Ryan Lillestrand — Unnecessary Complexity is Ruining Academic Writing

This post is a piece by an undergrad at Claremont about how unnecessary complexity undercuts the effectiveness and reach of academic writing.  It was published in The Student Life.  Here’s a link to the original.

All I can add is: Amen.

Unnecessary complexity is ruining academic writing; it’s up to us to save it

Multiple dictionaries, notebooks, and pens are stacked outside.
Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 argues that the unnecessary complexity of academic writing leads to inequality in access to information. (Ethan Diaz • The Student Life)

We have all experienced it before. Sitting down to read a research paper or a chapter of a book assigned for class, we read the first paragraph, and then reread it, and then read it again. Attempting to dissect meaning from a tangled mess of academic jargon, run-on sentences and undefined specialized language can be one of the most frustrating aspects of interacting with academia. 

I stumbled upon a perfect example of this reality while reading an Atlantic article that references an excerpt from the book “Flaubert Postsecular: Modernity Crossed Out” by Barbara Vinken, a comparative literature professor at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. Vinken wrote:

“The work of the text is to literalize the signifiers of the first encounter, dismantling the ideal as an idol. In this literalization, the idolatrous deception of the first moment becomes readable. The ideal will reveal itself to be an idol. Step by step, the ideal is pursued by a devouring doppelganger, tearing apart all transcendence. This de-idealization follows the path of reification, or, to invoke Augustine, the path of carnalization of the spiritual. Rhetorically, this is effected through literalization. A Sentimental Education does little more than elaborate the progressive literalization of the Annunciation.”

To make any sense of this jumbled heap, I would need a thesaurus open next to me and, ideally, someone with a doctorate in comparative literature to help out. 

But as problematic as unnecessarily complex academic writing is, it is incredibly widespread. Regardless of your chosen area of study, we all have stories of spending regrettable amounts of time trying to find meaning in similarly confusing mazes of academic writing. 

However, the problems associated with this type of writing extend much deeper than the overall sense of confusion that it causes. Spending time reading and rereading a paragraph to dissect its meaning is a tedious process, but this abundance of academic jargon also contributes to a host of other negative effects. 

On a larger scale, it raises up walls around academic research that bar the public from engaging with exciting new work being done. Furthermore, overly complex academic writing disadvantages current or prospective students who may have had less exposure to the realities of higher education growing up (e.g. first-generation students); they may be deterred by its seeming inaccessibility or feel a heightened sense of impostor syndrome once they have arrived at school. 

Some researchers argue that confusing writing is unavoidable because the topics being discussed need specialized language in order to communicate sophisticated ideas that amateurs could not be expected to understand. It is precisely this perspective on the issue that perpetuates the cycle of confusion. While some specialized terminology is admittedly necessary for communicating ideas more quickly within a given field, many academics will also readily agree that the practice of convoluted writing has opened up a space for untold amounts of complex language and academic jargon to abound.

In an article lamenting the many problems associated with academic writing, Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker wrote, “I suffer the daily experience of being baffled by articles in my field, my subfield, even my sub-sub-subfield.” When researchers within the same field struggle to understand each other, there is clearly a serious problem. This confusion, originating simply from the manner in which a paper is written, trickles down to fellow professors, college students and the public. 

As long as this type of complex writing dominates academia, inequality in access to information will persist. Writers who continue to participate in this style of writing may or may not be doing so on purpose, but that isn’t really the point. Either way, students and a wider audience of interested individuals are the ones who are left to decipher meaning from what has been written. 

It is important to mention, however, that not all of the blame can be heaped onto the academic writers of today. The style of writing we now see laced throughout academia has been passed down from generation to generation. It’s a constant cycle, as well as an inviting yet harmful trap for students who try to imitate it.

Research has shown that students who purposely use long words and more complicated language in their papers to seem more knowledgeable actually are accomplishing the opposite. Carnegie Mellon University psychology professor Daniel Oppenheimer published a paper in 2005 titled, “Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: problems with using long words needlessly.” Using several different papers of varying complexity as test samples, Oppenheimer found a negative relationship between complexity and the judged intelligence of the author. In theory, we may want to “sound smart” by mimicking the dense and complicated academic writing we often read, but the reality is that in most cases, we are actually doing our writing a disservice. 

But not all academic writing is as hopeless as it sounds. Some academics, sometimes referred to as “popularizers,” have worked to develop their writing in a way that allows them to translate dense research papers into articles or books written with a wider audience in mind. These individuals sit at an important crossroads. While they are occasionally criticized by fellow academics for oversimplifying, these individuals play a critical role in spreading new knowledge and research. Their books and articles serve as an on-ramp for those interested in a particular field of study but lacking in a good place to start and develop a base of knowledge.

In a similar vein, The Conversation, with its tagline “academic rigor, journalistic flair,” is a resource that describes itself as a home for “in-depth analysis, research, news and ideas from leading researchers and academics,” but its articles lack the style that bogs down most academic journal articles. It serves as a perfect place to orient one’s self and get a sense of direction before plunging into more intensive research. 

Resources like these are pioneering a new direction for writing in academia. Their efforts are critical in turning the tide and changing the established culture surrounding overly complex academic writing toward a more clear and concise future.

Still, some would argue that the convoluted style of writing we all inevitably engage with, but struggle to understand, is an unavoidable characteristic of academia. I believe this is far too pessimistic. 

A style of writing that has been widely adopted by academics across the world is not an easy thing to change, but the shift starts with current students and professors who choose to do away with unnecessary complexity and academic jargon in their writing. Increasing clarity in academic writing and broadening the accessibility of academic knowledge to a wider audience need to be more important to us than how intelligent we sound to readers.

By writing in a clear, concise manner, we are benefitting ourselves and those around us. If we choose to leave behind unnecessary complexity, we lend ourselves more credibility as writers, and we break down barriers within higher education that discourage a wider audience from engaging in meaningful academic discourse. Change is hard, and it will inevitably be slow, but the process is clear. Write concisely, benefit your own writing and set a new course for the academic writing of the future.

Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 is from Orlando, Florida, but grew up in Florence, Italy. He is an avid reader and intends on majoring in international political economy and cognitive science.

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