This article resonated with me. It talks about the difference between what literary critics regard as preeminent American literature, and what Americans enjoy reading. Kirsch writes…
Another way of putting it is that when Americans read, we mostly read for story, not for style. We want to know what happens next, and not to be slowed down by writing that calls attention to itself. According to one familiar indictment of modern literature, today’s literary writers are unpopular precisely because they have lost interest in telling stories and become obsessed with technique. In the 20th century, the argument goes, literature became esoteric, self-regarding and difficult, losing both the storytelling power and the mass readership that writers like Balzac, Dickens and Twain had enjoyed.
I couldn’t help but think about the parallels to academic writing. I’m a big fan of Helen Sword’s work, and her books are go-to resources for my PhD students and in my own work as an editor. Sword makes an analogous argument as Kirsch about academic writing, and I couldn’t agree more with her perspective. Most academic writing—including my own—is darn hard to read. Not because of complicated concepts, but because the writing does not engage the reader. It is almost as if we (professors) write to hear ourselves talk!
In the last year or so I’ve made a conscious effort to improve my writing. The main goal is to make my writing more approachable and more enjoyable to read. When I say enjoyable, I am not trying to make an academic paper read like Jurassic Park. My enjoyable metric is a reader who is a) not exhausted by reading something I wrote; and b) finds what I wrote useful.
So here are three things I’m doing to improve my writing…
Keep the (normal) reader in mind
I often use complicated language, jargon, and phrasing in my writing. What I’ve found is that the more complicated my writing, the less clarity I have in my mind about what I want to say. If it isn’t clear to me it won’t be clear to my reader, and complicated writing reflects less clarity of thought. I’m not the first writer to stumble on this concept.
One trick that I’m having some success with is, well, talking to myself. I imagine that I am talking to another professor—an academic, but one not familiar with my topic. What do I say? How do I say it? Then I write down what I’ve said, and start a new round of questions—is that what I meant to say? Am I being clear? Would “other me” believe my argument? It’s an internal dialogue, going back and forth between writer and reader. As an aside, this technique has also helped me make what I write more useful—at least that is the goal!
I haven’t yet found the silver bullet software tool for grammar and sentence construction. I usually write in R markdown and Google Docs, and neither of those platforms have native grammar tools. But I do have a collection of indispensable tools. The first is The Writer’s Diet from Helen Sword. I like the simple “diagnosis” of a writing sample, and to be able to see where I need to focus to make it better. For example, the first draft of this post “needs toning” (and it still does because of all the darn verbs!). The second tool I use is Hemingway Editor. I have an adverb problem, and the tool flags my problem areas. I also like the passive voice flag, and the suggestions for simpler alternatives.
My third tool, and one reason MS Word still has a place on laptop, is the native grammar and style checker. Again, it’s not a silver bullet, but that little blue squiggly line remains a helpful tool to identify grammatical errors. The MS Word grammar tool is how I learned to write in active voice, and I often tell students not to turn in a deliverable if it still has a blue squiggly!
Be my own merciless editor
The last one was the hardest for me to adopt but was also the most helpful. Drawing inspiration from Stephen King, I put myself in the position of being the harshest, most relentless editor I can imagine. No paragraph is sacrosanct; no sentence untouchable; no phrase beyond reproach. Sometimes I hit the delete key. Sometimes I hit Cmd+A, then delete. Sometimes I keep what I wrote as a reference, but usually I start over. The idea is to avoid getting so attached to a pithy insight that you cannot make it better. I also find that being stubborn about keeping a paragraph or sentence negatively covaries with keeping the reader in mind—the more I want to keep something I wrote, the less useful the words are to the reader. This takes a lot of humility in your writing, but humility is a trait we can all use more of.
By no stretch am I a good writer. I do think I am a better writer today than I was 2-3 years ago, and want to be a better writer 2-3 years from now than I am today. One of the best parts about being a professor is thinking and writing for a living—and we can improve both skills with commitment and practice!