Putting Your Paper on a Diet: Slimming Down an Academic Text

Creating Engaging Academic Articles

Academic writes down the main points

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Academic Language Experts.

In 1998, Arts & Letters Daily co-founder Dennis Dutton awarded first prize in his annual Bad Writing Contest to UC Berkeley professor Judith Butler for a prime example of bloated academic writing:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Most readers, even professional researchers, find this kind of academese virtually undecipherable. However, some authors nevertheless write in just this style, brandishing five-syllable words, lengthy sentences, and ambiguous phrasing.

It is true that academic authors need to keep in mind their intended audience, its knowledge level, and to use (correctly) the technical terminology of the discipline, this does not preclude writing in plain English. Plain language does not mean boring language. Clear, fluent, and straightforward English prose can create vivid images, memorable phrases, and impactful arguments far better than a stereotypically convoluted academic style.

A study by psychology professor Daniel Oppenheimer showed that readers view this kind of complex text negatively. This negative reaction is only reinforced by readers’ busy lives, the 24-hour-news cycle, and information overload, which compels readers to scan texts in order to absorb information more quickly.

When readers encounter academic language that is difficult to understand, they will often move on. If authors hope to excite readers about their subject and reach a broader audience than highly specialized academics, the language should be easy to read.

Dense text can also make working with an academic editor more difficult, as the editor will question areas of confusion and seek clarity—taking more time to finish the paper.

Authors and editors should be aware of the following signs of poor academic writing and be able to correct them:

  • Grandiose words. Long, ten-dollar words—in addition to being unfamiliar to some readers—often have multiple meanings, which can make the writing ambiguous. Use the simplest, clearest word possible. Why use the word transnational when the word global is shorter and clearer?

  • Too many prepositional or wordy phrases. Authors can sometimes overuse prepositions, adverbs, adjectives, and nominalizations (making a verb into a noun phrase). For example, instead of writing “in the procurement of,” you can say “in obtaining.”

  • Overly complicated and lengthy sentences. Long sentences with a lot of internal phrasing can be difficult for readers to easily understand, forcing them to reread the sentence several times to grasp its meaning. Tell your story as simply as possible so that readers understand the meaning of each sentence during the first reading. Vary sentence length for easy flow.

  • Vague academic phrases and concepts. Readers can be put off by overly-scholarly phrases and concepts that are not immediately understandable; it may lead them to move on to something else. To avoid this pitfall, use phrases that are common to the discipline and your readership.

  • Unexplained and unclear terms. Don’t assume that readers are familiar with your work or the latest studies in the field. While readers who are part of a certain discipline may be expected to have a certain level of knowledge, it is best to explain unfamiliar terms. If you are unsure, you can use Google Ngram and dictionaries to reveal how common a word is. Also avoid making up words and concepts that may confuse readers.

  • Filler phrases. These include phrases such as “and other things” or “and other influences” (or the verboten etc.) as well as words indicating uncertainty, such as apparently, nearly, relatively, presumably, and seemingly. Be definite when making assertions, and provide specific evidence to back up your claims.

  • Passive voice. This is a hallmark of poor writing in general. Some writers overuse prepositional phrases that increase sentence length (the eye may also start to skip these phrases in an effort to scan text). Where possible and appropriate, rework sentences in the active voice. Keep in mind, however, that sometimes a sentence requires the passive voice due to the context or to maintain consistency with the authorial voice.

To create engaging academic articles and books, authors and editors can work together to craft a text that shows readers how much the author understands a subject, rather than how much he or she knows. Academic editors are the field marshals who can help authors reach that goal.

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