In the last few weeks I’ve been doing a lot of academic writing online, not only for the SBOSE course but for a number of workshops at Napier that run both online and face-to-face. The experience has got me thinking more about the writing style I use when doing this.
One of the other things that got me pondering was the fact that I like writing anyway, outside of work. Whether I’m good at it or not I’m not sure, but I enjoy it anyway and I keep a Blog on my favourite timewaster, Mountain Biking, in my spare time. In the past few weeks I’ve been noticing the mental shift required when swapping between writing my academic material and my personal content, and I’m beginning to wonder if that’s a good thing.
I’ve been through a fair bit of education in my life and had plenty of experience of wading through the often over-the-top, why use 1 word when 5 will do academic approach to writing. I like to think I’m an intelligent and literate person (most of the time anyway…) but I often get frustrated trying to decipher the weighty prose in many academic papers. Despite this, however, I sometimes find myself joining their ranks and including words and phrases in my academic work simply because they sound impressive or convey intelligence, rather than convey clear meaning. I think it’s an easy trap to fall into, particularly when you’re relatively new to the environment like myself and trying to match yourself against esteemed and proven colleagues.
Now, compare this with my personal writing, in which I try to be informal, unpretentious and hopefully as accessible as possible. I know the kind of guys I go biking with and the variety of folk I meet on the trail. I want all of them to read my articles and enjoy them regardless of background and ability. Somehow, this is starting to sounds familiar… I’ve begun to ask myself why this is any different from writing academic pieces, when we should always be thinking about making content as accessible as possible in order not to hamper learning. This can just as easily be applied to writing for your colleagues as you can never assume that others have the same vocabulary as yourself no matter how well qualified they are.
In the student-led seminar that myself and Martin have been running we’ve been discussing the widening access issue, in which the government has set a target to increase access to education for those from the working classes and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Entrance requirements are being lowered to allow more people the chance to study, and some argue that this leads to a dumbing-down of education. I would argue, though, that some elements of dumbing-down may be a good thing. Making education more accessible by simply writing in a more approachable manner would surely help all students, not just those who haven’t acheived such a high literacy level. Taking myself as an example, I waste hours reading academicised (my new word…) papers and articles multiple times in order to decipher the premise, and once I have the idea I can often see how easy it would have been to convey said premise in a much more simple manner. Those hours could be far more productively spent elsewhere. Supporting the student surely involves making their learning as easy and accessible as possible while maintaining your standards, and so not forcing a time wasting translation process has to be a step forward.
Going back to my original point, from now on I’m going to try to approach my academic writing from the same point of view as the personal. I’ll always write for the broadest possible audience. Obviously, this is easier in some subjects than others and some concepts always require more obscure, inaccessible language, but in general terms it’s very achievable.
I wonder, for my final point, if readers have noticed that I’m already attempting to escape from one of the more restrictive rules. Can you imagine handing in a dissertation with contractions in it for example? Why not though? They’re easier and faster to read, and fully accepted as part of the english language, so why are they not allowed in academic writing? Moreno and Mayer did some research in this area and based on their results they proposed the Personalisation Principle (Moreno & Mayer, 2000). In their research they discovered that students learned more effectively when content was presented in an informal, personalised manner rather than in a formal, distant format.
So, not only does it seem like a good idea for inclusivity but more informal writing is backed up by solid research. Come on my fellow academic writers – shake off your thesauruses (thesauresi…?), bring out the apostrophes and write for people rather than for academia. I’ll never have to read a paragraph twice again.