Writing for Grad Students: Why Simple is Better

My first run-in with academic language was as a master’s student. I remember opening the journal, reading the first sentence, pausing, backing up, and reading it again. This happened every other sentence. The article took FOREVER to finish.

I felt like I had to learn to read all over again.

And then, when I arrived at my Ph.D program, I had to learn to write all over again. I had to torture my sentences into patterns just like those belonging to the critics whose work had caused me such reading strife years earlier.

Or, at least, I thought I had to, despite the fact that my most trusted advisor advocated for clear, interesting, and even emotionally-charged writing.

All the reading I’d done of academic writing had taught me a lesson it took a long time to unlearn: if someone understands it, it’s not complex enough.

But, as some have been saying for years (here, too!), this does not have to be the case. Complex, academic ideas do not have to hide behind a layer of obtuse language.

Hang on. Let me rephrase that. Because isn’t saying things simply the point here?

Complicated ideas have more impact when you use simple language to communicate them.

Not convinced? Here’s three reasons you should stop using buzzwords, three-mile long sentences, and twenty dollar words.

Impact a Larger Audience

The equation is simple. If more people easily understand your writing, then more people can easily understand your ideas. You’ve influenced more people, improved the world with your views, just by simplifying your sentences, choosing more accessible language, and cultivating a welcoming tone.

This is one lesson blog writing has really hit home for me. If I want to help writers, educate them, I have to use accessible language, strong verbs, and simple sentence structures. Teaching also taught me the value of using accessible language. I’m a better, more successful teacher, when I use language my students understand.

But isn’t this “dumbing down?”

Absolutely not! In fact, using more accessible language and clearer sentence structures just makes my ideas shine more. Which brings me to my second point.

Emphasize Ideas over Words

You’ve got great ideas, and it’s difficult to express them at all, let alone coherently!

I understand this pain. The first draft of my dissertation was littered with passive voice, unclear pronouns, and mountains of fancy academic words that I was using because I didn’t quite know what else to say.

A very lovely lady on my dissertation committee kicked my a$$ over this. Her very pointed questions in the margins of my draft pointed out that when my sentences were at their most complex, my ideas were at their fuzziest.

As I worked to clarify my ideas, my sentences actually shortened, my language simplified. The ideas began to shine, and instead of standing in the way, my words and sentences were helping by getting out of the way.

Having fancy sentences doesn’t make you sound smart. In fact, fanciness can be a symptom of unclear ideas and arguments.

Having good ideas makes you sound smart. Communicating them clearly makes you sound smart, or rather, shows the world how smart you are!

Earn a Reputation as a Master Wordsmith

By the end of my academic career, I had found the critics I admired, whose prose was ON FIRE, clear, concise, influential. I modeled my own writing after it as I segued into the non-academic world, and I still use these authors as examples of how to use simple language to highlight big ideas.

I didn’t revere these writers because I had to keep my thesaurus handy while reading. In fact, writers like that, I avoid like the plague. If reading someone’s writing is like slogging through the pit of despair, I’m not sticking around.

And if you want others to admire your loquacity, your verbal wit, your linguistic talents, abandon the buzzwords, let go of your long, complicated sentences and twenty dollar words.

Invest, instead, in the clear concise sentences that will make your ideas shine and that will impact enough people to change the world one word at a time.

What’s you writing style? Have you made the transition yet from exhausting complexity to enlightening simplicity?

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