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Academics Are Not Writers, and It Shows

For most of us, training in writing “like a real professor” begins and ends with the PhD – if it happens at all. As undergraduates, we might have taken a course in how to produce a research paper. But for the remainder of our careers, we are left to our own devices.

That’s how we end up needing to rely on three main sources of guidance in writing academic articles:

  • our memories of what – if anything – our dissertation advisors told us
  • occasional feedback from colleagues
  • examples in academic journals win which we wish to publish, i.e., ‘writing by imitation’

These sources have one important thing in common: they are forces of caution and conservatism, of how to write in a safe but uncreative and mostly lifeless way.

If we were to follow such models, our groundbreaking research papers would be publishable but dull; our questionable research papers would be rejected outright.

Supervisors typically preach such caution to students writing a dissertation. They mainly want their students to prove knowledge of disciplinary rules rather than to explore the boundaries of academic writing.

Even editors and journal peer reviewers are usually more intent on self-cloning than on innovation. Conservatism in academic writing saves these good and overworked people considerable time and effort.

Yet, an interesting development is taking place. Peer-reviewed journals are increasingly offering a wide range of stylistic models. But such styles are not targeting creativity.

Prestigious publications prescribe applying minor clinical changes in an effort to let their journal stand out from the competition – without abandoning much of their conventional caution.

No wonder Steven Pinker has repeatedly labeled most academics as “bad writers”.

Even some highly ranked academic journals contain syntactically incorrect sentences. My second-year linguistics students were quite capable of detecting such mistakes in several ‘international’ open-access publications.

So what’s going on? Too much pressure on editors? ‘Publish or Perish’ syndrome gone awry? Lack of qualified peer reviewers?

Academics, editors and peer-reviewers have mostly learned to write by imitation. They will, inadvertently, pick up mistakes made by peers, accept them as academically admissible, and even end up copying them into their own manuscripts.

We all unwittingly copy a number of faulty styles from someone else’s article into our own. The abuse of the passive voice or the preference for long-winded sentences in research articles are just the top of the iceberg. Academic writing does seem doomed.

And yet, for young academics, the cause of the problem is not a lack of formal training in writing.

The problem stems from an overemphasis on undergraduate writing classes, often offered by inexperienced lecturers or graduate students, coupled with the impulse to imitate others’ style.

The result is a false sense of security in producing pompous and often incorrect writing.

Few PhD students and even fewer researchers turn to published writing guides or handbooks to improve their writing. Since doing so would involve having to voluntarily ‘study’ and ‘learn’ how to produce academic writing, it is often shunned. Learning and imitating from online open access journals remains the less time consuming option.

But there’s another good reason we don’t like to consult writing guides:

Most writing guides target students rather than academic staff. A very limited number of academic writing handbooks focus on specific writing styles for the humanities, psychology, law, engineering, or music.

If there’s something those handbooks will unanimously show you, it’s this: in modern academic writing, don’t be afraid to do the opposite from what you see in journals.

So here are my 10 tips on using a safe academic style – guaranteed not to bore your readers:
  1. Be clear and coherent. Avoid long sentences. Avoid sounding overly important.
  2. Be brief. Keep sentences short, simple and to-the-point. Mix one longer sentence with two or three shorter ones. Your reader comes first, then your work.
  3. Write in plain English. Avoid pompous style and pretentious vocabulary. You’re trying to produce accessible scientific prose, not poetry.
  4. Don’t be vague or imprecise. Don’t repeat yourself in different but overly general terms. Your readers will think you’re not sure what you’re writing about.
  5. Use active verbs. Don’t use the passive voice unless you can’t avoid it. Use maximum one passive sentence per paragraph.
  6. Write like you’re telling a captivating scientific story. Show you’re enthusiastic, brave and sure of what you are writing – without sounding conceited.
  7. Use I, not we, unless your manuscript has multiple authors. Avoid using the author or the authors when referring to your own research.
  8. When using specialist terminology, briefly explain it in-text or through a footnote. Consider it as if you’re writing for a (relatively) uninformed audience.
  9. Use the present tense as much as possible. Ignore online guidelines and articles written exclusively in the past tense; they might confuse you even more. Follow the standard grammatical prescriptions for using tenses in English. Only use the simple past in reporting on your research findings (We found rather than We find). Don’t shy away from using the present tense to report on other scholars’ findings.
  10. Don’t be afraid to choose a catchy title for your manuscript. Be playful and engaging in your choice. Avoid making your title overly informative: that’s what your abstract is for.