Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ease up on the academic

The doctor is IN.

An inquiry from a reader who wonders about criticism that his writing may be excessively academic.

[F]or the past year I have been working part-time as an editor and researcher on book manuscripts for a media personality. My duties often include re-writing some parts of a manuscript and adding whole new sections and chapters. My employer seems to like the work I have done, but other folks who have read the finished manuscripts have remarked that they tend to be "too academic."

My background is in academia, but I am puzzled by the criticism. Does it refer to content (too much focus on minutiae), style (too dry and abstract), form (given too much like a lecture and not like a story), or something else?

I suspect that it's some combination of all of the above, which would mean I either need to learn to write differently, and soon, or find another way to supplement my income.

From your blog, I respect your opinion a lot. Do you or your other readers have any practical advice on how an academic writer can create more accessible prose? My first thought is to imagine my six-year-old daughter as my audience, which would help me keep things simple and maybe a little colorful.

It might not hurt to start out by asking these readers what they mean by “too academic,” but I would not be optimistic about it. Readers can say what they like or don’t like, but few of them are equipped to explain their reactions analytically. So let’s look into the possibilities.

Vocabulary: Being fond of Big Words myself, I enjoy parading them.* When a reader of this blog thanks me for the gift of a previously unknown word, I break into one of my unaccustomed smiles. But some people find it painful to have their vocabularies stretched, and you should therefore make sure that your diction is not too abstract or elevated. I’m not sure that your six-year-old daughter would be the best source of advice on vocabulary, but if you know a twelve-year-old to consult, you would fall into the range of most adults. (Don’t, for God’s sake, imitate me.)

Syntax and paragraphs: I’m not saying that you should break everything down to a series of simple declarative sentences in the manner of the Hemingway parodists (among whom the first and greatest was Ernest Hemingway). But many of my undergraduate students at Loyola will identify any sentence longer than a dozen words as a “run-on,” especially if it has two or more clauses. Academic writing tends to boast longer, clause-clustered sentences, and you might want to stick to more abbreviated versions. Similarly, academic paragraphs tend to be longer. One-sentence paragraphs are fine, and three or four sentences are probably as many as you want to pack into a single paragraph. Look at a daily newspaper or popular magazine for models. Or Web sites.

Content: Not having seen any examples of the work you do, I can’t comment knowledgeably about it. In general terms, journalistic writing tends to look for and showcase the significant detail rather than flatten the text with a barrage of details. It focuses more on people than on objects or procedures, and it tends to explain objects or procedures through the relationship of identifiable people to them — thus the “anecdotal lead,” which presents a person whose situation is representative before describing the forces and events that created the situation.

Style: Written American English has been growing increasingly informal, even colloquial, over the past century. Newspaper journalism from the 1930s and 1940s, for example, looks much more formal, even stodgy, than what is currently published. What the contemporary reader looks for is the sense of the writer speaking directly to him or her. Read aloud what you have written. Anything that sounds false or strained when you read it aloud is probably something you ought to revise to make more conversational.

The writer: To an editor (well, to some editors), the writer is an annoying inconvenience that nevertheless makes editing possible — the chicken that must be plucked, cleaned, and butchered before it can be turned into a delightful coq au vin. But you do have some obligation to make the text resemble the work of the author, perhaps dusted off and perfumed a little, but still recognizably the author more than you. The text should be not what you would have written, but what the author would have written had he been a better writer.

More?: You out there reading this, are you going to help this guy or not?

*You may know Dr. Johnson’s remark about learning among the Scots, “like bread in a besieged town, to every man a mouthful, to no man a bellyful.” Learning was a lot like that in the part of eastern Kentucky where I grew up, and I formed the habit early on of letting it be known when I had had a decent meal.


  1. I have written for the mainstream media (AP, Newsweek, and ABC News) during my professional career. I have written for academic journals during my academic career. The dilemma for the editor is generally to determine what's wrong rather than what's right.
    Academics tend to belabor a point; journalists tend to skip over salient points because they don't fit into a premise.
    If you want a good example of an author who melds scholarship and good writing, it would be David McCullough. I suggest reading his books on Truman, Adams, and 1776.

  2. The determination of what constitues "academic" will depend on your readership, too. The audience for which you're writing might not include the "other folks" who have read your manuscripts and called them academic.

    Usually, when I think of academic writing, I think of passive voice, sentences that use formality as an excuse to evade the point, and lots of commas, thuses, and therefores. Oh, and "old-fashioned" constructions ... the likes of which I've called upon here ;)

  3. Writing that is too careful about covering all the bases, that includes disclaimers and explanations and qualifications, can be described as "too adademic."

    Some people see this as watering your writing down or contradicting yourself. Example:

    "While Obama has done well with X, Y and Z, I find his attempts at doing A and B and sometimes C to be failures."

  4. While it requires some level of self-confidence relative to your continued employabilty, I've found that throwing an occasional limerick into your writing helps make it less intimidating.

  5. Know your audience. Who are they? How do they talk? What's important to them? Keep your audience in mind at all times when you write. Think in terms of your readers' experience, not your writing ability.

  6. The next time you set out to write something that will be published, start by writing it as if you were saying it aloud to a friend. I like to open a new page, type "What do I want to say?" at the top, and go from there. Your sentences will be shorter, though your diction will likely be just as good. Write quickly, almost stream of consciousness, and get the ideas down. Then you can go through and make it classy -- but remember the simple, unfussy style that you wrote it in the first time!

  7. OK, here's a brutal point of view from an editor of 20 years who has received her share press releases from academia:

    Academic writing is among the worst there is. It contains a lot of words no one outside universities uses, often used wrongly or in ways that no one outside a narrow discipline would use them. The sentences are long and appear to be fashioned for the purpose of obscuring what the writer is supposed to be communicating, as though the real goal is to baffle and impress rather than convey a point.

    You don't need to write down to anyone. People who aren't interested in words aren't stupid, they just never spent hours poring over a dictionary like some of us. Cutting back on minutiae is also good idea. People who are well informed on a topic because it interests them sometimes throw in more than other people want to know. (I tend to do this myself.) Writing more like you're telling a story than lecturing is another good idea.

  8. Well said, Bucky! :)

    And I agree with John that reading the passage aloud, while time consuming, is very helpful.

    I think it can be hard to know your audience. Once something is published, almost anyone could be your audience. I write for a very, very diverse audience in healthcare (yes, one word). GED to PhD educated, English as first language to English as fourth language. And then, the occasional patient and/or family member. They may all read what I write, and I want them to all feel comfortable enough in the prose to continue reading... That's where reading aloud is most helpful.

    One small device I've come to use is the footnote for commentary, reference, expansion, disclaimers, etc. Those to whom those things matter will read them. Those to whom they don't will still get the gist of what's being written.

  9. Find a resource written in the desired style (maybe your commenters could suggest some) and read it. You'll soon get a feel for that style.

  10. To build on Mr. McIntyre's "The writer" section, you know how after spending a lazy Sunday afternoon reading a novel, finally getting around to the housework, everything you do is announced in your head by the book's narrator? How your inner monologue sounds like the characters' speach? You can use the same trick to try to pick up the style of the author you're imitating.

    But please don't complain to me if the immersion feels like too much. This is the method I use when writing new scripts for my company's automated phone menu. (Go to college, kids; you don't want this job.)