Let me describe a scene for you, dear readers, and you decide if it’s at all similar to anything in your experience:
You have a stack of printed-out papers, journals, and books with strips of paper marking relevant chapters on your desk, all requiring your attention. You sit down at your desk, firmly determined to read and make notes on as as many as you can. Perhaps you’ve strengthened your resolve with a giant mug of coffee or fresh trip to the espresso machine before settling in; in short, you are ready for the task at hand. You resolutely pick up that first paper, but two paragraphs in, you find your attention wandering, your eyes drooping, and your hand desperately reaching for that cup of coffee. Although these papers should serve you in your research, you find them, at best, dry, and at worst, overly-technical and confusing. Guilt and self-degradation ensue: “Is it me? Am I just not sophisticated enough to understand this?”, followed by the nagging doubt: “If I were a real scientist, this kind of writing would not be a problem.”
Rest assured, long-suffering readers, the problem is not you, and Helen Sword is here to advocate on your behalf. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Dr. Sword bemoans the “weary, stale, and flat” (Shakespeare’s words, not hers) writing that pervades academia, and gives mind-boggling, real-life examples of the jargon and unnecessary technical terminology that have taken the place of clear, concise explanation. Take a look at this gem, altered a touch to protect the original author’s anonymity:
“The continued contestation of authenticity on manifold fronts tends, unsurprisingly, to induce a defensive posture to establish professional authority, which is accomplished by legitimating practice through symbolic representation.”
It’s not that any of the individual words in this text is impossibly difficult or obscure, but taken together, we have a prime example of the Instantaneous Skimming-Over Effect -- I read the text three times before I could force myself to actually interpret its meaning. Decoding layers of jargon and unnatural word usage is challenging even for highly-educated native-English readers; the problem is compounded a thousand times for those whose mother-tongue is not English. In her article, Dr. Sword proceeds to debunk the “myth” of academic publishing: that this sort of tortured, intensely impersonal writing is desired, nay, required by the editors of today’s top journals. “Nearly everyone,” she writes, “including the editors of academic journals, would much rather read lively, well-written articles than the slow-moving sludge of the typical scholarly paper.”
If we are going to give editors articles that they actually want to read, then, we must make some changes in the standard method of academic paper writing. To make your papers livelier, Dr. Sword continues, it is not enough to simply clarify your text and remove jargon; you must pay attention to the craft and style of your writing, in the same way that any professional writer does. Appropriate style will vary between disciplines, of course, but whatever the tone for your particular field, good writing will always enable real communication between writer and reader, and create a personal connection to efficiently and effectively teach information.
To illustrate, she includes several exampes of stodgy-made-stylish academic writing from various disciplines, which are worth a look for anyone who might think that it’s impossible to liven up his or her own writing and still remain professional. Here’s my favorite, appropriately enough from the field of life sciences:
“Stodgy: A significant variability in nutrient-gathering behaviors has been observed in various insect species.
Stylish: "Insects suck, chew, parasitize, bore, store, and even cultivate their foods to a highly sophisticated degree of specialization." (Richard Leschen and Thomas Buckley)”
Her underlying advice? Make an effort to de-clutter your writing, pay careful attention to the structure of your work, and let your verbs do your explaining. She even provides an online test that can categorize your writing as "flabby or fit" based on the relative frequencies of various parts of language in a sample of your writing. (I, unsurprisingly, have a weakness for prepositions.) Although it requires more thought to write stylishly, it's certainly a positive trend for academic writing as a whole. A penny’s worth of author’s effort before publication will equal a pound’s worth of readers’, and reviewers’, saved headaches!
Sword, Helen. “Yes, Even Professors Can Write Stylishly.” Wall Street Journal. April 6, 2012. Retrieved from www. wsj.com.
Helen Sword is the author of Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard University Press) and writersdiet.com.