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Why is academic writing so hard to read?

· 7 min read
Taylor Krohn

Academic writing can be hard--hard to read and harder to write. But does it have to be?

Does academic writing have to be so hard?

What rule states that academic writing should be heavy and exhausting to read?

Can your structure be simple, even if your subject matter is complex?

Will readers understand your complicated topic better if they first have to untangle a complicated structure?

Can academic writing be easy to read? Even, dare I say it, enjoyable?

Is that allowed?

gasp Photo by Kraken images

What if academic writing stays heavy and opaque-- are we ready to accept the consequences?

consequences of bad writing

When ideas and research results are difficult to understand, it hurts all of humanity. It creates barriers rather than breaking them down. It prevents us from working together efficiently to tackle the hard problems of our age.

How can we work together to reverse climate change and find cures for cancer if we cannot even understand each other easily?

If we accept that clarity is paramount when communicating research, then why is some academic writing still so hard to read?

why is some academic writing still so hard to read?

It may be because researchers don't know how to write clearly or because they believe that they have no choice.

ReallyWrite was created to help solve the first problem (they don't know how to write clearly), so let's talk about the second (they believe that they have no choice).

Hard-to-read academic writing comes from blindly following "rules"

Even though we talk about the importance of clear writing in class, early-career researchers still look at me with big eyes when I lead them to a logical structure for their text. They exclaim: "But I thought I wasn't allowed to do that!"

Not allowed? Says who?

I think that academic writing is so hard to do well partly because young academics erroneously think they have to conform to countless random "rules"--many of which only serve to make their writing harder to understand.

It's hard enough to figure out this whole writing thing, but what if you also have to follow a bunch of random, mostly unstated "rules"?

When people talk about "academic writing," I wonder what they mean. Do they mean the random "rules" that are sometimes still imposed on young, unsuspecting PhD students? Or do they mean, fundamentally, the writing that we do to share our research?

Confused Photo by Anna Shvets

Have you heard these "rules" before?

"rules"

Use this kind of word. (latin!)
Don't use that kind of word. (germanic!)
Only this many sentences per paragraph are allowed. (5-15)
Don't start a sentence with these words. (But, Yet, For, So, Because...)
Vary your vocabulary. (otherwise you will be boring)
Avoid the passive voice.
Use only the passive voice.

Do you feel like your hands are tied, trying to conform to countless random "rules"?

And how does following these "rules" help us to write more clearly?

The "rules" are NOT rules and they limit your options

Thinking about academic writing in terms of "rules" is disempowering. It takes away your ability to reason about the best structure for your situation. And worst of all, it limits your options.

If your options are limited, how will you ever be able to create a really clear text?

In my experience, researchers find the "rules" constraining and illogical. Many academics are even putting their power and influence behind the push for better academic writing by publicly questioning their logic.

Many former conventions are no longer conventions. Some never were.

For example, researchers have been writing in the active voice since the invention of research. Choosing to write in active voice is not revolutionary.

For example

Most journals explicitly ask authors to us we and active voice, to avoid jargon, to explain terminology clearly, to think of their reader and to strive to write accessibly.

The following quotes come from the guidelines for authors in Nature journals1, emphasis mine:

Clarity of expression is needed to achieve the goal of comprehensibility.

Nature journals prefer authors to write in the active voice ("we performed the experiment...") as experience has shown that readers find concepts and results to be conveyed more clearly if written directly.

We have also found that using several adjectives to qualify one noun in highly technical language can be confusing to readers. We encourage authors to "unpackage" concepts and to present their findings and conclusions in simply constructed sentences.

Many papers submitted for publication in a Nature journal contain unnecessary technical terminology, unreadable descriptions of the work that has been done, and convoluted figure legends. Our journal subeditors and copyeditors edit the manuscript so that it is grammatically correct, logical, clear and concise. They also ensure that manuscripts use consistent search terms and terminology that is consistent with what is used in previous articles published in the journal. Of course, this process is assisted greatly if the authors have written the manuscript in a simple and accessible style, as the author is the best person to convey the message of the paper and to persuade readers that it is important enough to spend time on.

We ask authors to avoid jargon and acronyms where possible. When essential, they should be defined at first use; after first use, the author should use pronouns when possible rather than using the abbreviation or acronym at every occurrence. The acronym is second-nature to the author but is not to the reader, who may have to refer to the original definition throughout the paper when an acronym is used.

write clearly for each other

They are not asking you to write accessibly for the layperson, they are asking you to do it for your fellow scientists!

question

Do you ever dare to ask "why?" when you are told you just have to do something a certain way?

It's entirely understandable that a young researcher may not feel brave enough to question. Doing a PhD can make you vulnerable. Often, young researchers don't dare to question because they don't know enough about writing to know that they can question. They also don't know what questions to ask.

However, when researchers learn about all the options that are available to them, they can develop the courage to question these "rules" more.

What if?

What if, instead of blindly following "rules," you could understand how writing works?

What if you could understand the options you have and how they affect a reader's understanding, so that you can make informed choices that fit your situation?

Maybe we are still blindly following these "rules" because we have all, collectively, forgotten why we do academic writing? Maybe we need a reminder that the purpose of academic writing is to communicate our ideas and research results as clearly as possible.

And we are free to use the most logical word, sentence structure and tool in our arsenal to achieve that goal.

Can we all agree to write about our research as clearly as possible?

After all, life puts enough obstacles in our path. Let's not create more of them.

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Footnotes

  1. read more here.