Image: jumbled type/Flickr user D Sharon Pruitt
Outside of academic circles, it is an accepted truth that academics can’t write. Or, to put a finer point on it, that we can’t write well for public consumption.
Conventional wisdom says that most scholars have not been trained in the craft of writing (which remains, sadly, mostly true) and cannot — either because of our natural inclinations or our years of inculcation in the esoteric languages of our disciplines — learn to write for general audiences. In short, academics seem mostly hopeless when it comes to popular writing. But why?
If you’re a bit hot under the collar after reading that last paragraph, I don’t blame you. As scholars and all-around high-achievers, we react poorly to being told we don’t do something well — especially when that something is a task we are called upon to do as a routine part of our jobs. But talk to the editors of almost any popular media publication and they will tell you that the reason most scholars can’t write for public consumption boils down to a single, overarching problem: academic jargon.
When we write for ourselves, we end up with overly complex, clunky, and highly jargon-laden prose like this:
That a resistance to what is known today as biopower — the control, regulation, exploitation and instrumentalization of the living being — might emerge from possibilities written into the structure of the living being itself, not from the philosophical concepts that tower over it; that there might be a biological resistance to the biopolitical; that the bio- might be viewed as a complex and contradictory authority, opposed to itself and referring to both the ideological vehicle of modern sovereignty and to that which holds it in check: this, apparently, has never been thought.
And no, I didn’t make that up. It’s real prose taken from a recently published academic article. At first glance, that long sentence is written with what we might think of as “normal” English words. Except that the prose above is not only overly complex, but riddled with jargon — biopower, instrumentalization, ideological vehicle, sovereignty, biopolitical. I might argue that even “resistance” and “structure” here are jargon, since they rely on a certain reading of those words to fully grasp their meaning within the sentence. (Note: Before you write me an angry note in the comments section arguing that this text wasn’t meant for popular consumption and that jargon is useful and necessary in the academy, please read on.)
As Steven Pinker has famously argued, academics are burdened with the Curse of Knowledge. Our advanced and specialized educations, he says, make it difficult for us to understand or imagine what someone else might not know about our subjects. And that curse produces a lot of bad prose unfit for public consumption. The problem is that when we do want to write for popular media, we can’t seem to give up our reliance on jargon, or at least not easily. As Pinker suggests (and I fully agree), once we have learned how to effectively communicate in the lingua franca of our discipline, we’ve likely lost touch with how to talk about our subject matter in normal language.
In my experience, the single hardest writing task for most academics is learning how to write for public audiences. And the single worst habit we have is using overly complicated language to express complex ideas. Simple sentences don’t equate to simple ideas — but you wouldn’t know that from reading most academic texts. As Deborah S. Bosley, a former English professor and now a writing consultant, notes in a recent article in The Atlantic: “It’s easy to be complex, it’s harder to be simple. It would make academics better researchers and better writers, though, if they had to translate their thinking into plain language.”
But getting rid of jargon — an absolute requirement of getting published in nonacademic forums — is no easy task, even for more experienced writers. Last summer, I was working with a literary agent on a nonfiction book proposal for major publishing houses. I’m trained as a journalist and pride myself on my jargon-free writing. So imagine my surprise and embarrassment when I received the following feedback after an early draft: “I don’t know what you’re saying here and I’m a smart guy. Can you clean up the language, get rid of the jargon, and make the argument more clear?” The problem was that I thought I already had. It turns out that, despite my writing background, I was just another unwitting victim of Pinker’s Curse of Knowledge.
So what are we to do? How do we jettison jargon when we often don’t even know we’re using it? Here are a couple of things to try.
Talk instead of write. If you’re prone to jargon, then do what comes most naturally — talk out your text. That will also help the tone of your piece. In popular writing, especially in blog posts or creative essays, tone is important. You want to engage the reader in a conversation.
Have someone outside of your discipline read your draft. As a Ph.D., you’ve already drunk the Kool-Aid in your discipline. When you’re trying to prune jargon out of your popular writing, you need someone who hasn’t (or someone who drank a different flavor than you). Ask one or two of your best nonacademic friends to read it over. Those friends are probably more indicative of your audience than you realize. Have them pick out all the words, phrases, or sentences that they don’t quite understand or that frustrate them. Ask them to be honest. Tell them you can take it and be open to the feedback. That is the single best way to transform your academic writing style into readable prose for a general audience.
In the end, writing clearly doesn’t mean diluting your arguments. It simply means getting them across to more people. And that can never be a bad thing. Writing clearly and simply for popular media outlets should count as academic service and scholars should be encouraged to practice and hone that skill set. My former journalism professor and mentor, Jane Harrigan, recently reminded me of the advice of Joseph Pulitzer: “Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.”