I have given presentations to students on improving their academic writing, with a special emphasis on the issues that might affect speakers of English as a second or later language, and these presentations have been excellent opportunities for me to learn how and why students approach writing in the ways they do and, most importantly, why they make the errors they do.
If I know the logic behind an error, I can better explain the edits I make in a paper when there’s a chance my reasoning won’t be apparent.
One of the questions that came up during my last presentation arose when I mentioned that jargon and big words are not necessary to make a paper read as academic and that avoiding them is often the better option. The student simply said, “I thought we had to use that kind of language.”
Here, then, is a bit more explanation and discussion about what I do and don’t mean by this suggestion.
What I Do Mean
Complex ideas are best explained in the most straightforward language that can accommodate them, and less complex ideas are not made more sophisticated with inflated language.
Your goal in writing an academic paper of any type is to convey your ideas to your reader in a way that makes them understandable and, ideally, applicable to the reader’s own thought processes.
Graduate students usually have very elaborate and intelligent ideas in their fields. It’s far too easy to be eager to match one’s complexity of thought with complex writing. Giving in to this temptation, however, can pull the reader’s focus away from the arguments, theory, research, and conclusions and leave it dwelling on the writing. This is what that whole “can’t see the forest for the trees” idiom means. Fancy words can be distracting and can obscure the main points.
Of course, there are some very strong writers who have the wit, creativity, and articulateness to craft work that is both complexly worded and complexly thought out. But you’re probably not going to be able to do that very well until you’ve mastered the art of straightforwardness.
What I Don't Mean
I didn’t think of this interpretation during the presentation that inspired this topic, but later it occurred to me that the student might have been thinking that if you’re not using fancy, inflated language, then you must be speaking informally or casually. That’s not it.
It is possible to write formally without overdoing it. All those suggestions you’ve heard over time—avoid contractions, avoid slang and colloquialisms, avoid exclamation points, and so forth—still apply (though notice I am not including the old “don’t use first person” nonsense or even, for that matter, saying “don’t” . . . oh, but don't use text speak; that one's a "don't").
“Informal” and “unnecessarily complicated” aren’t opposites; it’s possible to write a paper littered with both contractions and pretentious jargon. The error people make is when they mistake “inflated” for “academic.” Real academic writing--good academic writing—focuses specifically on clarity and avoids being convoluted.
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I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.