Based on research by Erik Dane
Time For Academics To Talk Straight
- Traditional academic writing is dense and inaccessible.
- Writing for nonacademic audiences can help scholars bring life to their professional writing.
- Writing in plain English matters: Accessible language broadens the reach of research and generates social change.
Academic research is a powerful force.
It deepens understanding of daily life. It undergirds laws. And, in an era poisoned by “fake news,” it can provide a desperately needed barometer to gauge what’s real and what’s not.
No one would accuse the academy of taking such duties lightly, exactly. Academics hold their work to strict account, typically basing their utterances on empirical evidence, rigorous peer-review and conceptual precision. Little wonder that the media constantly seek interviews with them or opinion pieces buttressed by their research.
Why is it, then, that for many readers, academic writing is useless?
Pick up an academic journal without a PhD and try deciphering it. There may be original thinking and breakthroughs in there, but they’re mostly encoded in language that researchers seem to be using to communicate exclusively with each other. How many lay people use terms such as metacritical, taxonomic, hermeneutics or polysemy?
In an article published in, yes, an academic journal, but mercifully devoid of esoteric terms, former Rice Business Professor Erik Dane argues that traditional academic writing is obscuring the very arguments, theories and insights that researchers need to explain. Academese, he writes, is so larded with jargon that it dulls the impact of the ideas themselves.
Entrenched over generations, this lexicon favors appropriateness over clarity and linguistic formula over originality. Articles resemble each other, authors sound interchangeable and yet their words are comprehensible only to other academics. “The way academics write,” Dane says, “is rooted in institutional pressures that exact conformity in exchange for membership.”
To fulfill their public duty as intellectuals, Dane writes, researchers must venture beyond their own tribe.
Failure to do so means that important ideas – often generated with the help of taxpayer dollars – are trapped in an ivory tower inaccessible to the people who need new ideas the most: decision-makers, leaders, policy-writers and voters.
The first step? Try writing for a non-academic audience, Dane recommends. “Most researchers publish their work in peer-reviewed journals where there’s a rigid formula for style,” he notes. Pitching ideas to trade books, mainstream magazines and newspapers requires brushing up on brisk, everyday language and clearly connecting the dots.
Luckily, certain exercises can make clear writing easier. Creative writing, for example, can “trigger new associations and loosen assumptions about the nature of writing itself,” Dane writes. Switching from an expository to an imaginative mindset helps the writer call established norms into doubt and triggers a creative process.
Reading widely and beyond the scope of academic literature can also remind scholars of the full expressive range of English. “Across distinct forms of writing, from rhetorical rants to poems to graphic novels,” Dane says, “our language unfurls itself in remarkable cadences and combinations.” Imagine harnessing some of those to make a reader understand and care about finance, stem cell research or discrimination research.
By injecting personality, even wit, into their writing, Dane says, academics stand to gain relevance far beyond the academy. And maybe even within it: “My hunch is that articles that have a dash of ‘deviance’ will actually fare better within the peer-review process,” Dane writes. “As academics, we advance sequentially from one point to the next, constructing a chain of logic that props up the hypothesis while acknowledging any gaps left to be explored. But introducing some flair into the way we write will make our writing sound better. Making that transition from monotone to melodious can help us make our work more memorable too.”
The impact of any research, in the end, depends on whether it sticks in a reader’s mind. Writing with life to it can introduce an academic’s hard-won findings to broader audiences that can actually benefit and act on them.
“We often bemoan the fact that business practitioners don’t read what we publish,” Dane argues. “And in many fields there’s a sizeable gap between research and practice. The more engaging our writing … the better off we’ll all be from a societal point of view.”
In an era characterized by “fake news,” hyperconnectivity and unprecedented change, it’s more important than ever for those on the front lines of knowledge to report what they know. What a waste when the truths they struggled to unearth are buried again, in their own words.
Erik Dane is a former professor and was the Distinguished Associate Professor of Management (Organizational Behavior) at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.
To learn more, please see: Dane, E. (2011). Changing the tune of academic writing: Muting cognitive entrenchment. Journal of Management Inquiry, 20(3), 332-336.