Break academic writing conventions (if you want your paper to be read)

A majority of bachelor students deliberately make their texts more complicated now and then.

They think that that makes them look smarter.

This was the conclusion of a study conducted among students at Stanford University.

It is a common idea: write in a complicated style, and people will take you more seriously. But is that actually true?

Spoiler: Nope.

In science, complicated writing is the norm

Most students try to swim with the stream when it comes to writing. They try to adhere to the norm. Which was probably also what the students at Stanford tried to do.

In science This article is about science, but the lessons also apply to other types of texts for which a complicated style is the norm, such as policy papers., a complicated style is the norm. An average paper contains long, complex sentences and loads of jargon.

For instance, it is not uncommon to find a phrasing like this one in physics journals:

The smallest of the URF’s (URFA6L), a 207-nucleotide (nt) reading frame overlapping out of phase the NH2-terminal portion of the adenosinetriphosphatase (ATPase) subunit 6 gene has been identified as the animal equivalent of the recently discovered yeast H+-ATPase subunit 8 gene.

Source This example is from the classical article ‘The Science of Scientific Writing’ (pdf) by Gopen and Swan.

And in the humanities, a sentence can look like this:

‘If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.’

SourceThis example was taken from this source.

Even if you understand these sentences, it takes effort to read them. And both examples are just one sentence long.

To be honest, that second sentence is not quite representative. It won second place in a Bad Writing Contest of 1998. This ‘contest’ turns the spotlights on the worst-written academic passages.

Nevertheless, that sentence gives you a (exaggerated) idea of a style that is common in academic writing.

Of course, not all scientific texts are this complicated. But, again: this style is the norm, the conventionIt appears that academic papers have become more complex over the years. Jargon, for instance, is used increasingly often..

A complicated writing style slows down the exchange of knowledge

This complicated style of scientific writing has many disadvantages. Both for the author and for the reader.

An important disadvantage for the author is that people tend to give up on reading a complicated text much more quickly. And even if they do finish it, chances are that they don’t fully understand the content.

This decreases the likelihood that the methods and results from such papers will actually be used. And the author misses out on opportunities for collaboration and constructive feedback.

As for the disadvantages for the reader: she loses time to trying to decipher the complicated style. And she will not always succeed in doing that.

Because of all this, these academic writing conventions slow down the exchange of knowledge.

Scientists learn less than they could have. And they miss out on insights that may be relevant for their own research.

In addition, many scientists find reading papers is unpleasant, frustrating and boring. Even when the research itself is interesting. (Want to know more?)

People tend to think that it is mainly outsiders who find academic texts difficult to read. Lay people, for instance; professionals (such as physicians); and scientists from a different field. But that is not the case: experts struggle too.

This is how the linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker describes it, in Why Academics Stink at Writing:

“I suffer the daily experience of being baffled by articles in my field, my subfield, even my sub-sub-subfield.”

Source (pdf)

Scientists think that a complicated style is a requirement

Then why do so many scientists write in such a complicated style?

When you ask around, you’ll get various answers.

That it is difficult to write clearly about a topic that you know so much about. That scientists are too busy. That there are few incentives to write clearly. That science is about complex, nuanced things which you can only describe in complex, nuanced language.

But there is one argument that I hear most often from the scientists I meet in my training courses: it is the norm. This is how you are supposed to write in science. You will not be taken seriously, or come across as professional, scientific and intelligent, unless you write like this.

People assume that a complicated style is a must for journal editors, funding agencies and supervisors: the ‘gatekeepers’ of the academy.

A different style would evoke criticism, for instance, that the text is too simple or too popular.

The Stanford students deliberately made their texts more complex. Later in their careers, scientists probably do this less consciously. By then, this style has become their second nature, an unquestioned habit.

The result is described poetically in an ironic paper:

“Hell – is sitting on a hot stone reading your own scientific publications.”

A complicated style doesn’t make you look smarter

When you write texts that are difficult to read, you come across as more intelligent. Sounds plausible.

But…

It isn’t true.

In the Stanford study mentioned at the start of this article, Daniel M. Oppenheimer even presented evidence to the contrary.

Oppenheimer asked students to read several texts, some of which were made more difficult to read.

Students estimated the authors of the least complex texts to be the most intelligent.

The tongue-in-cheek title of the article is Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.

So, deliberately writing in a more complicated style is not an effective strategy for making yourself look intelligent.

A complicated style is not a requirement for getting your paper published

Next: the assumption that a complicated style is necessary to pass the ‘gatekeepers’ of the academy.

Not true either.

Generally, in the style guides of scientific journals, a complex style is discouraged.

Nature‘s style guide asks its authors, among other things, to avoid jargon and acronyms. It also encourages them to use the active voice, to “unpack” concepts, and to communicate their conclusions in simply constructed sentences.

Helen Sword, author of the book Stylish Academic Writing, analyzed 100 style guides of various scientific journals. She investigated what these guides say about jargon.

21 of these guides advised authors to not use any jargon at all. 46 told them to be careful with jargon. In 33 style guides, jargon was not mentioned.

Sword:

“I have yet to discover a single academic-style guide that advocates a freewheeling embrace of jargon. Nevertheless, academic journals are awash in the stuff.”

Bron This quote is from the article ‘Inoculating Against Jargonitis‘.

Now, not all editors follow their own rules. Still, according to Sword, most of them prefer articles that are written in a clear style that is easy to read. When you do that, you shouldn’t have any trouble passing these gatekeepers.

Which is what happens in practice.

Helen Sword analyzed 500 published articles from different scientific disciplines. She concluded that in each discipline ‘a healthy minority’ of the articles is well-written.

When you write clear texts, you reach more readers

Of course, Sword’s analysis also reveals that you can publish when you write complicated texts. A complex style, after all, is the norm.

But getting your paper published doesn’t mean that people will read it.

As a persistent rumor has it, half of all scientific papers are never read by anyone other than their referees and journal editors. This rumor, it turns out, is impossible to prove. But the underlying idea – that many papers have a limited audience – is commonly accepted.

So, if you want people to do something with your research, don’t assume that publishing about it is enough. However important publications are for an academic career. And however difficult it is to get your result published in the first place.

Your methods and findings will only be used when people read, understand, and remember your paper. To make sure they do, you have to write clear texts.

Invest in your writing skills

The most common reasons for writing complicated texts do not hold up to scrutiny. And there are plenty of reasons to write clearly.

But how?

Do you sometimes deliberately make your texts more complicated? Then the quick win is to just stop doing that. That is relatively easy.

Actively improving your writing style is more difficult. To clearly describe your complex research, you need good writing skills.

Awareness is an important first step. When you realize that your writing style matters, you will prioritize (working on) it – however full your agenda is.

Then, you should consistently dedicate time and effort to your writing style. You can only improve by practicing, just like with sports.

You can, for instance, take a writing course, read a book or blog about writing, or discuss the writing style of papers with your colleagues.

Writing clear scientific texts requires some courage. After all, you are breaking with conventions. But breaking conventions it is a good thing to do when conventions are as counterproductive as these.

It’s the only way to make others as enthusiastic about your research as you are.

Online sources of inspiration

Ready to invest time in your writing skills? These tips may guide you:

General writing advice

Using narrative structures

Avoiding jargon and complicated language

Writing concrete and precise texts

Writing sentences and paragraphs with one core message

Using the active voice, avoiding nominalisations, and writing concisely


Arnaud is trainer, advisor and text writer at Analytic Storytelling. He helps customers to send out a clear and convincing message in both words and images.