Why Academic Writing Can Stink (and How to Fix It)
If you’ve ever had the opportunity—or the obligation—to read scholarly articles, academic journals, or a big batch of student essays, you know that academic writing can stink.
It’s not a lack of basic writing ability or good ideas. Most academic writing simply fails to engage the reader. Perhaps Steven Pinker said it best in his article “Why Academics Stink at Writing,” calling the genre “turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand.”
Ultimately, these flaws lead to convoluted syntax and a lack of reader engagement. So how can we fix academic writing and spare readers from extreme boredom and confusion?
Keep It Simple
A good rule of thumb is to keep your writing as simple as possible. Look for the clearest, most straightforward way to phrase your sentences.
When your writing is easy to follow, it is also more engaging. Your reader doesn’t want to pause and ponder the meaning of every few sentences. Avoid confusing abbreviations, complex terminology, and verbose syntax.
Express your ideas briefly and clearly, and your readers will thank you.
Think About Your Purpose and Audience
For any piece of writing, it is always important to consider your purpose and audience. Are you writing to persuade, entertain, or inform? Who will be reading your writing: your friends and family, your teacher, other scholars, or a more general audience?
Allow your understanding of purpose and audience to shape your writing and the decisions you make about style, tone, and word choice.
In Pinker’s article, for example, he states that academics typically develop a self-conscious writing style, with the main purpose of the writing being self-presentation. Accustomed to conversations within an academic “clique,” they also fall into highly technical jargon.
Keep in mind that in most cases your purpose is not self-presentation, but sharing knowledge with a wider audience. Your audience may not have the same background or vocabulary that you do, so it’s important to banish jargon, briefly explain technical terms, provide examples, and otherwise make your writing easily understandable to the general public.
Write In Your Own Voice
Even in academic writing, you can usually express yourself in a natural and distinctive voice. Of course, academic writing shouldn’t sound like a text message to your best friend, but it also shouldn’t sound overly stiff.
Don’t focus on trying to impress readers with your fantastic vocabulary or astonishing intellect; let your words and ideas flow naturally. Your writing will be much more enjoyable and understandable as a result.
In addition, ensure that when citing the work of others, you also contribute your own input. Analyze quotes and sources so that your writing isn’t a simple regurgitation of facts. Readers expect to hear your own voice and ideas.
Edit and Revise
Before publishing or submitting a piece of academic writing, take some time to revise your work. Consider having a few people read your draft to see if they can easily follow it. Make sure you have transitions connecting your ideas. Simplify complex terms and convoluted sentences.
Upload your writing on WriteLab to receive helpful feedback about grammar, logic, clarity, and concision. The software can help you cut unnecessary words and make your writing as clear as possible, avoiding some of academic writing’s most common pitfalls.
If you don’t like some of WriteLab’s suggestions, you can simply dismiss them. Next time you upload a piece of writing, the software will take into consideration suggestions you have dismissed in the past and tailor feedback accordingly.
With these tips: consider your purpose and audience; find your voice; keep it simple; and polish your paper—you’ll create a piece of academic writing that doesn’t stink.