When I was a professor, one of the most unpleasant aspects of the job was all the bad writing. I don’t mean by people who couldn’t write. I mean by people who had been taught—through years of graduate school followed by years of publishing in academic journals—to write badly. The basic rules of academic writing are pretty much a guide to bad writing—never use one word when you can say it in ten, never use one syllable when there are four or five more to tack on, be sure your sentences run on and on, avoid paragraph breaks at all costs, turn your verbs into nouns whenever possible and your nouns into verbs, never write in active voice, always write in passive, and the less you have to say the better because all those pages of polysyllabic words strung together in passive voice will ultimately be distilled to one or two primary points that only half a dozen people will ever read.
That, my dear reader, is no way to write. And it sure isn’t any way to read. I once found myself reading a thesis by a bright young man, only to find that page after page, chapter after chapter, was utterly incomprehensible. I had been working with him for quite some time so I had a good understanding of what he was trying to say, but for the life of me I couldn’t read a single sentence without translating it into standard English. When we met to discuss his work, I asked him why in the world he was writing such nonsense.
“I thought that was how we’re supposed to write in academia,” he said.
“Not if you want anyone to read it,” I answered. I told him to take it home, give it to his wife who was a nurse with an undergraduate education, and not return until she understood what he was trying to say.
He did, and he returned with a much better thesis that was a delight to read.
Unfortunately, far too many academics don’t learn that lesson and year after year they hone their skills in bad writing in order to advance in their careers. Then one day, they come to me. They want to write something for the general public. Maybe it’s a best seller they know they have in them. Maybe it’s blog posts or magazine articles or a memoir or even fiction. They’ve got good minds, and impressive vocabularies. Yet they struggle to express their ideas because they’ve forgotten how to write.
Here’s how to unlearn all that bad writing that years of scholarship may have scarred you with.
- Stop reading academic writing. At least for as long as you can and still keep your day job.
- Start reading popular writing—even the bad stuff. Maybe even especially the bad stuff. Infuse your mind with simple language (even if the ideas themselves are nonsense—after all, if you’ve been reading academic journals for years, you have a high tolerance for nonsense given how many of your colleagues have nothing to say but publish their nothing just the same).
- The power is in the verbs. Collect verbs. Study verbs. Use verbs—and the simpler the verb, the better. Find verbs that move the sentence, verbs that chew up a scene and spit it out, verbs that kick and thrash and holler like hell to be heard.
- Run like hell from adverbs. Except when no other word will do.
- Use active voice. Read every sentence you write and make sure it’s in active voice unless there’s no better way to say it. Let me say that again. Active voice should be used. Every sentence you write should be read to ensure it’s in active voice. See the difference? You paid attention to the first time I said it because it was in active voice. By the time I said it again in passive voice you tuned it out—because it’s boring!
- No more jargon. This one is hard for academics, because we don’t read jargon as jargon. We read them as words we’ve acquired in our years of building our vocabulary. Jargon is a word that only someone in your profession will understand. You might introduce your reader to that word, but you don’t want to assume your general reader will know what you are talking about until you’ve defined it. Jargon can also include words or terms that are not necessarily associated with a profession, but are words you learned in academia that don’t live well outside of academia. Words like intersectionality, deconstruct, agency or discourse are words that a) are only understood by people with graduate educations in the social sciences; or b) are words that people associate with people with graduate educations in the social sciences and hence they stop reading because they assume they know what you are going to say even though they’ve no idea what you’re going to say. Instead, say what you mean clearly. If it requires a graduate education to understand your vocabulary, you limit your audience.
- On this same point, know your audience. When writing in academic journals, you are writing to other academics, other people with Ph.D.’s. When writing for a general audience, consider their educational level, the types of books and articles they read, why they read it, and what they want to learn. Teach them in their language. Don’t talk down to them, but don’t simplify your ideas, either. To clarify your ideas, simplify how you communicate them.
- Give them some images. Show, don’t tell. Let the reader see the world you are presenting. Give them sounds, images, sensations. Draw on all the senses, even if what you’re writing about is how to pass a math test. Let them see the computer sitting in front of them, the desk they’re sitting at, the numbers bouncing off the screen. Let them feel their butts in the chair, their fingers on the keyboard, their minds exploding with neural pathways as they calculate equations.
- Tell them stories. Long before we had the written word, we told stories. We remember stories, we pass them on for generations where they become legends and myths. Stories trigger our imaginations, evoke our emotions, and linger in our memories. If you’re trying to make a point, is there a story you can tell to help the reader grasp that point?
- Finally, have fun. If you aren’t having fun writing it, your reader won’t have much fun reading it. That’s not to say you won’t loath sitting down to get the work done, and you won’t celebrate once the damn thing is done and over with, but as you’re conjuring the world you want to offer to your reader, have at it! Don’t be afraid to just let loose—sure, you’ll probably write some things you need to cut or tone down, but throw off that heavy cloak of academic prose that’s been weighing you down for so long and have some fun with your words.
You’ll discover that the road to happy writing is as long and twisting as the road to academic writing was. But if you’ve mastered writing for academics, there’s no reason you can’t master writing for people who will enjoy reading what you’ve written and hearing what you have to say. Just be prepared for someone, some ornery editor say, to throw it right back at you and scream, “It’s still too academic! Rewrite it!”