Keeping Academic Writing Simple

Image says keep calm and keep it simpleAs a new student just entering university, I was obsessed with this idea of “academic writing.” What was it? How could I recognize it? How was I supposed to do it? I was always worrying about whether my writing was “formal” enough, or “academic” enough. Now, years later, I’ve sort of got the answers to those questions. But mostly I’ve just finally learned to stop worrying about it by keeping it simple.

As a peer tutor with the Writing and Communication Centre, I continue to see students coming in with those exact same questions, those exact same fears. And I continue to see students struggle, trying to write in what they think is a proper academic style. Trying to emulate the examples of academic writing that we see every day, which are often lengthy, dense, jargon-heavy, and just plain difficult to read.

Somewhere along the way, it became expected that academic writing must be hard to understand. If a piece of writing is especially complex or difficult, well that’s just a sign of how advanced or sophisticated the ideas are. And conversely, if a piece of writing is simple and easy to follow, well then it’s probably not “academic” or “formal” enough. But all of that is complete nonsense.

when someone explains something to you three times and you still have no idea what's going on

Academic writing is about communicating information and ideas. That’s it. That’s the only requirement. While there are a few rules about formality and citations, for the most part all that matters is that your writing accurately conveys what’s in your head. 

So instead of stressing over whether our writing sounds academic (whatever that means), let’s focus on just making sure we are conveying our information and ideas clearly. The very best academic writing communicates complex ideas in a way that is concise and accessible. How do we do that? By adapting the KISS Principle from design thinking.

Here are some things you can try that will make your writing more “academic” by keeping it simple:

 the pointWrite Less

Sometimes less is more. It’s a cliché, but it’s also true, because the more you write, the less effective your writing becomes.

Try using short, simple sentences. Don’t clutter them with unnecessary words or details. Ask yourself what specific point or piece of information you are trying to communicate in each sentence, and then remove anything that is not directly contributing to that goal. If a word or phrase is not adding anything to a sentence, then it might just be a distraction.

Think about your writing from a reader’s perspective. As they read your writing, they’re trying to figure out what your argument is, what your points are, what evidence you have. The more extra stuff you have in your writing, the harder it’s going to be for your readers. You never want your reader to have to start hunting for “the point” of a sentence. Ideally, an academic paper should be like the worst game of “Where’s Waldo?” imaginable.

how I look when someone asks me what I'm writing aboutTake it One Idea at a Time

A simple structure can make even the most complicated ideas easy to understand. The key is to take it step by step, breaking down what you want to say into the smallest possible pieces, and then arranging those in a clear, logical order.

Each paragraph should represent one complete idea or claim. Every sentence should represent one complete thought or piece of information. Transitions should show how one idea connects with (or leads to) another. These are the basic building blocks of any piece of writing. Ideas, thoughts, connections.

You might try to think of academic writing as the tool that it is. The purpose of any tool is to accomplish a task as efficiently as possible.  When we use a hammer, we are not (usually) making a fashion statement. We are trying to build something, and it sucks to push those nails in by hand. Adding tassels to the hammer accomplishes nothing and might actually distract from your task. Your writing is the same. If your writing is lining up the pieces and hammering your points home (okay, this analogy has run its course), then it’s doing its job, and that’s what’s important.

When we start to combine multiple thoughts into the same sentence, or multiple ideas into the same paragraph, that’s when things can sometimes get confusing. If you have a paragraph that’s making two distinct points or claims, try splitting it into two separate paragraphs. If you’ve got multiple thoughts crammed into a single sentence, consider breaking it up into multiple sentences, to let those thoughts breathe. Let your reader experience your writing one idea at a time. That allows them to fully digest each new piece of information before moving on. Ideally, each new sentence should be a short, simple step on the path towards your conclusion. Use transition phrases to link your ideas together, and BOOM! now your writing is academic. Clear, but academic.

Meme of a man holding a pipe and saying sometimes I use big words I don't understandWrite in Your Own Words

You’ve probably heard this advice before when it comes to quoting or paraphrasing other writers. But that’s not what I mean here. What I mean is write your ideas the way you speak. Write in a way that feels natural to you, finding your own unique voice as an academic writer.

A good method is to actually try voicing your ideas out loud. Think about what information you are trying to convey, and then just start speaking. Imagine a friend has asked you what you’re writing, and you need to explain it to them. You can do this while taking notes, recording yourself, or having a friend listen. This process obviously won’t immediately produce polished writing. But it will help you to identify how you want to write about something. Ask yourself:

  • What were you focused on? What was most important? What was better left out?
  • What order did you explain things in, and why?
  • What kind of tone did you use?

Answering these questions can help us think differently about our writing. Voicing our ideas out loud, as though we are actually explaining them to someone in the room, helps us focus on the functionality of our writing. When we try to verbally articulate complex ideas, we automatically simplify. Not only for the sake of our audience, but so that we don’t asphyxiate trying to power through a five-minute sentence. We can apply that same process to our writing.

It’s What’s Inside that Counts

Often when we think of “academic writing” we’re thinking about how it looks. We’re comparing our language and style to that of published academics in our field. But trying to make our writing look like theirs isn’t going to get us anywhere. In fact, it can make our writing worse, like when we shoehorn in words, phrases, or sentence structures that we’ve seen others use frequently, but which don’t really fit in our writing. By focusing too much on making our writing look like what we think it should, we risk losing track of what we are actually trying to say.

What matters is not how our writing looks but what it does. The purpose of academic writing is to communicate your ideas to the reader. That’s what matters. How is up to you. Simplifying your writing is really a process of making it more personal, more natural.

We communicate with other people every day. And we make ourselves understood perfectly well. In other words, your voice is already clear. You already know how to communicate your ideas. You just need to translate those skills onto the page. In other words, you can, in many ways, actually use yourself as a model. Your writing is “academic enough” as long as it’s allowing you to say what you want to say in the way you want to say it. 

Simple as that.

Want to learn more?

Check out our online resources and workshops on topics like clarity, conciseness, and paragraph development.

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