Reteaching Academics How to Write

Growing up, I never thought I would be good at English.

I admit, my parents gave me everything I needed for my academic and professional development. They noticed, however, that I excelled in my math and science courses, and my sisters would nurture their interest in humanities.

And for some reason, the books we had to read in school didn’t… connect with me.

To Kill a Mocking Bird?

The Catcher in the Rye?

These were the great classics that, for some reason, didn’t seem all that great. I never found myself in the characters, and I couldn’t care much about the troubles of people I couldn’t resonate with. But when a story did resonate, I ate it up. If it was Toonami anime or Video games, the stories told through my television offered unique and relatable spaces to find stories that I could personally connect with.

Today, I look back on those stories I read. What kept me from resonating with those old stories?

If it wasn’t clear, I just finished my Ph.D. If my upbringing kept me from relishing the written word, moving through academia sealed the deal.

Researchers write. A lot. I’ve seen enough in my short career to see how much writing is required. My own dissertation, for example, is exactly 114,500 words. And for most researchers, the dissertation is only the beginning.

I know becoming a better writer will take years of practice. At the same time, I’ve been exposed to enough lines of text that I can deduce what makes academic writing so unrelatable. It probably has something to do with a quote I poached from an esteemed colleague years ago:

I’ve never read more than I have in my life, but I’ve never fully finished a book.

We as researchers, at the culmination of our craft, imbibe an excruciating amount of information every day. I remember when one of my professors told me to read the entire book the Act of Creation, for my qualifying exam. In essence, I needed to inhale the majority of 752 pages in an entire week.

At the same time, one of my professors lamented how graduate students might read, and be able to analyze academic papers, but rarely understand the text. In his view, students must read papers two, maybe even four times before they’re literate on the research design.

Brutal.

You would think such prolific writers know how to write well, right? Well, no one is reading them. Apparently, an average academic journal article is read in its entirety by about ten people. The field has a massive spread problem.

It isn’t that the profession is information-heavy. It’s that researchers rarely have the opportunity to resonate with the literature they create.

There’s another problem: The literature isn’t designed to be resonated with.

As a part of the being an interdisciplinary researcher exposes not just to different knowledge, theories, and ways of thinking, but also different styles of writing and editing. When you’re learning about energy in social environments, the political development of global poverty, or the emergence of innovation, different people write in different ways.

It’s also why I see academic writing culture, across discipline, having these issues.

Length.

Academics write a lot. Arguably, too much.

I was allowed to do the same. To be honest, my dissertation turned into a systematically constructed dumping ground for unexpected research narratives, ranging from the history of interventionism of Kalahari residents, the problems with combining innovation and IRB institutions, and systemic obstacles to a healthy innovation culture in Botswana.

There was a reason for including each piece; however, I knew professional editors would have a field day chopping up my text.

Why do academics write so much? Well, for one, researchers strive for descriptive accuracy. To make sure they describe the concepts, stories, data, or explanations correctly, they’re more likely to fill their manuscripts with more explanation instead of less; to ensure they capture the unique nuance in their research.

The problem, of course, is the more someone writes, the less likely they get their point across to most of the population.

Esotericism.

One of my least favorite type of academic writing definitely comes from the anthropology fields. Why?

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Kearney, Michael. “The local and the global: The anthropology of globalization and transnationalism.” Annual review of anthropology 24.1 (1995): 547–565.

With deep respect to Kearney, I have no earthly idea of what ‘polynucleated’ means in this context.

As communities that push the edge of understanding society, researchers have uncovered the problems with how knowledge is produced. To move towards becoming a more culturally appropriate and culture of learning and research, fields like these have even tried to reform and readapt the language they use.

So, they redefine, refit and make up new words.

Emic vs. etic.

Foucauldian.

“Production of space perspective.” You saw that one above.

Spend a couple of pages working through texts like these, and you’ll likely end up more confused than when you started.

Words matter, but words suck.

When you’re trying to understand, explain, or tease out the complexities of society and words fail to describe the context effectively, you have two options:

  • either use the words afforded to you, and you take on its underlying baggage (with its etymology, what it has come to mean in society, and the marginalizing, or inaccurate portrayal of the idea you’re trying to construct)
  • or you make a new word, that is more accurate, empowering, or understandable, and run the risk that no one outside of your field will ever understand what you’re talking about.

Sometimes, you get lucky. Intersectionality is an example of a word that moves from academia to the mainstream. Of course, it took a couple of decades to do so.

Formulaic Structure.

Heard of IMRAD?

Gesundheit.

It stands for Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. And, almost every single academic article follows this pattern.

The purpose of academic writing is to communicate new insights so anyone can understand how it was done and what was found. To make sure we understand the logical progression from gap to insight, researchers more easily follow a structure they’re used to.

But what about pulling the readers to the text? What about being creative with the structure?

Nope. When the structure is constant, the researchers can focus on the outcomes. Creativity in academia is relegated to the research question.

Loss of Humanity.

There are many types of science. The dominant forms of science, however, all follow a similar trend: they aim to separate the researcher from the research.

