Blake Snow

content advisor, recognized journalist, bodacious writer-for-hire

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The problem with academic writing: “The teacher must seize the student’s attention”

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

I don’t like academic writing. It’s mostly nonsense.

A few years ago, I said as much to my father who works in academia. Despite my insensitivity and lack of tact, I stand by my belief. Not because I’m incapable of admitting when I’m wrong. But because academic writing’s verbose language, impersonal tone, and dispassionate delivery ultimately fail to engage readers.

In other words, “Academics are really good at writing books that only academics will read, but they’re not very good at making anyone outside of academia care,” says Jared Bauer, co-creator of Thug Notes, in an interview with Huffington Post. “Teaching isn’t easy, so I’m not trying to shame teachers for not trying more radical approaches to literature education,” he adds. “But at the very least, I hope (our) show makes teachers realize that a student won’t volunteer their attention. The teacher must seize it.”

As I debated with my father that day, for writing to succeed, it must capture the reader’s attention. If it doesn’t, the writing won’t get shared, influence can’t happen, and the opportunity to learn is squandered, even among scholars. There’s no point to that kind of writing other than to serve as a reminder of how not to write. 

Obviously, academic writers don’t start a paper with the intent to drivel on for several pages before making or substantiating their point. They don’t mean to muddy their message with artificial word counts and page quotas and poor formatting. But they do.

This is because it’s the way it’s always been done. The primary audience — hive-minded scholars — expect and endure such offenses. That and higher education has wrongly given importance to length of writing instead of quality. In doing so, they encourage each other to pad their research with excessive syllables and unnecessary sentences, if not entire sub sections. They concentrate on form over the message. They stuff their best findings at the bottom of their work rather than leading with it a la inverted pyramid.

What’s more, they deny human emotion or somehow view it as derogatory to writing. They don’t teach story logic or even attempt to tell stories — the way humans have been informing each other since their creation. They input words without ever subtracting them. They abhor the art of editing, which is the removal of trivial details, questionable sources, and other distractions.

I’ve seen this first hand and not just in college. Over the last year, I’ve helped a Fortune 500 company make sense of well researched but poorly written work. First they commission academic researchers (or those with a background in academic writing) to study a topic in depth and compile findings. Then the company pays me to distill those words — sometimes upwards of 20,000 — into something someone might actually want to read, learn from, and share. I butcher the hell out of those things, condensing many to a tenth or even twentieth of their original size without sacrificing any meat and while adding clarity and effectiveness. I recently rewrote two full pages of academic text into a single, punchy sentence. Knowing what not to say is as important as knowing what to say.

I’m not sure where academia picked up their bad writing habits. I suspect their love for wordiness stems from the needed word counts in grammar school to teach students with little or nothing to say how to form thoughts onto paper. That or they use word count to display how much research they’ve done. As to why academics feel they must not display emotion or speak personably when informing or arguing their point, I have no idea. Writing is read by humans, after all. Perhaps it’s some misguided belief that showing emotion is biased or unscholarly.

Whatever the reason, academic writing is as bloated as the tuition charged to learn it. Its practitioners are usually reliable researchers, I’ll grant them that. But they are mediocre messengers of ideas, insights, and truth. They would do well to spend as much time selling their message — something all good storytellers do — as they do building it.