As a rule academics are not trained to write well. You might even say academics are trained to confuse, hiding their thoughts behind walls of pretentious gobbledygook. It is not our fault. It is part of our training. From the moment we step into our first 100 level class to the the time when we finally hand in our dissertation and head out for a celebratory libation, our only goal is to impress somebody else and make ourselves look smart. It is the nature of the academic beast I suppose but it does not contribute to communication, connection, or education. If we want to change that we have to intend a different result and practice a different approach.
So you want to be a good writer?
You want to express yourself in words?
You want to grab the reader by the short hairs and connect with them at a deep level?
You want to take that expensive education and do something useful with it?
Well then, listen up. The first thing you want to do if you want to write well is set your intent. Ask yourself the question, why am I writing and then turn your answer to that into a formal statement of intent. It is not that hard and it can be very effective in directing the development of your wordsmithing ability. For example, when I ask myself the question “why am I writing,” my answer is to communicate, teach, and educate. When I write I write to communicate. I write to grab the reader, to get their attention, and to turn their attention to something that I think they might be interested in. I also write to educate (I’m a teacher after all) and inform.
Once I have an idea of why I write then, whenever I sit down to write, I remind myself of why I’m sitting down to write. This is important. I find that when I do that the intent forms a sort of envelope over what I’m doing and influences what it is I’m saying. When I remember my goal is to communicate and educate I am far less likely, for example, to complicate my writing with excessive EPMO. Similarly when I remember I am here to teach and educate I’ll keep things simpler and more interesting. Now, this might seem like a whole lot of common sense and in a way it is. Language teachers will tell thee to “know they audience” and this is close to what I am saying here. Nevertheless, extending the standard language stipulation in this way is, I believe, necessary and the reason is simply that if you are training to become an academic, if you are a undergraduate or a graduate student, then you are not being trained to educate and communicate.
You might think you are.
You might believe that all that essay writing and term paper composition is training you to communicate with others but if you think that you would be quite wrong. Outside of the English department, the only thing you are learning to do as a student of the academy is confuse people and be proud of it. If you publish in a journal article it is not the quality of writing that counts, it is how few people can understand what you’re saying. And the fewer the better it seems. The more obscure, complicated, and convoluted your writing, the better, smarter, more worthy of consideration you must be.
Pick up your average academic journal and the information contained in it is useful and meaningful to only a handful of people worldwide, and those people all have to have expensive post-secondary degrees in order to understand it.
Call that writing to obfuscate, or writing to impress, or writing to pump your left brain ego, or writing to prove your worth as a professor, or whatever, but don’t call it writing to communicate. It is everything but that.
But then, this should not come as a surprise because it is exactly what you are trained to do.
Whenever you write a term paper in school you are not writing to communicate, you are writing to impress the person with the power to mark.
Isn’t that true?
The goal isn’t to write well, or to be creative, or to think critically, or to communicate effectively is it? The goal is to impress your professor or (after you graduate) your journal editor, peer review committee, and so on. Whether you realize it or not, that’s what you learn and in that process expression, communication, and connection with your reader go straight into the academic toilet to be flushed away with the three-ply sheets of rampant EPMO.
But you can change this and the first step is to identify why you write and write with that intent in mind.
Are you writing to impress the reader of your prose?
Are you writing for a good grade?
Are you writing to pass muster or to slide past the journal gatekeepers?
Then that’s going to reflect itself in the way you write.
However, if that is not why are you are writing, if your goal is to reach out and connect with somebody, then remind yourself that is what you want to do and start your communique from there. It may take a while to shed the prosaic detritus of our academic indoctrination, but you can do if you try.
About the Author: I'm a sociologist at Athabasca University where I coordinate,amongst other things, the introductory sociology courses (Sociology I and Sociology II). FYI I did my dissertation in the political economy of scholarly communication (you can read it if you want). It's not that bad. My current interests lie in the area of scholarly communication and pedagogy, the sociology of spirituality and religion, consciousness research, entheogens, inequality and stratification, and the revolutionary potential of authentic spirituality. The Socjourn is my pet project. It started as the Electronic Journal of Sociology but after watching our social elites systematically dismantle the potential of eJournals to alter the politics and economies of scholarly communication, I decided I'd try something a little different. That something is The Socjourn, a initiative that bends the rules of scholarly communication and pedagogy by disregarding academic ego and smashing down the walls that divide our little Ivory Tower world from the rest of humanity. If you are a sociologist or a sociology student and you have a burning desire to engage in a little institutional demolition by perhaps writing for the Socjourn, contact me. If you are a graduate student and you have some ideas that you think I might find interesting, contact me. I supervise graduate students through Athabasca Universities MAIS program.