Academic Writing

“Knowledge is the process of piling up facts; wisdom lies in their simplification.” Martin H Fischer

When we speak we don’t say, “The atmospheric conditions are commendable in this present moment,” but rather, “Nice weather.” So why when people write do they do the opposite?

Good writing has just three simple rules – Accuracy, Brevity and Clarity. That’s it. Say what you mean, say it clearly in as few words as you can and you will be understood.

Bad communication is a sign of woolly thought. So, why when clarity is most needed, do university students, (specifically) not utilize the principles of good writing? Why do they insist on the most convoluted way of saying something when their goals would be better served by being clear and concise?

What drives Master’s students to talk about ‘knowledge transfer’ rather than ‘teaching’ or ‘learning’? Simplicity produces clarity; complexity produces confusion. Do they think because their research and subject matter is complicated, their communication should also be complex?

A difficult topic requires simple writing, especially when the reader lacks the author’s background knowledge and experience. This is almost always the case when a researcher seeks to address an audience (examiners?) who were not part of the research team or involved in similar research.

Students tend to see themselves as members of an elite, cerebral cult; so I suspect using important and obscure sounding words in their work achieves a heady, profound sense of intellectual activity. Paradoxically, complex and technical words used to display intelligence, actually demonstrate the opposite.

Undoubtedly, in many cases a technical word is appropriate, but too much jargon confuses meaning. In any profession, using important sounding, ‘academic’ obscure language is a classic strategy for keeping outsiders at bay. On the basis, if outsiders can plainly understand what is being said, they may show less respect. So students use complex constructions to show how important and clever they really are.

In an age when people have to communicate across multi-disciplinary boundaries these things matter. In science there are excellent role models who can communicate brilliantly without in any way compromising the complexity of their ideas. That mix of confidence and clarity is a sign of intellectual ability. Students must therefore not take refuge in obscurity and elitism.

The clearer, simpler and quicker a thesis clarifies complex issues and is well written, the more the work distinguishes itself and the better it showcases the author’s intelligence. And probably more importantly to students, the more it will endear itself to examiners.