Professor Tâm’s sentence, but it’s still wordy. Why? Because it stacks modifying phrases like Jenga blocks: “in the tendering process under public procurement rules which…”

Try turning a prepositional phrase into a single adjective:

Original Sentence: Bid rigging is an irregularity in the tendering process under public procurement rules which prevents public procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

Revised Sentence: Bid rigging is an irregularity in the public tendering process which prevents public procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

 

Redundancy

Sound the alarm! The word “public” appears twice in our sentence. Since the sentence tells us that we’re considering “public tendering processes,” we don’t need the second “public.”

Original Sentence: Bid rigging is an irregularity in the public tendering process which prevents public procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

Revised Sentence: Bid rigging is an irregularity in the public tendering process which prevents procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

 

Vagueness 

Professor Tâm tells us that bid rigging “is an irregularity.” That’s true – but it’s not particularly helpful. What is it, exactly? Is it an accounting error, or is it more like cheating? Is it accidental, or do people do it deliberately?

As we learn later, bid rigging isn’t really one thing – it’s several different things, and some are more troublesome than others. “Irregularity” doesn’t convey any of this detail, so let’s delete it.

Original Sentence: Bid rigging is an irregularity in the public tendering process which prevents procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

Revised Sentence: Bid rigging is in the public tendering process which prevents procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

But wait – if we cut “an irregularity,” our sentence no longer makes sense. Bid rigging is… what?

Now, we could try to fill in a word here. (“Bid rigging is a problem”? “Bid rigging is a challenge”?) But there’s a simpler way to improve this sentence, and it requires us to notice the…

 

Multiple Verbs (Including One Weak Verb)

Right now, our sentence reads:

Bid rigging is [a something] in the public tendering process which prevents procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

More concisely, we have

            Bid rigging is an X which prevents Y.

Do we really need both “is” and “prevents”? How about:

Bid rigging prevents public procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

 

Recap

Here was our original sentence:

Bid rigging is an irregularity in the tendering process under public procurement rules which prevents public procurers, either local or central, from obtaining the best value for money.

And here’s our revised version:

Bid rigging prevents public procurers from obtaining the best value for money.

We’ve reduced our sentence from 28 words to 12!

Now for the real test: is our revised sentence better than the original version?

Professor Tâm agreed that it was. He told us that when he wrote his abstract, he had focused on condensing hundreds of pages of research into a few hundred words. He’d concentrated on including information – not on communicating that information effectively. As we wrapped up our discussion, Professor Tâm was excited to revise his work – to find simpler, clearer ways to share his expertise and help address an important challenge for his country.