The best writing advice I ever received said, “Write as simply and clearly as possible for the most intelligent reader you can imagine.” Academic writing, though, often sacrifices eloquence to the belief that complexity of thought means difficulty of understanding.
Simple or clear writing does not mean easy reading. It does not mean “dumbing down” your work. An advanced reader will benefit equally from clear writing as a novice.
A good idea is never better received because a writer found a complicated way to say a simple thing. Put simply, good writing will choose the most accurate word and use it in the clearest phrase possible.
Jargon is a favourite boogeyman for those who criticize academic writing’s “inaccessibility.” They claim it is an undecipherable script that caters to an educated elite through a secret language.
Sometimes this is true; however, as academics, we need this vocabulary. We talk about specialized things in specific ways and need a specialized language to do so.
Moreover, jargon isn’t usually the problem. Most readers can handle a sentence with a word or two they don’t know. With sufficient context, the reader can infer a basic sense of the word and google what they don’t know later.
A reader unwilling to do this basic work is not a reader you need to worry about. Laziness is their problem and the last responsibility of academic writing is attending to readers who can’t keep their end of the reader-writer bargain.
Likewise, catering to a novice reader is not the responsibility of a writer with advanced ideas. Some writing needs to speak to such readers, but not all.
Nevertheless, even to an advanced scholar, some academic writing is near impossible to decipher. Often, the problem is grammatical. I especially find that the culprit is often the overuse of prepositions.
Prepositions are words that express a spatial, temporal, or semantic relationship between elements in a sentence. More simply, a preposition represents a relationship between things.
For example, in “Sam stood on the box,” “on” is a preposition that expresses a spatial relationship between “Sam” and “the box.” Other common prepositions include: for, of, in, above, beneath, beside, during, after, before, from, etc.
A sentence can also include a prepositional phrase, or a group of words that together function just as a single-word preposition would, such as “with respect to.”
Compounding prepositional relationships can quickly over complicate a sentence. Academic writing is bad for this: Everything is always of something, for something else, in relation to another thing, and productive of ways of being, doing, and thinking in context of a host of any number of other things.
While this is, perhaps, an overgeneralization, such sentences require a reader to keep a good many relationships straight in their head to manage any part of the sentence in question. A complicated sentence structure that expresses complex subject matter will quickly and unnecessarily overwhelm a reader.
Remember, a preposition is always relational—it says one thing exists in relation to another. As such, prepositions shift focus from the subjects, objects, and verbs of a sentence to the relationships between them.
Subjects and objects are more tangible, while relationships are more abstract, so a sentence with prepositions inherently asks the reader to manage a more abstract sentence structure on top of an already abstract discussion.
Further, when a writer puts one prepositional relationship in relation to another, they inevitably, by way of more prepositions, demand that the reader perform a kind of juggling act—that they keep a number of objects in the air whilst attending to the relationships between them.
Take a look at this sentence: “This article seeks to explore some issues regarding the different modes of generality at stake in the formation of transdisciplinary concepts within the production of ‘theory’ in the humanities and social sciences.”
This sentence includes up to eight prepositional relationships, depending on how you want to count “at stake” or if you want to regard “production of theory” as a single element or separate elements joined with a preposition.
Moreover, each preposition is compounded with every other preposition preceding it—“modes of generality” are in the “formation of transdisciplinary concepts,” which are themselves within “the production of theory,” which is itself in the “humanities and social sciences.”
This means that to understand one relationship, you need to understand them all, otherwise the whole juggling act falls apart. Further, the elements in these relationships are ambiguous or complex concepts themselves—“modes of generality,” “transdisciplinary concepts,” etc.
Such a convoluted sentence structure is rarely necessary. As an academic, you already deal in complex ideas. There is no sense obscuring those ideas behind a sentence structure that is equally difficult to grasp.
In a future post, I’ll discuss strategies of amending those prepositions, but in the meantime, keep those prepositions to a minimum. And, as always, we, at Windswept Editing, are here for all of your editing needs.
Cunningham, David. “Logics of Generalization: Derrida, Grammatology and Transdisciplinarity.” Theory, Culture & Society. 32.5-6 (2015): 79-107.