Why academic writing sucks (and how we can fix it)


My last post, where I called bullshit on the way we do the PhD seemed to hit a nerve. In fact, it got more hits in 24 hour period than I’ve ever seen before.

Many people wrote in asking: how should I spend the remaining time in my PhD?

Good question! I have a lot of thoughts. Let’s start with what bugs me most: it’s highly likely you will graduate a worse writer than you started. This is because we spend a lot of time teaching you how to write in a particular ‘academic’ style that, not to put too fine a point on it: sucks.

Academic writing, as a genre, is ritualised, peculiar, archaic and does almost as much to hide knowledge as it does to share it. Mastering academic writing is just as much about signalling you are the member of an ‘in-group’ as it is about conveying ideas.

Don’t believe me? Look at how we use commas.

Commas help you create longer sentences that still make sense. Without commas, you have Parataxis. Parataxis is Plain English. Just one sentence. Followed by another sentence. Parataxis is direct. Your sentences are short.

Perhaps too short?

When you have too many commas you create hypotaxis: the use of clause after subordinate clause, which creates sentences of deeply satisfying complexity, that, even while you might get lost a little between the commas, reassure the reader that an academic of sober-minded, careful, disposition is tapping away at the keyboard crafting very, very polite sentences which, because of those glorious clauses and subordinate clauses, will make you feel like you’re eating dry toast. You’re on safe ground with all that hypotactic fun, believe me, because it’s impossible to be too enthusiastic, or too rude, about anything when you write this way. It’s no wonder, since academics love being passive aggressive (which, by the way, is the avoidance of directly saying what they think) that most ‘serious’ writing is full of it.

It’s not just our commas that reveal our petty academic hearts. I’ve written before about how academic writing can be like a painful upper-middle-class dinner party. Using the word ‘claims’ when you are referring to another person’s work is a passive-aggressive way of saying you think that scholar is suspect. If you want to compliment someone’s work, you should use a verb like ‘argues’. A lot of people in my writing courses have been surprised when I point out this verbal subtext: ‘claims’ sounds like a complimentary word when in fact it’s the best way to diss another scholar in your dissertation? How was I expected to know that?!

Academic writing doesn’t get any easier when you are the supervisor instead of the student. To do well in your PhD examination, you’ll need to know the ‘tricks’ academic writers use to signal they belong to a certain disciplinary tribe: hedges and boosters, signposting, conjunctive adverbs and the like. It takes so much time to teach someone this passive agressive subtext stuff. Just yesterday, I spent a good 20 minutes talking to my PhD student about whether she should use the word ‘hesitate’ in a particular sentence. I have spent literally years of my life having these conversations. Hell, I’ve even helped write a couple of books about academic writing to help people decode the intricacies of academic style.

It takes a long time to master the kind of ‘in group’ signalling that characterises academic writing. This is why we make you write a dissertation. (Actually, I am not sure if that’s the reason – I honestly don’t think anyone has really thought about it seriously since about 1850).

I wish this time was spent more fruitfully, both for advancing knowledge and for helping people get jobs when they finish.

The sheer amount of time you need to devote to be good at academic writing comes as a shock to many new PhD students, who thought they would be working in a lab or doing fieldwork and just ‘writing up’ what they found there. If you go into any PhD student kitchen, writing progress, feedback from supervisors on writing, confusion about writing, or writer’s block, will be part of most conversations.

I’ve been conflicted for years about my role in perpetuating the pain of academic writing on others. I’ve built a career on helping people deal with the angst academic writing creates. But the angst about academic writing is justified for a very singular reason:

Everyone knows you can be a great researcher, creative thinker and innovator – and fail a PhD because you are a bad ‘academic’ writer.

Let’s dwell on that for just a moment.

Are we assessing the right thing here? Is it better to have someone who can do the research or someone who can tell other people about it using the correct ‘academic form’? Here’s the kicker: most working academics dislike writing in the ‘correct academic style’, and very few (if any?) people genuinely enjoy reading it.

So, I think it’s time we let go of the dissertation.

