Why is academic writing often so bad?

By on November 6th, 2015 in Academic, Specialist writing

My professional life straddles two worlds. By day, I teach workshops such as Web Writing and Critical Thinking Lab to Write’s clients around New Zealand.

Me as a young professor at Hope in Michigan.

Me as a young professor at Hope, an undergraduate university in Michigan.

I love delivering workshops to our diverse participants. Their life and work experiences often create lively discussions that help me understand language in new ways.

My academic life often takes over after the workshops end. Before moving to New Zealand a few years ago, I was a communication professor in Michigan. My days would be 48 hours long in a perfect world. Some evenings and weekends find me editing scholarly articles in communication or making painstakingly slow progress on writing projects. The schedule can be hectic, but I love the freedom to think in both practical and abstract ways.

Why do professors use academese?

Although my two worlds usually co-exist well, they sometimes clash loudly. They clashed the other day, when my Facebook news feed suggested Jeff Camhi’s essay, ‘Professor, Your Writing Could Use Some Help,’ from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The article instantly intrigued me. I’m beginning a new academic project that requires me to read scholarly journal manuscripts. The difference between the clear and concise writing that I encounter at Write, and overblown academic prose, has been jarring to me during this past week. Camhi’s essay addresses a central question on my mind in recent days: Why is academic writing often so bad?

To answer this question, Camhi asked writing experts if professors can write in a concise, clear way for the general public. Their responses reflected several overall themes. The experts said that professors often struggle to write for non-academic audiences because they just, well, know too much about their discipline. Does knowledge equal dull writing? At least one former book editor said that the ‘writing of most professors is just so boring.’

Writing for your audiences

Always a voracious reader, I grew up writing short stories and poems. Later, as a young newspaper reporter, I learned to write short articles at an average 12-year-old literacy level.

Even though I can write for general audiences, my scholarly prose violates some principles of plain communication. Noun strings and wordy phrases pack sentences that are further punctuated with fancy words such as ‘facilitate.’ In a competitive academic marketplace, I wrote to impress a very narrow readership, and my peers rewarded this writing style.

In my workshops at Write, I discuss how every professional field has technical terms and targeted audiences. Lawyers and doctors will use familiar technical terms when writing for their colleagues.

I am troubled, though, by the stereotyped reputation that academics have for doing pretentious writing in their ivory towers. I know many university academics who greatly dislike this stereotype. They care deeply about improving the world through their research. I believe that using principles of plain English in their writing can help them best communicate to their colleagues and wider audiences.

Sharing knowledge through plain English

Camhi offers useful suggestions for improving academic writing. First, he suggests that academic staff take training in writing literary nonfiction. This training could help them write clear description in their essays, and also include narrative arcs that build and resolve tension. The resulting essays will be clearer and better organised.

research and society word map

Camhi asks the larger question of whether academics have the responsibility to write for the general public. As he points out, some lecturers may argue that they are writing for other academics, and not the general public, but what’s the point of knowledge if it can’t be shared with the world? This is especially the case in communication studies, where researchers study ways to improve communication in the workplace, relationships, and the mass media.

Reaching non-academic audiences doesn’t have to be complicated. For example, Camhi suggests that writing editorials for the local newspaper or even creating a blog are practical options. Taking even further steps, institutions such as the University of Melbourne’s Writing Centre for Scholars and Researchers are training post-graduates and staff to write for the public.

While reading Camhi ‘s article, I was struck by his inclusion of a quote from Nicholas Lemann, former Dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Lemann argues that academics must be able to write well for general audiences.

Lemann says, ‘Most university faculty haven’t a clue about these things. Writing for the public is a craft, and learning it takes a tremendous amount of time and hard work. It’s like learning the violin; you have to practice hard every day, and after you’ve learned it, you need to keep practicing or you lose it.’

Lemann’s observation reflects how academic writing doesn’t have to be hidden away in a university library to be read only by other scholars. Scholarly research and plain communication are actually ideal companions. Writing in plain English helps ensure that the knowledge reaches the public. And to explain information simply, you must understand your subject well.

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3 responses to “Why is academic writing often so bad?”

  1. Jillian says:

    Thanks for this article. I still have terrible memories of having to read through dull, complicated articles when I was studying at university (in the 1980’s). More recently, I have read over the shoulder of a tertiary student on the bus and sadly the writing style of what she was reading for her course looked the same. This is a shame, as children get taught to write very creatively in the school system these days – it must be a shock for them when they go to university.

    • eleanor meecham says:

      That’s so true Jillian. And then, once they’ve left university and moved into business, they come to us to unlearn all the writing habits they picked up in university. Sigh.

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