On the sterility of academic writing

After almost six months of lectures, tutorials and essays I am really looking forward to temporary leave the aseptic environment of the classroom and dive into my internship.

Although I perfectly know I will have to return to academic writing in a few months, to complete my master, I am so relieved to abandon the arid academic language required in essays, presentations and tutorials and start rediscover the beauty of the written word.

Everytime I hear a “In how far…” or a “We touched upon…” I get goose-skin and my ears protest in silence: in Italian we have a saying which more or less goes “Speak like you eat” [for Italian lovers the original version is PARLA COME MANGI], which invites you to avoid over complicated wording which you would not otherwise use in your daily talks.


That doesn’t mean addressing your tutor with a cheerful YO MATE, or alike, but respecting the beauty and variety of the [in this case] English language.

Did you ever think to yourself, while striving to finish reading the literature for your next assignment, “this text is flipping boring” or “the author is repeating himself ten times”, or again noticing that the intro and conclusion of a paper sound almost identical?

Some might say that people don’t read academic papers for sheer enjoyment, but I think it would not hurt anybody to make essays sound less sterile, arid and ready-made by using a more colourful, varied and creative language rather than copy-pastying from previous essays.

But this is probably just one side of the bigger picture which is: academia are mainly self-preserving institutions where innovation is planned and must comply to given standards. The lack of encouragment towards creative thinking is a bigger issue that permeates our whole education system.

Academic writing is just one of the many symptoms for a more widespread disease.

RSA animate lecture by Sir Ken Robinson


2 replies
  1. atticus
    atticus says:

    Claudia, this is a really good post. I have the same frustration with ‘academic’ writing, (read pompous, overblown, self-aggrandizing fluff). Thanks to the gods that I had a creative writing teacher who attacked my attempts at self-importance with the adage ‘less is more’. We had the 50-odd-page ‘Elements of Style’ by Strunk and White as our text book. I’ve edited papers for students where I’ve been able to redact hundreds of words, and the meaning is actually clearer.

    Probably the best source for students assembling academic content for papers are investigative journalists, who wade through the bla bla on your behalf. There are also many American academics who strive to be like Richard Feynman or Carl Sagan, in that they think it important to explain their research in an accessible way instead of inventing lexicons of overcomplicated new words and concepts for already complex ideas.

  2. Claudia
    Claudia says:

    Hi Atticus, glad you agree with me to some extent. I am reading a book called The New New Journalism and maybe this also contributed to my frustration with academic writing and its overblown form. I am for clear, concise and straightforward language. All the rest is a tool to achieve the minimum word count :)


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