Yes, even the type with publications in it.

We could replace the dissertation with a portfolio of writing that showcases your ability to write for a range of audiences and purposes.

I can hear some of my colleagues gasping with shock, so let me be clear. While I think we need to change how we assess the PhD, this does not mean we get rid of a requirement to write in the ‘correct academic form’ altogether. Writing in an academic style helps us accurately report knowledge claims to other experts (and show those readers how sure we are, through the use of hedges and boosters). There’s a place for this kind of writing, but we need to broaden our minds about what a professional academic writing practise can and should be.

A PhD writing portfolio could include academic pieces: journal articles, conference presentations and the like. These pieces would demonstrate you can do the necessary form well, when required. It goes without saying that academic form is so much more excrutiating to read when it’s done badly. Scholars of writing like Helen Sword have done much to help academics improve their basic writing skills (Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing is a classic and I would also recommend her Writer’s Diet book).

But it’s not enough just to encourage PhD students and academics to write more clearly. We don’t need a better form of business as usual: we need a new normal altogether. A normal that is less elitist.

I would be more comfortable with the emphasis we place on writing in the PhD if we were really assessing the ability to communicate, but I question if that’s what’s going on here. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the only writing that really ‘matters’ to academic promotion and institutional prestige is the kind that enables large academic publishers to make a lot of money from the public purse?

By deliberately excluding other forms of writing in the PhD, we contribute to the ‘marketisation’ of our universities: turning knowledge into a commodity that can be traded rather than a public good.

Surely, in the 21st century, PhD assessment should include being able to connect with a wider audience? PhD graduates should write to influence the communities they live in, as well as other academics. If we accept this premise, we need to stop being so snobby and dismissive about ‘other’ forms of writing, especially if it’s the best way to bring public attention to our research work.

In addition to some purely academic writing, the PhD writing portfolio I’m imagining might include such things as publicly accessible reports on the implications of your research, blog posts or opinion pieces, memos to policymakers, web copy, teaching notes, instructional texts, video scripts and more. Heck, I am not against including a compendium of Tweets in there if it’s appropriate! (Writing an interesting tweet that people will share is harder than you think – that’s why some of us have followers in the tens of thousands and some struggle to attract more than 100 or so).

Our research can move the world, but not if only other academics can understand what we are saying.

I know I am not alone in thinking this way. My rant only echoes what many people before have said about obsession with accumulating CVs full of academic publications creating inequalities; as well as those voices who have called academics out for the way academic language perpetuates racism and sexism.

Many people are resisting the academic CV hunger games and choosing other forms of public engagement. If you are one of these people who tirelessly blog, write opinion articles and textbooks, yet struggle to be promoted and rewarded for your efforts – I witness you!

In these desperate times, perhaps those of us who want change are more likely to be heard?

Changing the PhD assessment has the potential to change our academy for the better. The obsession with communicating in elaborate insider language has done our profession great harm. More people read books by Paleo-crazies like Pete Evans than actual health academics. The facts people need to counter conspiracy theories are behind paywalls, while the damaging lies are out there, for free, on ‘wellness blogs’.

One way to get people to respect expert voices is to actually let them hear what we have to say.

This means we have to radically re-think how we teach writing. Why don’t we teach PhD students to write best selling non-fiction as well as journal papers? Imagine graduating, and instead of just writing a book for, I don’t know, Cambridge University Press, you also write a non-fiction bestseller and pocket all those royalties? (my friend Lynn did). How about you then leverage that book fame into a Netflix documentary series? You could do this if you learned a more comprehensive range of writing and pitching skills during your PhD. More to the point, you could do this if you didn’t have that giant dissertation albatross around your neck.

Our obsession with forcing people to learn and replicate ‘correct’ academic genre forms is the most significant barrier to making the PhD relevant and useful in the 21st century. There are a LOT of research focussed jobs outside academia that ask for writing skills. The ability to write clearly and quickly is an incredible career asset – one you will not develop if you spend a lot of time perfecting ‘good academic form’.

