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Distinguishing features of academic writing #2: Complexity

Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” If this is true, why does it seem that academic writing is distinguished by complexity?

In this second discussion on the distinguishing features of academic writing, we aimed to understand why complexity is not only present, but acceptable in academic writing, and the challenges and benefits of reducing complexity while maintaining academic rigor.

The complexity of academic writing

We began our conversation with the question of what makes academic writing complex and whether such complexity is necessary in academic writing.

According to Victoria Clayton in her article, “The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing”, appearing in The Atlantic, “The idea that writing should be clear, concise, and low-jargon isn’t a new one…. Yet in academia, unwieldy writing has become something of a protected tradition.”

Building upon the perspective of Stephen Pinker in a linked article to his “Why Academic Writing Sucks” article in Psychology Today, Eric Charles says, “Pinker suggests that academic writing is bad because it tries to mix writing styles, and authors become muddled about the audience and its desires.” Further, Charles adds, “This leads to too much meta-discussion, and leads academics to lose the balance between their role as communicators of knowledge vs. their role as members of a profession with its own internal norms and mores.”

Pat Thomson reminds us, however, that “academic writing is a complex business. And it’s that complexity that makes it tricky.” She further explains that before you even start to write in academic settings, you need material from a well-designed project, defensible analysis, and a “good grip on the relevant literature”. That’s before getting ready to write, the actual writing process, and all the other elements specific to academic writing disciplines.

Certainly, especially in academic efforts to extend the body of knowledge through research and writing, the complexity of the business and the topics covered can’t be denied, but the question really centers on whether the writing must, consequentially, be complex as well.

According to a University of Reading LibGuides resource, “The purpose of academic writing is to communicate complex ideas in a way that makes them least likely to be challenged.” As a result, on the topic of complex writing, they add, “Do not be tempted to use complex language or expressions that are not your own, just to make your writing appear ‘academic’. Use straightforward language. Your reader needs to understand the information or ideas that you are conveying.”

That was precisely the subject of our second discussion question, “What effect does writing complexity have on comprehension by readers?” An article from Illumine Ltd notes that the use of organizational features “make a text more or less comprehensible to the targeted reading level”. Further they note, “Even challenging texts, however, can be rendered more readable through the simple addition of features designed to guide a reader.”

At the core of our writing is sentence structure. In their article, “Top 6 Tips to Optimize Sentence Length in Your Research Paper”, Enago Academy claims, “Long and convoluted sentences affect comprehension and readability…. Then again, too short sentences make for choppy writing without flow and cannot hold complex thoughts.” The key to readability is finding appropriate sentence length, focusing on your message, and being concise in your writing.

Challenges and benefits of reducing complexity

So, if the key to readability seems to be in designing our writing to eliminate complexity, why is complexity an acceptable feature of academic writing and does it support standards of academic rigor? This is where our discussion continued.

In her blog article, “Academic Writing: Making (some) sense of a complex ‘process of mystery’”, Sherran Clarence notes that “The style of the writing needs to reflect the nature of the knowledge.” She goes on to note that the style is, in part, defined by the ‘rules’ or guidelines associated with the discipline and “If you break or bend too many of the rules, your readers may completely miss your meaning, and the paper will fall short of making your voice heard in relation to those you want to ‘converse’ with in your field.”

While this doesn’t necessarily answer the question of how complexity became an acceptable part of academic writing, it does offer insight into why and how it is used to support the standards of academic rigor within a discipline.

In a study by Yelay Birhan, it is claimed that “academic writing is writing done by scholars for other scholars”. It is further stated that “Complexity is one of the features of academic writing. Written language is relatively more complex than spoken language.”

In their article, “Challenging stereotypes about academic writing: Complexity, elaboration, explicitness” published in the Journal of English for Academic Purposes, Douglas Biber and Bethany Gray acknowledge this stereotypical view, stating “The stereotypical view of professional academic writing is that it is grammatically complex, with elaborated structures, and with meaning relations expressed explicitly. In contrast, spoken registers, especially conversation, are believed to have the opposite characteristics.” They conclude, however, that although “academic writing is certainly complex, elaborated, and explicit, it does not conform to our stereotypes about these characteristics.”

Assuming the existence of complexity in academic writing, and perhaps to a level unnecessary to convey meaning to the readers, we then asked, “How can we reduce complexity while maintaining rigor?”

The first option is to reduce the complexity in your thought process that leads to academic writing. In her article, “Reducing Over-Complexity in Your Scholarly Writing”, Gina Hiatt states, “In the academic brain, thousands of ideas swirl around, each one reconnecting back to earlier ideas or spawning a new question, thought or idea. This is a sure sign of intelligence, you’ll be happy to know. On the other hand, this complexity, if not kept under control, can stop you from functioning at an optimal level.” She then offers a dozen methods for reducing over-complexity in your scholarly writing.

Focusing on the actual writing process, Scribendi offers hints to tighten up your writing by focusing on common mistakes in their article, “Five Habits to Avoid in Your Academic Writing”. Specific mistakes include passive voice, needlessly complex sentence structure, trumped-up vocabulary, overuse of footnotes, and plagiarism.

Reducing complexity may be a challenge, especially when scholarly language is what, after all, defines academic writing. As noted by those at the University of Wollongong Australia, “nominalisation is a significant feature of academic writing contributing greatly to its impersonal tone, abstraction and complexity”, but it is also the feature that (according to the same resource) turns actions into concepts, allows for the elimination of individuals from the description of the process, encourages objectivity and further commenting on the concept, and decreases wordiness.

However, it is possible to make subtle improvements by eliminating common academic phrases that may make your work “sound more scientific”, but are unnecessary. shared the following “10 Academic Phrases Your Academic Writing Can Go Without”:

  1. On the other hand…
  2. In order to
  3. Indeed
  4. However, moreover, furthermore…
  5. As well as
  6. For a short (or long) period of time
  7. By using
  8. Due to the fact that
  9. In relation to
  10. In the event that

Despite the challenges, there are benefits to reducing the complexity of your academic writing efforts – and, as discussed, ways to do so with minor revision efforts. The greatest benefit is being able to share your work with a larger audience. And as noted on Elsevier Connect’s Authors’ Update blog, “There is growing pressure on the academic community to demonstrate the value of its research to a wider readership.”

Earlier, we looked at the first of the five distinguishing features of academic writing, precision. Throughout the rest of the month, we continued our discussion looking at the other three features – formality, objectivity, and accuracy – in turn. Look for future posts from those discussions and join us on Twitter every other Friday for new TweetChat discussion topics under the hashtag #AcWriChat.