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Unnecessary Complexity in Academic Writing

Reading is a beautiful activity. It transports us to distant worlds and alternate universes. It shares experiences with us that we may never encounter in our own reality. It makes us laugh and cry, it makes us question and wonder, it makes us reflect. It helps us see what we wouldn’t normally see. It teaches us.

Reading is great… when you understand what you’re reading.

Have you ever read an essay and not comprehended any of it? Have you ever stared at a textbook and wondered if it was written in English? You’re definitely not alone. Most students are familiar with the land of reading without comprehension. Whether it’s your biology textbook, a history research paper, a collection of English essays, or an assignment prompt from your professor, the messages in academic writing can be difficult to untangle.

Students usually take the blame. They write themselves off as dense and unintelligent, believing a smarter person would understand. Maybe that’s true. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

If you have to use a dictionary to discern the meaning of more than one or two words in a paragraph, that isn’t on you. If you come away from an academic text feeling more confused than when you started, that isn’t on you. If you genuinely attempt to read an academic text and still struggle to understand it, I firmly believe that isn’t on you. That’s on the writer.

The writer’s job is to effectively communicate the information they want to share. The whole point of academic writing is to educate the reader. Texts that use an overwhelming amount of niche terminology and lengthy, convoluted explanations are doing a disservice to the audience. Readers would certainly appreciate it if the writer chose the simpler way of conveying the same idea.

More and more every day, I value concision and clarity in writing. Working at the Writing Center has taught me that nothing is more important in a text than its ability to be understood by its intended audience. Most of the work I do with students revolves around helping them clarify their ideas. With almost every writer, I encourage them to ditch the flowery language that obscures their message. When a student’s essay is full of run-on sentences and elevated, unfamiliar vocabulary, I ask them to talk me through their ideas. Often, what they explain to me out loud is more clear and direct than what they’ve written on the page. Then, I encourage them to write down what they just said, and turn those new iterations into their text.

I wish I could do this with textbook writers. I want to sit down with them and ask, “What are you trying to say? Tell me in words a student would understand. Now write that down. Now make that your textbook.”

This doesn’t mean I think academic writers should throw in slang from pop culture and write textbooks in acronyms and memes, but I do think they should define their terms and generally make an attempt at promoting the principle of parsimony. That is, promoting the idea that the best explanation is the simplest possible explanation. See what I did there? Anyway.

So maybe the end result might not sound all fancy and astute. But readers would be able to get through a chapter without having to browse through three different Wikipedia articles and Google every other word in order to understand.

Of course, there is value to using highly specific language, and there are a lot of topics that are incredibly difficult to talk about without using words that are unfamiliar to the majority of the population.

Still, the whole purpose of academic writing is to share knowledge with the world. Making academic texts more accessible will make education more accessible. This issue extends beyond the boundaries of college campuses and into the world of scientific articles being published for the public, but only understood by the few.

In the end, writing is a means of communication. To communicate is to share information, to educate, to understand. By making academic texts more accessible to the general population, we will achieve this goal in a broader, more meaningful way.

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Adrienne is in her third year at Kenyon College. She's a psychology major with a Spanish minor.
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