When the public think of academic writing, words such as ‘verbose,’ ’pretentious,’ and ‘hieroglyphic’ may spring to mind. But just because convoluted jargo-babble is a part of the pedagogical landscape, it doesn’t mean it should be. Academic writing should instead be simple. And since every writer becomes ingrained in their habits, what is needed to simplify successfully is distance: a pause once the work is complete, fresh eyes before the dissertation is rephrased to be readable. To be clear, what is needed is the rewriting process.
After all, the most basic aim of writing is to be read: and while pontifical, stuffy prose may occasionally impress, usually it will only put the reader off (Rountree, 1991, p.44). In any case, the aim is not to impress with your vocabulary, but with your ideas. And prolix prose is not a means of communicating ideas–it is an impediment.
So if you want to get through to your audience, “aim constantly for simplicity and clarity” (Rose, 2001, p.156). Use simple synonyms. Use simple sentences. Use concrete words (Kirszner & Mendell, 2001, p.346). But do not use too many words. Express your ideas without indulgent ornamentation: try to write for laymen, not scholars. The scholars will appreciate it too.
Old habits die hard however, and despite your best efforts your writing may still ramble on and on, packed with the same old grandiloquent confabulation as before. In this case, self-estrangement is necessary. Once you have finished the draft, just walk away. Become detached from what you have written, so that when you do look at it you look at it objectively. Then when you revise, you will be able to see the grandiloquent confabulation for what it is–and expunge it (Kirszner & Mendell, 2001, p.347).
When academic writers are accused of being ‘verbose,’ ‘pretentious,’ and ‘hieroglyphic,’ they should pay attention. And they should respond by striving to earn a better label for themselves: that of being ‘succinct.’ They need to descend from their ivory towers just a little, if they want their voices to be heard.
Rountree, K. (1991). A practical guide for New Zealand students.
Auckland: Longman Paul.
Rose, J. (2001). The mature student’s guide to writing.
Kirszner, L., & Mandell, S. (2001). The brief holt handbook. 3rd ed.