The four ailments of academic writing and how to cure them

[Guest post by my Middlesex colleague Nico Pizzolato. In this post Nico provides some golden tips on how to improve your writing.]

In the past twenty years, for almost every day of my life I’ve read academic writing. (No, I’m not trying to inspire pity). I read published papers, books, work in progress by colleagues, draft pieces by research students, submissions for conferences, grant proposals -- the whole range.  In that staggering amount of claims, disputes, literature reviews, findings, abstracts, methodology sections and conclusions I have found brilliant ideas and daring, original research, but they were often couched in incomprehensible prose. At first I thought it was normal. After all, every profession has its own codes and is afflicted by jargon incomprehensible to outsiders. However, I later found out that academese is often incomprehensible to insiders as well.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Through my traumatic experience of going daily through tons of academese, I have now identified four main ailments that affect academic writers and that often go undiagnosed. You can use this list as a self-screening tool to understand whether your prose is in a healthy state.

Jargonitis

Its symptoms manifest themselves already at undergraduate and masters level, but explode during a PhD and afterwards, with junior faculty being the most affected. The cause of this condition is the belief, sometimes taught, sometimes self-induced, that academic writing should contain specific, complex-sounding terms that impress fellow academics but that are opaque, even obscure, to the rest of the world. You know you have contracted jargonitis when in your paper you start to write “multi-faceted”, rather “varied”; “conceptualise”, rather than “think”. Chronic jargonitis manifest itself with regular appearances of “liminal”, “paradigm”, “teleological”, “zeitgeist”. I agree with the defenders of academic jargon that it can be useful as a shorthand for complex concepts as in, for instance, “discursive practices”, which refers to a specific notion developed by Foucault and others and it would require too many words to explain in plain English. However, “discourse” is often used imprecisely to mean “debate”, just to sound “important”. Whatever your discipline, you probably can think of similar examples (I’d like to hear about that in the comments). The truth is that the use of jargon is often unwarranted. I cannot count the number of times in which I have read “utilise” in a paper, when “use” would have done just as well. In academia we are quick to ridicule the jargon in other fields when we hear business people talk about “synergy” or “strategic partnership”; we should exercise caution on our own turf.

Treatment: To be taken once a week, before meals. Choose a random academic article from your discipline, but not in your topic of study, so that you can have some “distance” from the content. Print out a few pages and circle every word that sounds as jargon, make a list and over time check whether you are using those words in your writing. If you find it difficult to identify jargon, try to google the name of your discipline + “academic jargon” and you will probably find some help.

You can find an impassioned plea against jargon here.

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Chronic passive voice dysfunction

It’s not known what causes the Passive Voice Dysfunction. We do know it manifests early in academic life, as early as Year 7, and then can become chronic. Here is a relatively benign example: “The correlational research design was adopted for the study. The choice of the design was informed by the purpose of the research which was basically to explain the possible relationships between teachers’ tasks assignment and their classroom job performance level.” (I feel bad about singling out one random example out of millions of academic papers published, but you can read the whole article here and boost its views in return). What’s wrong? The prose contrives to convey the impression of an objective research process by leaving out of the pictures the researchers themselves, as if their study could have happened on its own, not informed by their background and epistemology. On a communicative level, the result leaves the reader quite confused about who is performing the action and, over the course of whole paragraphs and sections written in such a style, the reader becomes disengaged from the research account and its claims. Furthermore, the passive voice also increases the word count unnecessarily. What if we rewrite: “We adopted a correlational research design for this study, which fitted our purpose of researching the possible relationships…”. The process of reengineering the sentence in an active way also forces us to cut short unnecessary nonsense. By the way, many would be shocked to hear that in academic writing, in the process of converting to the active voice, you can also use “I” -- but that’s another topic.

Treatment: Regular exercise, after breakfast: I can count at least four applications of passive voice in this abstract. Can you turn them into active and judge how differently the abstract sounds?

Hedging Disorder

I was only able to give a name to this illness -- epidemic among qualitative researchers -- when I came across this article by Steven Pinker. He defines it as the academics’ urge to “mindlessly cushion their prose with wads of fluff that imply they are not willing to stand behind what they say”. Pinker is referring to qualifiers and phrases like “it appears”, “it seems likely”, or adverbs such as “presumably”, “generally”. The worst offender is “I would argue” (Are you arguing that or not?). While a sparse use of such qualifying arsenal suggests caution, a regular or frequent use reveals doubts in one’s own research processes and non-commitment to its results. In fact, the author here is hedging their bets, arguing for a position, but also leaving room for another one, perhaps opposite, in case they are wrong.

Certainly, studies have limitations. So, better to explain clearly in what circumstances or for what reasons a statement is not valid, or valid, rather than vaguely undermining its significance in every case. And if frequent hedging appears inevitable, isn’t it the time to rethink what you could improve in the research design of a paper that you can’t back up with confidence?

Treatment: Find an old paper of yours and look for signs of hedging disorder. Is there room for turning the qualifying phrases into committed statements? If not, why not?

Mark Fletcher-Brown on Unsplash

Juvenile Metadiscourse syndrome

Metadiscourse is a juvenile illness in inexperienced researchers and junior faculty, which often disappears with maturity, with or without treatment, unless it becomes chronic, with dire consequences for the victims’ readers and students. Metadiscourse is a form of writing about writing that fills the word count without adding value to the reader. Furthermore, like any other useless verbiage (see Passive Voice Dysfunction) it saps clarity. In little doses is benign: “I will argue that”, “Now I propose to turn to” “In the first place…, second place…”. Here and there these phrases can give emphasis to the prose and provide some useful signposting. Growing in intensity metadiscourse becomes a cumbersome, ever-present commentary that delays the delivery of the key insights. Look at this specimen from a patient in organizational psychology:

“This chapter will focus primarily on recent developments in the study of organizational citizenship behavior (OCB). However, this endeavor will necessarily involve some discussion of contextual performance because the two lines of inquiry—while emanating from quite different origins—have of late begun to emerge.” Almost half of the text here is appendage about the activity of writing itself -- something useful in a first draft, but in a published version it makes the prose galumphing. I would rewrite it as, “Two interconnected lines of inquiry, emanating from different origins, have emerged lately: organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) and contextual performance”. I draw another example from Pinker, who invites us to compare these two openings: "This chapter discusses the factors that cause names to rise and fall in popularity," (with metadiscourse) and  "What makes a name rise and fall in popularity?" (without). Eliminating metadiscourse is easier at the stage of revising the draft as metadiscourse has the important function of helping the writer to think about content and structure. However, in the same way as we don’t bring cooking utensils to the table together with the finished dishes, metadiscourse should stay out of final drafts.

Treatment: highlight in one of your recent papers all the expressions that sounds like metadiscourse, whether in benign or malign form. How would the same paragraph look like if you would rewrite without them?

Conclusion

These and other ailments of academic writing stem from some entrenched practices in education and in the standards of academia. For instance, at school, we are often told that when we conclude, we should write, “in conclusion” --  a perfectly useless phrase to write at the end of a paper. Or we are told that the passive voice will make us sound more authoritative. Moving from school to academia, we enter a world of esoteric language that we are intimidated into replicating, lest we are judged not worthy of belonging to the club. Finally, even though most of us need -- and want -- to publish extensively as part of our job or to complete a PhD, we are encouraged to think of a text more as a report of a research process than as a tool to change the minds of our audience through to the significance of our research results. If we don’t recognise that “academic writing” is writing and that a writer must act like a writer -- to compose in a clear and engaging style -- we won’t build the anticorps that will cure and protect us from suffering from such academic ailments again and for the rest of our working life.

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