Posted on

Academese: Are You Narrowing Your Audience By Not Speaking Their Language?

By Sierra Pawlak

During TAA’s May 2024 Conversation Circle, several members shared their experiences with ‘academese’ and tips for how academic writers can avoid it in their writing. Academese is characterized by writing that is heavily filled with jargon, overcomplicated language, and/or convoluted sentence structure (Wikipedia).

“The biggest sin in academic writing is the passive voice,” said Barbara Nostrand, an Aquisitions Editor at Gakumon and Senior Fellow at the de Moivre Institute. “It makes it much more difficult for the reader to understand what’s been written, and it’s completely unnecessary.” She recommends using the active voice instead, for example, ‘I saw’, ‘I observed’: “A trick to doing that is to move the verb as close to the beginning of the sentence as possible.” She also recommends that people read The Art Of Readable Writing by Rudolf Flesch: “An important tip from that book, put yourself and your team into your writing. Begin sentences with words such as I, we, and the names of specific people.” Nostrand also recommended sentences be as short as possible, and no longer than twenty words. “Every generation of writers since Shakespeare has written shorter sentences than their forebears,” said Nostrand. “Motion picture shots have also been getting shorter and shorter.” Nostrand also said to “not be afraid of technical terms,” but that you should define jargon that your intended audience shouldn’t be expected to know.

Michael Millard, the office manager for the professional development office at Portland State University, shared issues he has seen with regard to the overuse of jargon in academic writing and especially in conference presentations. While he understands the presenters are using language they’re used to and comfortable with, he said, the jargon and acronyms they use “can lead to confusion and an inequality of the education [the presenter] is trying to provide.” He recommended that presenters “keep in mind that not everyone in the room is aware of that vocabulary.”

Another conversation circle participant, textbook author Margaret Reece, said she “has found that short sentences are very helpful.” She gives her writing to someone outside of her field who can tell her if it “made any basic sense or not.” She remarked that in the past she would write one thing, and an outside reviewer would interpret something completely different from what she intended. To combat this, along with shorter sentences she recommends recording yourself reading your writing aloud and then playing it back: “Recording it is wonderful. You could put the recording away until the next day, come back and listen to it and say, is that really what I wanted to say? You’re focusing on the message you’re trying to convey, and if those words say what you want, and do they do it clearly and understandably?” Reece uses a free recording tool called Audacity to record herself.

Dave Harris, a writing coach and editor with Thought Clearing, had this to share on the subject of academese: “Write with the language that is comfortable and natural to you. That has to be the first step because doing good academic writing is hard enough by itself. It’s hard enough to produce original research and organize a discussion of what makes that original research valuable to the research community. Don’t hinder yourself then by saying, ‘oh, I used too big a word’. Use the words that you have.” He also said that “good writing and important ideas don’t necessarily need difficult language, but sometimes they use difficult language. It would be great if we could always explain things in clear language, but sometimes ideas are complicated too,” so if your topic is complex, it’s going to be difficult to translate it to your audience in easy to read, clear-cut writing.

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, you can read “Why Academic Writing Stinks” by Steven Pinker, or listen to the full Conversation Circle discussion here.

Share your thoughts