Academic writing: But what does it really mean?

Have you ever read an article for a class and wondered what exactly the author was talking about? Perhaps situations like this contribute to why so many students don’t bother with readings. If someone understands a subject well enough to publish academic papers, surely they can explain it in plainer language. In fact, there is a movement of academics who are fighting against opaque language.[1]

When you read “UNDRIP draws its “strong moral basis” from an international legal shift over time from the absolute right of state sovereignty to the recognition of human rights,” you may find yourself scratching your head. The language is rather opaque, while it may the shortest way to summarize an idea, it is not the clearest. A clear – and more accessible version – might read “UNDRIP draws its moral power from the fact that, today, an individual’s human rights are valued higher than the right of a state to do whatever it likes.”[2] In this piece, I hope to show you that the second example is essential to writing well.

I have developed an interest in writing styles for two reasons. First, as a student I find myself writing papers for school on a regular basis and try to consistently improve my own writing style. Second, as the editor-in-chief of an undergraduate journal, I want our content to be accessible to students without compromising the academic strength of papers. However, academic strength should depend on someone ability to explain complex ideas simply rather than make simple ideas complicated.

If academics are only writing for their peers, then jargon use shouldn’t impede individuals from comprehending. However, if academics ever hope to have their work understood beyond academia, then plain language is essential. Furthermore, for students to ever be ‘initiated’ into a given field they first need to be taught how to understand the jargon. Outside academia, plain language is even more important since it allows the average citizen to understand the law or consumer information on pharmaceuticals.

Students also need to learn how to write in plain language. By explaining more complex ideas or concepts – which may be summarized in a shorter fashion by jargon – they demonstrate their own comprehension of the topic. Typically, undergraduate papers are written for an audience with no prior knowledge of the field, not the teaching assistant and professor. Sometimes it can be difficult to identify what needs to be further explained. The best way is to leave time for a last round of editing, when you read your paper a few days after finishing it you’ll have a clearer perspective. This way, it will be easier to catch any wordy or needlessly complicated sentences. Alternatively, if you are pressed on time, asking a friend or family member who is not knowledgeable in the field for feedback can help you pinpoint weaknesses.

Overtime, I have found that many professors suggest trying to summarize articles by writing a statement about what the author really means. Such statements are easier studying material than re-reading articles or someone else’s notes. However, if a paper is full of “needless complexity”, you’ll never get the bottom of what the author really means. In such cases, asking friends, the teaching assistant, or professor is the best way to understand the paper. If you really want to be the difference, start implementing plain language in your own work.

[1] Inspiration for this article from Clayton, Victoria (26 October 2015). “The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing: A New Movement Strives for Simplicity.” The Atlantic.

[2] Sentence from my own work. Reference Lenzerini, Federico. “Sovereignty Revisited: International Law and Parallel Sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples,” Texas International Law Journal 42, no. 1 (2006): 182.

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