This impersonal style is more isolating than educational
Photo: Rémi Yuan
It’s getting to be that time again when the writing and submission of dry, tedious academic essays is at an all-time high. I would know, having written plenty of them myself.
This is not the fault of students. From the first day of university—or high school, for some people—they have been taught to maintain a flat, totally detached tone throughout their scholarly writing. The world of academia claims that this kind of writing style is used to cultivate an objective voice, which is supposed to make your paper more persuasive and compelling.
Instead, all it succeeds in doing most of the time is eliminating any trace of humanity or accessibility from your text.
Much of this problem can be summed up through the debate over the use of personal pronouns. Such a thing is heavily frowned upon, especially for those who teach in the sciences.
But more expressive language can enhance the clarity of your text. By using the first person in a few strategic spots you can avoid awkward constructions and instances of vagueness, allowing you to take a more authoritative stance on the subject at hand. It’s especially effective when you want to avoid something like the passive voice, an evasive construction that makes you sound like a weak-kneed public relations drone.
Little touches like this can also help inject a spark of humanity into your research paper, which, despite what many academics will suggest, is not a bad thing. Writing a short personal anecdote or stating your own opinion in relation to others can allow you to connect with the reader on a human level and encourage them to keep reading.
Exercising empathy is another thing that’s lost in academic writing, mostly because it encourages writers to get lost in complicated terms and “10-dollar” words. While this language might appear to be more professional on the surface, it is also alienating, and it runs the risk of creating a barrier between the reader and the subject matter. So, while it is tempting to try and dazzle readers with fancy wordplay, simplifying language and taking the time to explain things to readers is always better.
For the most part, scholarly articles are rife with lifeless jargon, loose punctuation, and unnecessarily complex sentence structure, almost like they were written by an emotionless computer or some kind of observant extraterrestrial.
This is a real shame because the driving force behind any academic research—to explore evolving ideas and concepts—is an inherently worthy enterprise. As such, this kind of literature should be comprehensible to as many people as possible.
By sticking to this convoluted, inaccessible writing style—and passing it down as scripture to impressionable young students—it seems like academics are only interested in showing off their own smarts to their insular group of similarly informed specialists.
Now, I’m not suggesting that academic writing should be severely dumbed down, or that students should start to include hashtags to highlight parts of their text. But there ought to be a happy medium between cold, factual analysis and personalized critique.
Besides, anybody can open up a Word document and fill it with terms and phrases. It takes quality writing to make those words clear and engaging—so much so that they leap off the page.