I’m sure you’ve heard of Neil Degrasse Tyson. There are few people that have recently succeeded as well as he has to spread scientific communication as well. Unfortunately, he evangelizes a specific type of science.

Dr. Tyson is what we call a positivist, a stark believer in the one true reality which can be broken into overriding laws. He’s been influenced by the purpose of his field (astrophysics), which try to rid the human sensory experience — and all other biases — from their research insights. Though not all science has the same influence, many types of science writing reflect this belief in the nature of knowledge.

Take this writing blurb from the paper below:

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Schultz, T. Paul. “School subsidies for the poor: evaluating the Mexican Progresa poverty program.” Journal of development Economics 74.1 (2004): 199–250.

“These short-run program effects are then used...”

“The robustness of the…program…is gauged…”

Where’s the human?

In fields like these, the person is divorced from any described scientific activity, to represent how anyone-with the skills and resources- could come up with the same result.

I’m not the first person to make this critique. And, not all academics write like this. However, researchers who solely read and write research rarely have a chance to relearn skills to write with everyone else in mind.

If it isn’t clear by my recent blogs, I’ve been trying to break the habit.

Unfortunately, the academic writing system isn’t about to change anytime soon. Academics mostly write for other academics, and unless they have a reason to connect with other people, they rarely learn other forms of communication.

So, how do you read, in order to relearn how to write? Let me tell you what I’ve done.

1. Learn to read fast and slow.

I’ll tell you one of my secrets: I use Spritz.

It’s mind-blowingly innovative; speed up how fast you’re exposed to text on the internet. Most people apparently read much slower because we subconsciously subvocalize (speak) the words we see. This technology breaks the habit the more you do it.

I was once at about 250 WPM. Now if I want to, I can read over five times that fast. This was essential for my research activities; I can get through books in hours if need be.

But now, I’m learning an equally important tool: reading slow. This is the harder one. It’s not exactly a skill; it’s more like an exercise in discipline.

When was the last time you imagined the concept you were reading? When’s the last time you felt you had time?

Reading slow is a sort of mindful exercise; where you take the time to savor the written word. Be in the moment. With that, you’re more likely to connect yourself to the words on the page. It will surely turn you into a more aware writer and editor.

Shoot, I’m about to go do it now.

2. Read — and try to adopt — other writing styles.

As part and parcel of my academic environment, I’ve become gratifyingly drawn to how-to text. Give me a book that helps me fix something about myself, and I’ll inhale what it has to say. Two of my recent favorites are:

Some favorite how-to text about writing have recently populated my screen; for instance, a course on From 0 to 1 Million Visitors by Ali Mese, and an article on seven tips to ‘explode’ my writing skills by Sarah Cy, taught me some essential insights.

What I’ve done as well, however, is picked up documents I haven’t had a chance to imbibe beforehand. The Audacity of Hope? Random articles from the Atlantic about Bryan Tyree Henry? Sign me up.

Reading unique and diverse styles reveals the different ways writers decide to tell their stories. The more others try to write, the more tools in my own toolkit.

3. Find humanity in everyone’s writing.

Find where the humans are in the text.

As a design researcher, it is critical to think about the user of technology would want before you engage in the activity. In this example, the technology is the book.

Who is the audience? What are they likely to feel? What do they get from the text? What attracts them to the activity? What makes them want to spread, share, or talk about the text? Whose voice do you want to represent when you write, and what would they say?

In academic, the answer is clear: you’re writing for people who want to clearly understand your research. On the whole, it’s a rational activity for rational actors. This isn’t the case for the rest of the world; like Mark Schaefer discusses in KNOWN, he suggests the RITE test: Relevant, Interesting, Timely, and Entertaining. If you hit three, you’re gold.

To be resonant, your writing must constantly think about how humans would resonate with your words.

4. Learn with writers in other fields.

Dissertations require advisors. For our program, your advisors are likely to be from separate fields, and have different writing styles they’re used to.

I’m a bit ashamed to say I never knew about ‘which hunting’, the process of replacing essential and nonessential clause function words until I was editing the dissertation. However, learning about it made my writing all the better.

Today, I’m constantly looking for people who can edit my text. What styles work where? How do these words come across? Which rules of writing did I miss?

The more good writers you’re around, the more you’ll learn about adapting, adopting, and evolving your written word. Even when it hurts.

The most important lesson I ever learned from my PhD is that there is yet so much to learn. In doing so, we have a daily mandate to let go of our ego, and learn from what the world offers us.

As we communicate with our fellow human, we gain the opportunity to learn-every single day — about ways that we can better connect with our fellow humans.

Because, in the end, it’s not about us. When we write, we have a chance to connect to our fellow man.

Let us collectively step down from the ivory tower, and not squander it.

You made it! I can’t thank you enough.

If you liked what I wrote and want to support, hit that ‘applause’ button as many times as you want. The more it’s hit, the more people my writing will reach.

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How does your design shift power? | http://www.piercegordon1.com

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