Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Making your writing accessible to the reader

I'm reading Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages (thank you, Justine!), and I had to laugh when I got to his chapter on style, particularly the standard academic style.  Noah gives fabulous (if exaggerated) examples of each of the issues he discusses in the book. Here's one sentence (yes, just one) from his example of the academic style:
The internal structure of the bureaucracy, as witnessed by Chief Councilor Spiros Andros an documented by Epilos, was not unlike the Cartesian dynasty of the 6th century, under the little-known Habacus of Southern France (ibid, p. 899), not in its want of a political head, that is to say, a leader, but rather in its seeming tolerance and perhaps even inclination towards that one desire man has been struggling to conquer since the earliest days of Scripture.

Makes you want to get out the blue pencil, doesn't it? As an academic, I found this hilarious because... it's true. This is what reading academic papers is like (not all, there are some fabulous writers in academia, but they are rare and their writing should be treasured). I always wondered why I fell asleep when doing research as a grad student—why I couldn't remember what a paper was about for the group discussion just one hour later—but now it's crystal clear: it's because academics write like this.

I've been writing for Nature Education Knowledge, which is an online educational resource geared toward undergraduates (but also applicable to the advanced high school student). I've contributed to the Ecology topics, both as a writer and as a reviewer. All papers are peer-reviewed: reviewed by other members of the academic community for readability and accuracy. 

I've noticed two main problems in the papers I've reviewed. One is a lack of accessible vocabulary; the use of jargon that only other scientists would know. The other is the tendency of academics to write long, convoluted sentences (see above) that are nearly impossible to follow unless you are already intimately familiar with the subject matter.

This doesn't work for an educational publication. More often that not, I find myself suggesting that the author cut long sentences into two, sometimes three separate sentences. If the reader can grasp the concept within one short sentence, then s/he will be prepared to take on the next one. But if the concept is wrapped within another concept, this task becomes nearly impossible. Particularly when the reader must understand the terminology in order to understand the concept (authors can mark terms for inclusion in the glossary, but readers must look up the terms before they can continue reading).

This may sound like it's only applicable to academic writing, but it's not. In writing for children, one of the reasons non-fiction articles are rejected by magazines is because they are written at an inappropriate level for the intended reader. The same goes for writing books for children. New terms must be explained in an understandable way, using short sentences that the readers (or listeners) can understand. Knowledge is built, step by step.

And this all applies to fiction just as much as it does to non-fiction. Know what farandolae are? Or what kything is? Did you know what a pensieve was before you read Harry Potter? These are all fictional objects from fabulous books, terms that may become commonplace, but only because the authors who coined them explained them in an accessible way. So think about the vocabulary you use. Pay careful attention to sentence length. And see if your writing doesn't improve.

What is your favorite object from a work of fiction? What does it do?


  1. Very very true. And I'm with you - unnecessarily convoluted writing is one of the things I hate about the academic style!

  2. Rach: Thanks!

    Adina: It's not just academic writing, though. I think a lot of authors have a tendency to write above their audience, in an effort to come across as literary.

  3. One of the hardest things I found after leaving college was shaking the dust of academic from my writing. A couple of years of writing stuffy, pompous prose can ruin almost anyone's style!

    And your last paragraph made me want to pull out my Madeleine L'Engle books once again-- they're great examples of storytelling with accessible science. Great post-- thanks!