2 reasons academic writing is hard to understand

Meredith Thatcher | November 10, 2015

I enjoyed reading Teresa Housel’s recent blog post about academic writing.

I particularly liked the comment from experts that professors often struggle to write for non-academic audiences because they just, well, “know too much about their discipline”. Having edited the manuscripts of academic researchers for many years, I agree.

Why is academic writing often hard to understand?

Academics use an opaque style of writing for many reasons. Often authors are (understandably) enthusiastic about their research and can give great presentations to others about their work. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm sometimes doesn’t transfer to their written words. Two reasons immediately spring to mind.

Academics tend to live inside their heads

I’ve found that some academics propel their pen onwards before perfecting the point. As their mind races to the end, their pen (or fingers on the keyboard) can’t keep up.

Image, Hand writing on notebook next to computer.

Some academics propel their pen onwards before perfecting the point.
Image by Image Catalog / CC0

This may mean they fail to explain the complex details of their research or give practical examples that readers (including students) can understand. They see their audience as their peers — other researchers. And, as Sir Ken Robinson says, they tend to “live inside their heads” and “look at their body as a sort of transport” — as “a way of getting their head to meetings”.

But in today’s connected world, those ivory towers have come down. An academic’s paper can find a global audience. To bridge this gap and keep in mind ‘publish or perish’ (often tied to funding), some choose to write papers on the practical rather than theoretical aspects of their research. As Teresa eloquently notes in her blog post:

Scholarly research and plain communication are actually ideal companions. Writing in plain English helps ensure that the knowledge reaches the public.

The devil is in the detail

Other academics try to patch every hole in every possible argument. By taking ‘the devil is in the detail’ to extremes, a text becomes unwieldy. In her recent article The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing, Victoria Clayton notes that:

In academia, unwieldy writing has become something of a protected tradition.

One aspect of unwieldy writing is an author who makes a convincing argument early in a paper and counters it later on. In so doing, they undermine the paper’s merit. No academic likes to have their life’s work pulled apart, especially by their peers. But if the theoretical framework, methodology, proof, or arguments that underpin their research is leaky, no amount of patching is going to help.

Clear writing shows intelligence

In a lighter vein, Clayton describes the tale of Daniel Oppenheimer, then a professor at Princeton University, who in 2006 published research arguing that authors who use clear, simple words can seem more intelligent.

The paper’s title was:

Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly

It’s an amusing title that makes you think as well. Indeed, its length reminded me of my favourite 10-word noun string from last month:

Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System

It’s the official name of the US Department of Defense balloon that detached from its mooring station at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland and landed just outside Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. Obviously, clear communication continues to elude some.

Fun ways to communicate

As research topics can be complex, some researchers have found imaginative and fun ways (including using emoji) to describe their research topics.

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.