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Unreadable academic writing

We’ve recently received a number of emails and tweets about really poor academic writing. There are few meaningful excuses for the kind of writing in question, but several likely reasons behind it.

So why is academic writing often so unreadable? As our university students return for another year, here are a few suggestions.

Firstly, it’s down to laziness. Trying to make incomprehensible waffle read simply would take too much time. In other words – in academic circles, writing is unclear because it can be. Who is going to point out that it reads badly if it sounds clever? So bad habits continue, and academic writing continues to be full of ‘placeholder’ terminology. In other words, academic writers lean on the same old jargon rather than write something difficult and genuinely insightful.

Secondly, it’s down to academic insularity. There’s an expectation among teachers and students that they must use specific, complex terminology. It’s true that, depending on the subject, various terms of reference are unavoidable. But the explanation of those terms also tends to rely on jargon, for no good reason. Although it often unfortunately does, academic should never mean ‘difficult to understand’. Teaching and learning should always, particularly at the highest level, be about breaking things down into comprehensible parts. The harder things are to understand, the clearer the information needs to be.

Lastly, and most worryingly, it comes down to the academic writer’s lack of understanding. Most of the worst examples of academic writing we’ve received seem to be bad for one main reason – the use of jargon to mask confusion or dress up simplicity. And the problem deepens when such vague verbosity is then rewarded. It’s a cycle of meaningless gobbledygook.

Stephanie Coontz, a faculty member at the Evergreen State College in Washington state and a frequent contributor to publications including the New York Times, agrees.

“You talk to academics who love these big words…they nod and agree and recapitulate the same three- and four-syllable words and very abstract, complicated phrases. It’s not until you force them to explain it in plain English that you realise they don’t even understand it.”

In his piece ‘On academic ‘writing’, David Tourish, Professor of Leadership at Royal Holloway, University of London, suggests: “In academia, it seems that when we have nothing much to say we attempt to distract attention from that sad fact by saying it as pretentiously and at as much length as possible.”

Legendary quantum physicist Richard Feynman once dismissively translated ‘The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels’ to clearer ‘People read’. The following quote sums up his attitude to windy, pointlessly verbose academic writing.

“Don’t say ‘reflected acoustic wave’, say ‘echo’. Forget all that ‘local minima’. Just say there's a ‘bubble’ caught in the crystal and you have to shake it.”

In summary, poor academic writing is lazy, insular, encourages bad habits and is often either confused or pointless. We can only sympathise with those continuing to email and tweet us who are tired of the championing of wordy fluff.

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