Subscribe on    Apple Podcasts  |   Spotify  |   Amazon  |   iHeartRadio  |   YouTube

Hi writers! Hope things are going well and you are finding a nice balance between fun-filled rejuvenation and getting your work done this summer.

This week’s podcast is about how to write in ways that get straight to the point.

That don’t hide your main contribution and that take a real stance on a topic.

That let the world actually know what you think.

I’ll also go into the different reasons why so many academics don’t do this, and why that’s a big problem for you and for your readers as well.

And if you have the tendency to talk around your points rather than getting straight to them, I’ll give some ideas on what you can do to change it.

Writing that Doesn’t Get to the Point

As a book coach, I read a LOT of scholarly writing. I mean, a lot.

I provide detailed feedback on at least 5 book chapters, book proposals, and/or peer-reviewed articles every week that are on incredibly varied topics and a wide range of disciplines.

So of course, I’ve developed certain pet peeves.

The usage of a lot of unnecessary jargon is one of them, as it excludes readers who aren’t familiar with your subject area.

But that issue is pretty easily fixed just by choosing simpler wording.

Like I tell my authors, when you absolutely do need to use a specialized term, just put in a short, user-friendly definition along the way so it doesn’t become a stumbling block.

No, my biggest pet peeve of the moment that’s on my mind because I’ve seen so much of it lately is the issue of not getting straight to the point.

This means not stating exactly what you mean and, instead, leaving it to the reader to figure out.

This is an issue that plagues many scholarly authors, and it typically manifests in the form of INSANELY long sentences.

You know what I’m talking about!

These are sentences that, by themselves, form an entire 5 or 6-line paragraph.

These sentences start in one place and end up in completely another in ways that are often mystifying.

These sentences string together a list of numerous different ideas and concepts—some of which are quite complex—without providing any definitions.

They leave you scratching your head and thinking, “what was I supposed to get from this?”

And even if you read it again once or twice, you might still not be sure you understand the author’s true meaning.

If these types of sentences appear here and there in a person’s writing, no problem!

We all get carried away with our ideas and do it from time to time.

You can usually just split a sentence like this in two and make sure you clarify any confusing wording.

Where it becomes a problem is when a person’s writing is consistently overcomplicated and confusing.

It is up to YOU as the author to tell the reader what to focus on and not put the responsibility onto them to figure out.

But, stating what you actually think in a clear and concise way can be a terrifying thing for academic writers, as I’ll get into more in a bit.

I’m also not trying to say that long, complex sentences don’t serve a role in good writing.

They absolutely do.

But we also need to pay attention to the experience of your writing from the READER’S perspective.

And I wanted to give a great quote from American writing instructor Gary Provost on why you should vary the length of your sentences.

He writes,

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

Of course, that quote is not about academic writing, but it very much applies.

As I talk about constantly, the best scholarly books are READER-CENTERED and not author-centered.

You must constantly think about the needs of your reader, and one of them is to write in ways that keep them engaged and wanting to continue.

Like I tell my authors constantly, there are about a trillion other things your readers could be doing with their time.

Therefore, do your due diligence and try to keep things interesting for them.

Why Scholarly Writers Don’t Get Straight to the Point

So now I want to talk a bit about why I think many scholarly authors don’t write directly and straightforwardly.

I think there are three different, but interrelated, reasons:

#1: The first reason is that they’re not exactly sure what their main point is!

Overly long, complicated sentences happen when authors try to fit tons and tons of ideas all into the same thought.

Take that example I gave a minute ago. There’s no clear concept or area to focus on.

There are so many huge ideas in there that, when strung together in that way, they all become diluted.

Again, this type of writing goes back to not being focused enough on the needs of your audience.

Readers need more signposting of where their attention should go.

If you find that hard to do that, you probably need to take a step back and make sure you truly understand the main point you’re trying to make as well as who you’re writing for.

And that might mean having to choose one idea to be the main point while all the others become supporting points.

But you need to do that work ahead of time for the sake of your audience.

#2: They don’t trust their own expertise and/or lack confidence in their writing.

Long, non-specific sentences can also be a way of hiding what you think so as not to be attacked.

You are able to metaphorically duck behind big concepts and other peoples’ research.

There’s a lot to be said about how the academy socializes people to believe that there’s only one acceptable way to write (which, in my opinion, is usually extremely boring and dry).

Furthermore, those who express themselves differently are often penalized as not being “academic enough.”

This negative label is disproportionately ascribed to certain grad students, who I’ve noticed are mostly folks of color and/or those from working-class or immigrant backgrounds.

