No matter what your major, you’ll end up having to write at least a few papers or survive Freshman English. My first piece of advice is simple:
Beware of Academese
“Academese” is the specialized language of academics that belongs in scholarly tomes, not the real world.
When writing term papers, you may be tempted to adopt a professorial tone and style, hoping to flesh out a skimpy thesis or sound smarter than you feel.
When elucidating academic topics, a student may attempt to meet or excel minimum word count requirements for an assignment by constructing lengthy compound sentence structures, which are, in some cultures, indicative of an advanced degree of education and verbal dexterity.”
Don’t mistake the ability to spin grammatically correct sentences with having anything worthwhile to say.
To quote Richard Thaler, the economist and author, in his book Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics:
To call academic writing dull is giving it too much credit.”
But he continues as to why it’s so dreary:
Yet to many, dull writing is a badge of honor. To write with flair signals that you don’t take your work seriously and readers shouldn’t either.”
That’s the trap of academic writing.
The Fallacy of Sounding Smart
Writing is a window into the author’s thought process, and we all want others to think we’re smart. We especially want professors to think that we’re brilliant.
Adding complexity to your writing does not make you appear intelligent. Convoluted writing may indicate muddied thinking.
When it comes to writing papers, remember two essential facts:
- Readers value clarity. Your professors (or the TAs grading the papers) will be grateful if you focus on the content being communicated.
- Professors don’t assign papers to see what you already know or how smart you are; they assign them so that you will learn through the process of writing the paper.
As a freshman in college, I took a philosophy course. The TA who graded the papers told me that he appreciated my work because he could see exactly where my reasoning went astray.
Apparently, I was better at writing than philosophizing. (No surprise there.)
By all means, use your academic career to play with style, to learn and master grammatically correct constructions. Become friends with the semi-colon; this will hold you in good stead.
But don’t become entranced with academic writing, as it doesn’t wear well outside of college. Assuming a scholarly writing style is like strolling around town in a cap and gown. People will snicker behind your back.
Resist the temptation to attempt to sound smart. Strive for clarity and use the college experience to explore your voice and style.
If you need to write about abstract topics with clarity, check out my latest book Writing to Be Understood: What Works and Why.