Note: I’m writing this piece from the perspective of an editor who was an academic for 16 years. I’ve edited and *ahem* committed some of the writing infractions I discuss here. I know academic writing conventions can be tricky, so follow my advice wherever and whenever you’re able.
A few weeks ago, I asked my Twitter followers for ideas about blog posts I could do. The first request was for a piece about organizing projects and deadlines (see here). The second request was for a piece like this. Later that day, a former academic shared this with me:
One of my professors wrote a comment that my writing was “too smooth for academia. Clunkier prose is unfortunately a hallmark of more complicated thinking.” (IT ISN’T!) Another was this backhanded compliment: “I love that I can give your articles to freshmen and they can understand your arguments.” (I *think* it was a compliment???? To this day, I’m not sure.) Another backhanded compliment: “Your writing has really excelled since you left academia. You always were a beautiful writer, but at least now it’s appropriate to the genre.”
Times are changing in academia. This is a great moment to start—or continue—sharing your knowledge with a broader audience. Given our current political climate, such work is especially important for scholars with backgrounds in history, communications, journalism, rhetoric, and social sciences. There’s much correcting and unlearning that needs to happen, and many of us have the knowledge and experience to do it. Just don’t add to the stereotype of the stuffy, elitist academic who can’t communicate clearly or has no “real world” experience. Certain elements of our society are doing enough of that as it is.
We’ve all graded student work filled with long sentences and overly complex, showy diction. If it’s hard for scholars to read such work, it’s harder for emerging students to understand it. Yes, there’s great pressure to conform to the conventions seen in your mentors or research, particularly for graduate students, contingent faculty, and junior scholars seeking acceptance—and stable employment. But imagine a first-year student researching your work and struggling to learn key information about your field from dense prose, obscure references, or lengthy sentences. Such writing is also hard to market and sell, as this recent piece from Rachel Toor shows us.
I’ll offer a few suggestions on writing tighter prose that’s more accessible for not only a wider audience but also for students within your academic field who are reading your work. Everything I suggest is based on edits I’ve regularly made for academic clients. Remember: leaner, more accessible prose doesn’t mean basic or simplistic prose. It just means that the language can be less jargon-heavy, phrases and clauses can be tighter, sentences can be shorter and more direct, and paragraphs can also be more focused.
First, here’s some of what I’ve seen regularly:
- Wordy phrases and constructions;
- Jargon & obscure words;
- Hedging and overqualification;
- Excess material and supplemental argument in footnotes;
- Paragraphs that span 1–2 pages;
- Spending too much sentence or paragraph space telling the reader what you’re not arguing or writing about;
- Excessive lists and lists within lists;
- Expanding focus and trying to bring in too much;
- Showy references to literary, theoretical, philosophical, or other works not directly relevant to your material;
- Halting or interrupting sentence structure via multiple parentheticals, dashes, comma clauses, and the like.
These writing choices add work for all involved. I taught literature and writing for 15 years, and I saw how a heavily “academic” style can replicate itself with graduate students and undergrads. This cycle typically leads to more work for professors, writing tutors, peer workshoppers, and the like. Such writing choices can also make it harder for readers to apply your work to new contexts or knowledge areas. I’m out of academia now, so my career doesn’t depend on me adhering to these conventions. Yet, as someone who works at its margins and works with people in it, I’d like to see more scholars—especially those who edit journals or work with graduate students—accept writers who take the kinds of advice I and others offer. If you’re one of them, let me know and I’ll give you a shout-out on Twitter or in a future blog post.
If editorial conventions and professional expectations necessitate a more traditional “academic” style, then consider also remixing your work into shorter, more shareable formats as Katie Pryal first suggested a few years ago. Clear, direct, and accessible prose is a key step to writing that’s more relevant to more people.
- Vary your sentence and paragraph structure. The occasional short sentence or single-sentence paragraph can emphasize a key point you want your reader to take away. If 6 words say what you’re trying to say, use 6 words. If those 6 words work great as a paragraph, let them be a paragraph. I’ve made similar edits for clients, and they’ve thanked me for helping them break up their material. This also lets your reader take a breath before moving on to your next thought.
- Watch out for clunky phrases. For instance, “serves to show” can simply be “shows.” The same goes for “the ways in which” (“how”), “due to the fact that” (“since” or “because”), “the very fact that” (“that”), and “despite the fact that” (“although”). When they’re rare, these can be minor inconveniences. But when they’re your dominant stylistic pattern, you’re adding work for the reader and fluff to your writing. I’ve trimmed hundreds of words out of documents primarily by making changes like these.
- Make your points clearly, directly, and succinctly. Phrases such as “It might even be possible to argue that” or “One could go so far as to suggest that” rarely add anything useful. The same goes for “What I’m not arguing here is” or “Although it might seem like I’m arguing This I’m actually arguing That….” If you think in those terms, then think in those terms. But go back and delete the throat-clearing. I’ve been distracted a few times by lengthy “Here’s what I’m not arguing” clauses. I’m an editor, so I’m not judging or trying to learn from your work. If you make these writing moves routinely, think about a student trying to wade through the over-qualifying while trying to learn from your expertise.
- Keep your discursive footnotes as lean and serviceable as possible. No single piece of scholarly writing can do or say it all, and cluttered footnotes that try to often distract the reader. From an editor’s perspective, they also introduce the possibility of typographical and formatting errors.
- Test your writing on different audiences, especially beginning or nonacademic ones. Have a first-year student who’s given smart peer feedback? Or a bookish friend? Demo some of your writing with them and see what works…and what needs work.
- When revising, read your work out loud and catch the long-winded, circuitous sentences. (This will also help you self-edit.) I’ve made countless edits and suggestions for academic clients to cut 1 long sentence into 2 or 3. Yes, our sentences sometimes get carried away when we’re thinking and writing at the same time, but we then need to go back and clean things up. Do you want your reader to go back to a sentence 2-3-4 times to find the key point you’re making?
- Have a look at this fantastic tweet thread from Kevin Kruse…especially this part: “Complex thoughts need clear language. I’ve written this a thousand times on undergrad papers, but it’s a lesson that could be learned by some grad students and senior scholars too. You’re trying to persuade readers with your argument, not impress them with your thesaurus.”
- Lastly, listen to Benjamin. He knows what he’s talking about. I’ve shared this advice with clients many times:
Can you do it?
Have an idea for another post on writing or editing topics? Let me know.