And this is a scarring label that individuals often take with them long beyond the PhD.

In response, they often try to mimic a certain style of writing that they think of as scholarly, which is full of jargon, context, and qualifiers.

The most unfortunate thing is that because they have been told to not trust themselves, their own valuable and unique perspectives become buried.

And reason #3 is very much related to the last, in that writers who don’t get straight to the point are often afraid to take a stance.

What does it mean to take a stance?

It means that others can disagree with you, and that’s a very tough and vulnerable thing for many people.

Some of my clients have a hard time writing directly because of critiques they’ve received in the past from advisors and other experts.

Ultimately, writing in generalities or providing endless amounts of context ensures that no one could ever prove them wrong.

If you had a traumatic grad school experience, it’s completely understandable that you would want to avoid conflict.

Why would you want to put yourself in the line of fire?

But I’d also like to suggest that the more you show who you are and what you think in your writing, the more you will draw the RIGHT people to you.

And those are folks that you want to be talking to.

Tips to Help You Write Clearly and Concisely

So now that we’ve covered some of the reasons why academics tend to not get straight to the point in their writing, I want to give two tips on how to change this habit.

#1: Read your work out loud.

To me, the best and most compelling writing sounds like someone talking about things they are fascinated and intrigued by.

Countless times my clients have given me things to read that just don’t make sense.

They’re too vague or use words I don’t know.

Then when I ask them to tell me exactly what they mean out loud, a huge transformation takes place.

Because they have a supportive, interested person in front of them asking questions, they know exactly how to explain their topic and often also their argument and contribution in simpler, clearer terms.

As they’re talking, it is common for me to yell out, “write that sentence down and put it into your chapter or proposal!”

I tell them to completely replace the more complicated prose they have written with stuff that actually sounds like they do.

Because, don’t forget, your audience is looking to forge a connection with YOU as a person and the narrator of this journey, not just with your ideas.

So, one really easy way to do this is to read your writing out loud.

Ask yourself, “does this sound like me when I’m talking intelligently?”

And if it doesn’t, then you probably need to simplify and clarify much more while also imagining interested, supportive readers on the other end.

#2) Practice writing short, declarative statements.

So my second suggestion for writing in ways that get straight to the point is to use short, declarative statements.

Let me give you an example.

My feedback on pretty much every book proposal is to add the sentence, “My book aims to change that” at the end of the first or second paragraph.

By that point the author should have set up the stakes of the project, the primary research questions and debates, as well as the standard ways the field has approached this topic up until now.

Perhaps someone’s book is trying to change a certain paradigm or challenge a commonly-accepted notion or draw attention to an understudied phenomenon.

So by saying, “my book aims to change that,” you are unabashedly taking a stand against what’s come before as well as conveying confidence in what you have to offer.

Inside Higher Ed recently published an opinion piece by creative writing professor Rachel Toor on why academic writers have a hard time writing in a straightforward way.

She writes: “The main thing that keeps most academics from making clear, declarative statements is fear.

The brazenness of first-year graduate students soon gets beaten out of them. They learn from peers and professors not to get too big for their britches.

One of the easiest and cheapest ways to make yourself feel and seem superior is to trash another’s work by picking apart the details.

It’s one of the unpleasant aspects of academic life. Don’t be that person.”

And she gives an example from one of her friends, a doctor who was tasked with giving a lecture to visiting physicians from China who spoke little English.

He was forced to narrow down his most important points, explain them as simply as possible, and avoid anything that would unnecessarily complicate his main message.

What if you were to take that approach with your own writing?

What would you change or do differently?

What outdated or unapproachable conventions of academic writing would you allow yourself to let go of?

Remember that the primary audience for scholarly books is undergraduates.

So just like you do when you’re teaching, make sure you use words and concepts they understand and that it’s crystal clear why it’s important that they learn these things.

Summing It All Up

I’ve talked about the main reasons why it can be hard for scholarly writers to get straight to the point and also given a couple of suggestions for changing this tendency.

As I said before, it is YOUR responsibility as the author to tell the reader what to focus on and not leave it to them to have to figure out.

Writing in a more direct, straightforward way is obviously not just about writing.

It requires that you shift your mindset away from fear and towards curiosity and the excitement of conveying new ideas.

It requires you to give yourself permission to be the expert you already are.

It also requires you to give your readers benefit of the doubt that they’re truly are interested in what you have to say and not merely there to tear you down.

So those are my thoughts on this topic.

As you can see, I have no problem with taking a stand!

And of course, if you want more support, reach out to me and schedule a free consult!

I’ll talk to you next time.