It’s not healthy for academics on the payroll to focus exclusively on academic forms of publishing either: there’s no guarantee a huge, research-heavy CV will save your job when the cuts start.

In my previous post, I pointed out that Covid19 seems to have destroyed the academic job market. How long the market will stay frozen is unknown, but as I write, the mass retrenchment of university workers has started. Yesterday colleagues at Deakin University were told they would be let go; in one department seven people were told to apply for the same job.

Twitter erupted in grief and outrage, to say nothing of the back channels of personal communication via text and tearful Zoom calls. One thing was resoundingly clear: having a long list of journal papers didn’t save people from the chopping block. In difficult times, universities focus on key revenue streams, and the primary one will always be teaching. Trust me: management understand that the skills involved in writing and teaching great online courses is different from those required to get an academic paper through peer review.

So, to answer the original question, what should you spend more time doing while you are still enrolled in your PhD?

Start that PhD writing portfolio now. It might not be assessed by your examiners, but it will be assessed by future employers, who are less likely to care about H-indexes. Stop thinking of yourself as a future academic who only writes journal articles and maybe a monograph or two. Start thinking of yourself as a domain specific, but multi-talented, professional writer who can help people make better decisions by making knowledge more accessible.

At least, that’s what you should be able to put on your CV by the time you finish.

To this end, ask yourself: what kind of written pieces would I have to show someone to demonstrate I am a multi-talented, yet domain specific writer? Better still – identify the audiences that would benefit from learning about your research and ask them what sort of things they would like to read (if I ran the university, you would be forced to do this exercise as part of your scoping work, but it’s never too late to find out who might be interested). Then go ahead and write those pieces! Publish them where interested people can encounter and access them easily (professional magazines and industry body newsletters are often a good place to start). Include any unpublished pieces on your Linkedin profile, so people see how capable you are as a writer.

I can hear you worrying now: “That’s easier said than done Inger! I’m in a system here and it doesn’t support me to do what you say”

True. Your supervisor may not be able, or interested in helping you. It’s likely that you will get little encouragement and even less reward for doing what I suggest. But universities are treasure troves of knowledge and clever people. Look around for the help and support you need – I bet it’s there, maybe in the form of the media office. If it’s not, ask your university to provide you with appropriate professional development workshops instead of yet another journal writing workshop (especially one run by a publisher with a vested interest in you pouring energy and ideas to a system that has made their shareholders rich, but I digress).

Recognise that your ability to write about research – your own research and other people’s – is a remarkable career asset. Your ability and tolerance for difficult, complicated and boring reading tasks is unparalleled. I challenge anyone else to come close to the amount of knowledge you are capable of chewing through and making sense of in a week. And your stamina! Who else in the world can say “you want me to spend more than three years reading around 400 books and articles on the same subject? And some of them are almost inpenetrable academic gibberish? No problem!”. Employers need people to help them make sense of published research and advise on applying research to their problems. They need people to do new research that will give them a competitive advantage. You can’t make AI that does this (at least not yet). There are so many, many problems in a recession, and they will be so very difficult. People like you are solid gold.

Even if you can’t get a job outside academia with your writing abilities straight away, you can certainly use them in your own research consulting business. So make a serious effort to get even faster and better at writing – it’s a craft that can be learned, not a natural ability. Continue to read books on writing correct academic style (you still have to push out that dissertation after all), but be sure to include other books on clarity and even books on fiction writing, which can teach you different story telling techniques. Make the dissertation shorter to create time for other kinds of writing. Just because an institution sets a maximum word limit, doesn’t mean you have to write to it, in fact there is evidence that many examiners would prefer you didn’t.

No doubt, some of you will experience push back if you do what I suggest here, especially by supervisors who are invested on having their name on your papers (conveniently reducing the need for them to do this kind of boring writing themselves). You’ll have to balance off the requirements of your degree and keeping people happy with future-proofing your career. It’s going to be tricky, but you’re smart and capable. I’m confident you can work it out.

The comments are still off but feel free to talk to me on social media. I’m listening – and cheering you on.