Clear, Concise Writing: It’s the Law (Seriously)

How to capitalize on the movement to simplify academic writing.

December 1, 2015

Earlier this fall a headline in The Atlantic caught my eye. “The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing,” it said. Promising enough on its own, but there was also a subhead: “A new movement strives for simplicity.” It was like Christmas had come early.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that the crusade to simplify academic writing isn’t new, despite the auspicious subhead (which literally made me gasp with excitement). For media relations and communications professionals, it’s been a constant, and significantly large part of our daily work, since colleges and universities hired PR staffers. And it’s not always easy.

Annetta Cheek, co-founder of the Center for Plain Language and former academic, who spearheaded the 2010 Plain Writing Act (which essentially bans the use of complex, jargon-filled sentences by government agencies) told The Atlantic:

“I think the government is easier to change than academics. I’m not going to get into a battle with academia.”

But I’d argue that the battle she fears isn’t nearly as difficult today as it was when she wrote the Plain Writing Act. It’s true that academics have been trained to write for their peers—an understandable, and even necessary, practice in certain circumstances. But times are changing.

Earlier in my career I found faculty less willing to simplify their writing—some even cited uneasiness with what their colleagues would think about them “dumbing down” their research. Others worried about being taken seriously during the tenure process. Popular media wasn’t valued nearly as much by the academic hierarchy (and I’d argue there’s still much progress to be made in this area), and so clear, concise language was a thing to be avoided, rather than embraced.

But that was a long time ago. Since then we’ve seen a major demographic shift affect student recruitment and a recession, among other changes in the competitiveness of higher education.

In the last several years, I have noticed a significant shift in the number of academics who want their writing—and other explanations of their work—to be more accessible. More faculty seem to be actively seeking out opportunities with mainstream media, even when it has no impact on tenure decisions. The value of visibility beyond academic peer groups is being realized in new ways, and for increasing numbers of faculty awareness among prospective students, parents and donors, as well as the campus community, is becoming a higher priority.

In some ways this shift makes our jobs as media relations and communications professionals easier. (This is what we’ve been preaching for years.) But it also means that more people on campus are looking for resources and support from us.

Realizing that so many campus communicators are already working at (or above) capacity, here are a few high-ROI methods to assist faculty who want to think and communicate about their work differently.

Offer Writing Workshops

This is a great option for reaching a lot of faculty at the same time, and believe me when I say, “if you offer it, they will come.” In my work on a campus, and now as a consultant, I’ve been continuously surprised by the high participation rates in things like op-ed writing workshops—on campuses of all types and sizes. There are lots of experts, including journalists, who offer writing seminars for faculty, but it’s also something that can be developed in-house with your own campus expertise.

Encourage Social Media Use

A 140-character limit can be a very good thing when your goal is to boil down a complex thought into as few, direct words as possible. I have been challenging faculty more frequently to think about their key research findings in terms of tweet-able phrases. I’ve heard from several who tried it, and each told me it was a very useful exercise in helping them to cut through the clutter and focus on the basics. Some have used their draft Tweets as the basis of an outline for op-ed pieces. Others used what they wrote as actual Tweets to connect followers with previously published work. (Check out The Atlantic’s examples of researchers communicating their work using emojis.)

Share Examples and Recognition

For those who are still hesitant to jump in with both feet and fully embrace jargon-free, simple sentences, you’ll need to continue to build the case. A great way to do this is to share examples of op-eds and well-received contributed posts written by others on campus, or by highly-regarded academics at other institutions. Also make it clear that efforts to share expertise in accessible language are valued on campus by recognizing faculty contributions. Thank those who participate by sharing their work with colleagues and others through social media.

And if that doesn’t work, remind them that clear, concise writing is the law. (Kidding!) I, too, hold fast to traditions, and believe they have a particularly important place in higher education. However, some traditions can become outdated. And besides, change can be a good thing.  I see many signs that we’re moving in the right direction with academic writing. Let’s make the most of the momentum.


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