The Study Dude – Academic Writing Stinks, Part I

Study Tips from a Semi-Anonymous Friend

There is nothing more that The Study Dude wants for you than to write essays that don’t reek of the academics? diseases: puff and jargon.

Well, in these articles, as The Study Dude, I’ll try to give you the study tips you need to help make your learning easier. I’ll also give you straight and honest opinions and personal anecdotes?even the embarrassing ones that you wouldn’t ever dare read about from any other study tip guru.

This week’s Study Dude helps you flaunt your sense of style. Steven Pinker’s bestseller Sense of Style will ensure you don’t write like a professor on metaphorical depressants. Instead, write like you care about your audience. So, make your writing fun, memorable, and, most importantly, understandable.

Make Your Words Twist and Pop
Clichés. Nobody likes them. Clichés prompt professors to pooh-pooh your papers.

But, I read in another book that clichés can refresh your writing if you give them a twist. Take a cliché and change a word or two. Or give the cliché a whole new spin. For instance, you can say, “Unlike the gossip he was rumoured to be, my date wasn’t all ears; he was all hands.”

Steven Pinker has oodles of advice to give on how to make words twist, pop, and delight:
– To cultivate your writing style, read anything and everything. Go further and mimic the style of writers you admire: “writers acquire their technique by spotting, savouring, and reverse-engineering examples of good prose” (p. 12).
– Learn as many idioms as you can. Idioms are those peculiar phrases we use that don’t translate easily into other languages, such as “It’s raining cats and dogs” or “Bite the bullet.” With a stockpile of idioms at your disposal, you can twist and shape them into clever new expressions (you can even buy dictionaries of idioms.)
– don’t listen to Strunk and White and other linguists from the ancient times. Instead, dare yourself to add some lively figures of speech into your writing. Insert a tongue-twister, if you’ve got the guts.
– Use parallel constructions. Say, “I saw. I went. I found.” don’t say, “I perceived the object. Toward it I trailed. Then I found it.” This helps lend clarity to your writing, and clear writing is good writing.
– If your parallel constructions get too repetitive, however, flip around some of the words for flavour. For instance, do say, “He claimed himself to be both a more talented performer than Christian Bale and a singer more shocking than Lady Gaga.” Rely on your ear.
– You have permission to add fancy or surprising words, especially ones that slip and slide on your tongue like a chocolate covered strawberry. For instance, use the word “titillating” or “fleshed out” when talking about romantic subjects.

Write Like You Speak to a Friend: Skip the Meta-discourse, Blot Out the Zombie Nouns
In a future Study Dude article, I will examine a book called Reason & Rigor: How Conceptual Frameworks Guide Research. The Reason & Rigor book cost me a small fortune. I eyed the book for half a year before finally breaking down and buying it. When the book arrived in the mail, I tore open the Amazon packaging, spread the book open to a random page, and read a paragraph of gobbledygook.

Now, I’m certain something was said in that paragraph, maybe something like “ideas are good for building theory,” but it took tens and tens of puffed up nouns to say it. When I realized that the authors said very little in a lot of text, I shuffled the book to the bottom of my to-read pile, noting that I will likely have to reduce every hundred words the authors say to five just to get the drift.

Dr. Helen Sword, author of Stylish Academic Writing calls these puffed up nouns “zombie nouns”. In other Study Dude articles, I talk about how these nouns, called nominalizations, change verbs and adjectives into long, stuffy nouns. One example of a nominalization?take the verb confront and turn it into the stuffy confrontation. Stuff lots of those zombie nouns together into one paragraph, and you end up with a confused reader.

A fan of Helen Sword’s himself, Steven Pinker shows you how to make your writing intelligible by avoiding both zombie nouns and signposts:
– You need to write clearly and simply.
– “Bad writing sounds makes the reader feel like a dunce” (p. 36).
– don’t write with lots of abstractions. Use concrete, physical words that you can see, feel, touch, taste, or smell.
– don’t try to sound like your professor and announce what you plan to say. don’t say, “I am going to discuss…” (which is an example of signposting). Who cares? Just say it.
– don’t use your conclusion to repeat what you’ve already said in your essay. That’s boring. Try to reword what you said and link your sentences in a way that creates a whole new self-contained story: your ending.
– don’t say your topic is complicated, complex, controversial, difficult. We know that already.
– don’t use words such as sort of, relatively, somewhat, kind of. Get to the point. If you must qualify what you say, use an actual number. Say 80% likely instead of highly likely, if you have access to supporting statistics.
– Use verbs instead of nominalizations. In other words, say, “define” instead of “the definition of…”

The Foul-Breath of Jargon
What is jargon? Words hardly anyone understands. Steven Pinker explains the meaning of jargon best when he takes the sentence, “There is significant positive correlation between measures of food intake and body mass index,” and translates it to, “The more you eat, the fatter you get” (p. 74).

Recently, I beefed up my writing by sprinkling in big words. Big words means denser prose, which means better writing, right? Wrong.

My writing changed for the better only after my managing editor told me that the key purpose of writing was to clearly share thoughts and ideas: to share meaning. He said, the less the reader has to struggle to understand what you are saying, the better. His words marked a turning point for me. Since then, I delete my pompous, ego-inflating words and replace them with simpler English. I now try to write as if you, the reader, once served as my best friend in kindergarten and stuck with me ever since; in other words, “Write like you are writing to a friend.”

I also now try to buy academic books that use down-to-earth English. A good example of an easy-to-read book is Theory Building in Applied Disciplines by Swanson and Chermack. Theory building as a topic sounds scary, and some authors make theory building seem harder than getting an A in film theory, but Swanson and Chermack make theory-building seem easy, useful, and fun.

But back to Steven Pinker. He knows that academic writing doesn’t benefit from jargon:
– Writers sometimes deliberately use hard-to-understand words to “hide the fact that they have nothing to say” (p. 58). Big words puff the writer’s ego but deflate the readers’s ability to get the drift.
– Explain what the jargon you use means.
– Sometimes we forget that our readers know less about the subject than we do. Ensure you spell out your technical definitions and write out your acronyms.
– When you use a technical term, generously use more than one example to define the word.
– Use words that can be visualized. For instance, call something by its more specific name: “a 1970s ham radio” instead of “an audio device”. As another example, call something “a 2016 black Lamborghini” instead of “a sports vehicle.” And last of all, call yourself, “a straight A student on the fast-track to a PhD” rather than “a good student.” After all, the tag fits.

So, there’s nothing to fear. The Study Dude is determined to make right for you all the wrongs I made in grad school?one A+ at a time.

Pinker, Steven. 2014. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York, NY: Penguin Books.