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A hand with a red pen reaches out and strikes out a bundle of lines all confused and incomprehensible in a type of messy ball

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Academics, especially scientists, tend not to make statements they can’t back up with reams of documentation and sheaves of evidence. In these times of alternative facts, that’s something we should all value.

However, in conversation, most scholars can toss off explanations—while perhaps muttering excuses about “hand-waving” and “spitballing”—to give a big-picture account so the listener, who may not share their expertise, can follow a larger argument or understand an important point. Oral presentations, whether over beer or from a lectern, allow for more generalization.

It’s essential to get things right and to credit information and ideas that are not yours. But it’s also important to recognize that there are levels of accuracy. Decades ago, when I read Temple Grandin’s book Animals in Translation, I noticed that the autistic author with a Ph.D. in animal behavior would write things like “cows hate yellow” or “white animals are crazy.” She avoided the tendency to hedge and qualify.

Most academics would not be so brave as to make those kinds of assertions. In fact, in peer-reviewed journals, monographs and even writing they hope will reach a bigger readership, they are often unable to write a simple declarative sentence without qualification. But striving for pinpoint accuracy about their particular area of expertise can create big problems when writing for people beyond a specialized niche. By providing explanations that are too detailed, they lose the reader, who does not give a single hoot about the internecine quarrels in the field.

An academic physician friend who is usually careful in his explanations (sometimes to the point of exasperating his listener—me—with unnecessary details), described what he said was the best lecture of his life. Accustomed to doing continuing medical education presentations to doctors who were familiar with jargon and current practices, he had to give a talk to some visiting physicians. From China. Who barely spoke English. He found that instead of taking his usual approach, he had to think hard about his most important points, explain them as simply as possible and avoid anything that would unnecessarily complicate the main message.

This lesson helped with my own writing and in working with academics on theirs. Clear and simple does not mean dumbed down. And there are always levels of accuracy.

Think about how you would approach a topic—nonlinear dynamics, the Haitian revolution, macroeconomics, Paradise Lost—in a graduate seminar. There would be much, at that point, you could take for granted in terms of what students knew. (I’m being optimistic here.)

Now imagine teaching an introductory class on that same topic. Think of all the details—details that you believe are important—you will have to leave out. Think about competing theories you’d like to present but can’t. Imagine how easy it is to confuse listeners, students, readers, by overwhelming them.

This can be hard for those who suffer from the burden of knowledge. As an expert, you are aware of so many nuances. You understand your subject in its complexity. That’s great when you’re addressing peers. But the task, when writing for general readers, is to be clear about the three things you want your audience to remember.

Three things. Not 30.

As long as you establish your authority, you can give the reader your best take on the topic. That requires a leap of faith that you will not be pilloried by colleagues who love to wear their “gotcha” gloves. The choice is yours: write for a niche or try to get big ideas into a wider marketplace.

Scholars usually start by reading all that has been thought and said on their topic, and they prove they’ve done the homework by beginning their dissertations with literature reviews. And then, oh so tentatively, so they don’t get walloped by peers and professors, they make tiny little arguments, dig postholes and scour the archives for some overlooked bit of evidence they can comfortably lay claim to.

This is fine and commendable work. Many thesis advisers require it as proof of learning, and a small number of university presses are still willing and financially supported well enough to be able to publish monographs that will sell, on demand, only a few copies. We can’t fault anyone for wanting to be careful and get things right.

It is, however, important to remember that there are levels of accuracy and that piling on details does not always serve a purpose—or rather, it can be counterproductive if you’re trying to put forward a big idea.

Editors of general interest books and publications will often push academic writers to be more forceful than they are comfortable. That’s because they’ve each received very different training. Editors are in the role of readers who have lots of choices about where to spend their time and money. As an academic, you need to recognize that you’ll never have a captive audience outside the classroom.

The main thing that keeps most academics from making clear, declarative statements is fear. The brazenness of first-year graduate students soon gets beaten out of them. They learn from peers and professors not to get too big for their britches. One of the easiest and cheapest ways to make yourself feel and seem superior is to trash another’s work by picking apart the details. It’s one of the unpleasant aspects of academic life. Don’t be that person.

If you want to reach an audience, be unafraid. Write direct and straightforward sentences in language that you can hear yourself speaking. If you want to account for dissenting views, try going it in a quick parenthetical (like, “so-and-so disagrees”). But be clear about what you are arguing for or explaining.

A lucid description of a complex idea is something all readers will appreciate. Neophytes will be able to understand and learn something unfamiliar, and experts will take pleasure in nodding along as you remind them of what they already know.

Rachel Toor is professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University in Spokane. Her next book, a guide for recent grads on presenting themselves in the job search, will be published in 2024 by the University of Chicago Press. Her website is

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