Why Scholars Need a Clue About Good Writing: Part I

Everyone loves a good story: a good story means good writing. Since Dr. Patti and I completed my doctoral journey, we’ve developed a new appreciation for writing. We earned our writing chops, but writing is an evolving skill.

For example, I push myself to try different forms of writing: blogging, academic, copy writing, drafting proposals for conferences and fellowships, and emails. But another form of writing that I see too often is bad writing. Let’s talk about why scholars need a clue about good writing.

Jargon and Windbags

One of the biggest challenges in writing a dissertation is learning to consolidate a plethora of information into a manageable form. It’s similar to making a quilt:

  1. Create a design for your quilt (a framework for your research idea)
  2. Choose the colors of thread (create themes around contrasting ideas)
  3. Sew the pieces together (make logical connections between ideas)

In addition, you have to sound like you know what you’re talking about and be able to defend your ideas.  This process is good and bad.

The Good: This challenge forces you to learn the jargon of your field and use words like:

  • Obfuscate
  • Disaggregated
  • Marginalization
  • Utilize
  • Problematize

Your dissertation gatekeepers may like such words, an important but small universe of readers.

The Bad: In the real world, few people will know or care what you’re talking about. Big words make you sound vainglorious: like a windbag full of hot air.

It’s easy to finish a graduate program and think that you know how to write. I found a  blog on just this topic. After years of reading “dense and impenetrable sentences” scholarly writers have lost their way. They forget how to engage the reader.

Writing Far and Wide

A good story is all about engaging the reader. Even academic books can tell a good story and not bore the reader with statistics and jargon. My recent favorite reads include:

The Genius of Birds  by Jennifer Ackerman

The Genius of Birds

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal

I like these books because the authors tell engaging stories.

I could feel the passion about in their writing and their ability to balance research with a good story.

These days, if scholars want to sell books, they have to think far and wide about the reader.
The library market no longer buys multiple copies of scholarly books. University presses are more selective in promoting books to readers who will buy them.
Forward-thinking scholars need to think about the cost of publishing, book promotion, overhead, and getting their books into the world. Publishers want books that appeal to wider audiences.


Another challenge is that scholarly books don’t attract readers from other disciplines. Again, most books are jargon-specific and not written to for readers interested in the social sciences or psychology.
Many graduate students write their dissertation with a goal to turn in into a book. This is not an easy transition: a series of journal articles may be more realistic.

Scholarly writers should think outside the academic silo: another challenge for anyone who is stuck practicing one form of writing.

A big problem is the gap between what readers will pay for and what scholars are writing. It doesn’t seem like rocket science. But if you write like an academicbot, don’t expect readers to care about what you have to say.

Connecting with Humanity

The best advice for scholarly writers is to get a clue and connect with humanity.

If you’re going to write a book, write something that has a good chance of being published. Appeal to the reader and let them see your humanity.

Show the reader your passion about your topic. Cut out the jargon and find a way to tell readers a good story.

Sources: 50 Phrases Of Academic Jargon To Juice Up Your Final Papers

Ph.D.s Are Still Writing Poorly, Part 1

The Genius of Birds

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?


Dr. Bessie

The thing about good writing is it has a music to it.
~~~Lauren Graham~~~


Author: Dr. Bessie DiDomenica

Food Policy Researcher • Resilient Agriculture Advocate • Public Speaker • Public Policy Wonk • Writer • Teacher • Social Entrepreneur • Associate Editor

2 thoughts on “Why Scholars Need a Clue About Good Writing: Part I”

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