Academic writing is a complex business. And it's that complexity that makes it difficult. Although I've been in academic writing since 1996, I recently realized why so many writing tips don't work for graduate students and teachers. Do you notice a pattern? Everyone writes for a non-specialized audience.
Yes, you can expect criticism, but the main reason you post is to inform or entertain a subsection of the public. I was never trained to write or teach. I entered my first class on September 28, 2001, with no teaching experience. And write? We received zero writing training, unless you sometimes counted cryptic comments in our articles.
Harvard Title IX Coordinator Apologizes for Statement on Comaroff Lawsuit Cambridge City Officials Discuss Universal Pre-K New Cambridge Police Commissioner Promises Greater Transparency and Accountability Harvard Alumni Association Executive Director renounce history, science and philosophy accessible to the public. We can suggest that they refine their methods, but we must support their objective. Instead, many academics seem to dismiss the popularization of their fields as a futile and risky pursuit. For me, the choice is clear.
To get people to listen, we need academics who are experts in translating complex ideas into accessible language. Harvard students are especially fortunate, as the quality of our education is unmatched. For this reason, we should try to share what we learn with as many people as possible, whether it's making videos, articles, or even smart Twitter threads. Once we break free from the notion that academic knowledge can only be communicated through esoteric research work, we realize that every day offers us the opportunity to help educate (and learn from) those around us.
A common theory is that academics write badly on purpose. Rather than trying to be as clear and understandable as possible, academic articles are attempts to impress other scholars with how dark and complex their research is, or worse, they hide the fact that they have nothing new to say. This may be partly true, but to claim that all academics are selfish braggards is too simplistic. The causes of the prevalence of bad writing are more complex and interesting.
The teachers did not sit down and decided to do academic writing in this way, nor did the journalists sit down and decide to invent lists. You experience a multiplier or multiplicative effect if you teach and write about the oppression that affects you and your family. For that matter, read what many other good writers like Vern Klinkenborg, Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez say about writing. If you've ever read an academic paper, you've probably come across phrases like “The individual member of the social community often receives your information through visual and symbolic channels.
It's painful to see them (and me) struggle with so many fraudulent expectations of academic writing. I rarely start with free writing anymore, and I usually work more than a 25-minute pomodoro, but I continue to do the Writing Challenge with my friends and put on the writing support Slack at least once a week. Increasingly, to build a successful academic career, you must serially impress very small groups of people (departmental colleagues, editors of journals and books, ownership committees). When I started writing my thesis, my anxiety and tears paralyzed me every time I sat down to write.
In reality, part of the reason academics don't try to attract their readers is that they don't really need to. A few weeks ago, inspired by graduate students struggling to write, I shared a hard-won writing experience in a Twitter thread. They don't write for a wide audience, but for a small circle of fellow academics who have the same knowledge and have a keen interest in finding errors in their research. Apparently, MANY graduate students, postdocs and professors identified with how DIFFICULT it is to write.