Academic writing is over-the-top
It’s safe to say that everyone reads an academic article at some point in their college career. Whether you’ve read an article as an assignment or in tangent with some research paper, you probably know what I am talking about. And, if you’re like me, you have noticed how difficult these articles are to read.
There’s a free, online editing app called Hemingway Editor that is geared toward making your writing simpler and more interesting. In short, it color codes your writing and gives it a readability grade.
Out of curiosity one day while I was struggling to get through a particularly dry article, I copied and pasted it into the Hemingway Editor. What I found wasn’t surprising, but it was discouraging and mildly frustrating. The readability grade was 12, but the app suggested a nine given the context of the paper’s subject.
Nearly every sentence was highlighted in red, meaning it was “very hard to read.” The few that weren’t highlighted in red, were highlighted in yellow, standing for “hard to read.” A shocking number of phrases had “simpler alternatives” – meaning, in my mind, that they were using fancier sounding words … because? Most of the paper was written in passive voice – which makes it duller. And it was loaded with adverbs. Adverbs are great every now and then, but when you’re using four and five in a row – all meaning the same thing – it slows down the reading. Your mind feels like it’s trudging through a bog. Stephen King once said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” I couldn’t agree more, King.
I had expected it to be bad, but that seemed extreme.
And it got me thinking: why is an academic article so difficult to understand? What’s the point in that? Isn’t the purpose of an academic article to share the author’s beliefs and findings? So why make it so hard to understand? I’ve been in college for four years.
I’m used to reading academic works and I enjoy the challenge in reading authors such as Shakespeare. But Shakespeare, as with many fictitious works, is meant for interpretation.
It’s safe to say that an academic article isn’t supposed to be interpreted. It’s supposed to lay it bare so you can take in those ideas and reflect, drawing your own conclusions and forming your own opinions.
If you want to share your knowledge in a scholarly work, then do. But don’t make it so hard to understand that the common person isn’t going to be able to or want to read it. It does no good to write a bunch of words and sound smart when no one is going to be able to understand. You’re not sharing anything, at that point.
My English teacher in high school used to criticize our writing if we started using words that sounded fancier so we could look smarter. We weren’t allowed to use any word in our writing unless we knew what it meant and could dictate that meaning clearly. And we were to write as concisely and as clearly as possible. She would tell us that if the lunch ladies couldn’t understand it, then it needed more work.
This advice has stuck with me since my freshman year in high school and it’s advice that I always try to write by.
If the average person off the street can’t understand my ideas, then I don’t know them well enough myself or haven’t communicated them properly.
There are two clear benefits to this.
One: If John Doe on the street can understand what I’m trying to say, then so can the academic audience.
Two: John Doe deserves to hear my ideas just as much as those academics do.
So, keep that in mind when you’re writing your next research paper: the mark of a good writer isn’t sounding smart, it’s being able to clearly communicate.
And for everyone who struggles through academic articles to write those literature reviews? I hear you. I hear you loud and clear. And I so feel for you.