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9 ways to make academic writing clearer


Here are 9 things most scholars do in academic writing but which aren’t often discussed in classes on writing. These are largely derived from Gerald Graff’s article, Scholars and Soundbites: The Myth of Academic Difficulty

1. Be dialogical

Begin your text by directly identifying the prior conversation or debate that you are entering. What you are saying probably won’t make sense unless readers know the conversation in which you say it. Plus, it gives you authority as a thinker: it shows you’ve done your homework.

In a 2008 article in the Times Literary Supplement, scholar Lidija Haas argues that the romance novel has evolved from the days of “carefully examined feelings of young women” in the works of Jane Austen to chick lit novels where love means “a happy resolution after much drinking and shopping.” Indeed, Haas is not the only scholar to identify contemporary shift characterized by the dumbing-down of the definition of love…

2. Make a claim, the sooner the better

And flag it for the reader by a phrase like “My claim here is that […]” You don’t have to use such a phrase, but if you can’t do so you’re in trouble.

So, although love (psychologically or socially speaking) has not changed for humans, our perception of its meaning has, primarily because of mass media – specifically romantic comedy films and pop music.

3. Remind readers of your claim periodically

Especially when you complexify it. If you’re writing about a disputed topic (and if you aren’t why write?), you’ll also have to stop and tell readers what you are not saying, what you don’t want to be taken as saying. Some of them will take you as saying that anyway, but you don’t have to make it easy for them.

However, I am not arguing that the social role of love cannot change. Instead, research shows that mass media can change how we act and think, and thus it seems likely it can change our perception of a concept like love.

4. Summarize the objections that you anticipate can be made (or that have been made) against your claim

Maybe use a phrase like, “Of course, some may object that…” Remember that objectors, even when mean and nasty, are your friends–they help you clarify your claim, and they indicate why it is of interest to others besides yourself. If the objectors weren’t out there, you wouldn’t need to say what you are saying.

Of course, some may argue that popular culture is more diverse than ever before and that we are not seeing a “dumbing down” of love but rather an enormous diversity of definitions of what love means.

5. Say explicitly–or at least imply–why your ideas are important

Imagine a reader over your shoulder who asks, “So what?” or “Who cares about any of this?” Again, you don’t have to write in such questions, but if you were to write them in and couldn’t answer them, you’re in trouble. You might use a sentence setup like “Although some might think _____ is trivial, it is in fact crucial in modern society because….”

So why examine the meaning of love? We’re smart enough to realize the messages in movies and music aren’t real, right? In fact, if the studies of propaganda and advertising mentioned above show anything, it is that the human psychology is tremendously impressionable.

6. Generate a “metatext” that stands apart from your main text and puts it in perspective

Good writing consists of two levels of text, one where you make your point, and a second where you tell readers how (and how not) to read it. This second text is usually signalled by reflexive phrases like “I do not mean to suggest that […],” “Here you will probably object that […],” “To put the point another way […],” “But why am I so emphatic on this point?,” and “What I’ve been trying to say here, then, is […].”

When writing is unclear, the reason usually has less to do with jargon or verbal obscurity than with the absence of such metacommentary, which may be needed to explain why it was necessary to write the thing in the first place.

We might stop here and wonder whether an academic essay such as this does any good in countering the messages of love that we are bombarded by on a daily basis in pop culture. Is the solution to change pop culture (which is, of course, impossible)?

7. Remember that readers can process only one claim at a time

There’s no use trying to squeeze in secondary and tertiary claims that are better left for another essay or paragraph, or at least for another part of your essay, where they can be clearly marked off from your main claim.

If you’re an academic, you are probably so eager to prove that you’ve left no thought unconsidered that you find it hard to resist the temptation to say everything at once, and consequently you say nothing that is understood while producing horribly overloaded paragraphs and sentences like this sentence, monster-sized footnotes, and readers who fling your text aside and turn on the TV.

8. Be bilingual

It’s not possible to avoid academic lingo. Sometimes you need the stuff. But whenever you have to say something in academic-talk, try to say it in plain language, too. You’ll be surprised to find that when you restate an academic point in your nonacademic voice, the point is enriched (or else you see how vacuous it is) and you’re led to new perceptions.

To put the point another way: we are what we eat. If we consume movies and music that portray love as “fun” and “easy,” they will necessarily shape our thinking.

9. Don’t kid yourself about the brilliant point you’re trying to make

If you can’t explain it to a layperson, the chances are you don’t understand what you’re saying yourself.

Read this interview with scholar Gerald Graff