Writing is hard work. Any form of writing is a process and if you want to be a good writer, it takes practice. But many academics pontificate when they speak and write. Writing is a powerful communication tool to clearly express ideas. Bad writing is when people have to read your sentence more than once, for example: “Shop prices did not stabilise until 1877, after inflation had begun to be defeated by laws that had been passed by the government in the autumn of 1875.” Bad writing sounds off for a reason. Why do scholars write poorly? Can we cut the blather and get to the point? How can you help people understand your ideas?
Beyond the Walls
As a scholar, you learned to write for a specific audience – a small, select audience of committee members, gatekeepers, and people who signed off on your dissertation.
Now it’s time to think beyond the academic walls. If you teach, it’s easy to fall into a trap of trying too hard to write like a scholar. Your writing skills need to engage a wider audience. And you should challenge yourself to write for different readers.
Think about it: if you’re in the alt-ac world, your survival depends on your ability to write for a variety of readers. Adjunct, part-timers, and non-tenured work requires your creativity to kick in.
If you’re locked into one type of writing environment, you’ll never know if you can write differently for a wider audience.
Sometimes bad writing comes from being stuck in your own head. It looks something like this: your idea is crystal clear in your mind. You know what you’re talking about. But you write like the reader is also inside your head.
This is backwards thinking. Think and imagine like a reader – put yourself inside their head.
Ask yourself: Why should the reader care about my research? Think about people not in your field, a non-academic person, or a stranger on the street. How can you write to engage the reader?
Tips for Better Scholarly Writing
Here are a few tips to help your writing.
- Borrow from writing you enjoy. What did you like about other scholarly writers? Who would you invite to dinner to talk about their research?
- Find your voice. This process takes time, but when you write, you want to sound like you. Your voice is in there somewhere – keep writing until your find it.
- Tell a story. As I’ve said, everyone loves a good story. Find ways to craft your research and tell the reader an interesting story.
- Say it with passion. Remember your excitement when you first discovered your topic? I do – I was overflowing with ideas and excited to start writing. Bring that emotion to your writing.
- Avoid academese. Using a plethora of jargon is showing off. Forget the academese and write simply. It’s not about dumbing down – it’s about communicating clearly.
- Cut the crap. Long 40-word sentences are boring. Sentences that look that same are boring. Work on clarity and avoid over explaining your ideas.
You can prevent bad academic writing. Think about your reader and practice variety in expressing your ideas.
Try to stretch your writing skills. Start a research blog, write a book for the general public, or an op-ed piece.
Did you hear about the writer who jumped out the window on the 15th floor? He could have gone to the 16th, but that’s another story.