Don’t use 100 words when 10 will do.

/Don’t use 100 words when 10 will do.

So this is something I feel deep within my shrivelled black heart: the over-complexity of academic writing.

Ironically, the reason I feel it in said heart is the fact that, for most of my professional career, I’ve been a bureaucrat.

“But Alis,” I’m sure you say. “Public servants are the worst over-writers of them all!”

Not so, dear reader. Public servants use public service jargon, true, which is a kind of a blend of business terms (“stakeholder engagement”) and passive-voiced-something-happened-but-no-one-did-it (“the project failed to deliver”).1 But inside of that, it’s very much “seven words to a sentence, three sentences to a paragraph, bullet points if you can”.

And then, sometimes, I end up working on projects with ex-students or -academics, and… hoo boy. It’s like, dude. Nice report, 100 pages, very fat. Too bad it’s completely incomprehensible. So how ’bout you go cut it in half, and come back with something I can use?

Like, I mean. I’m sure not all academic writing is like this but… yeah. Less is more, and all that.

  1. Why the passive voice? Basically, it’s so you don’t get fired. It’s not easy to get fired in the public service, but one of the ways to be effectively fired–that is, to ruin your career–is to outright accuse the government and/or ministers of corruption and/or incompetence. So it’s not “after his all-expense-paid trip to the Bahamas, the Minister awarded the tender to his newly discovered BFFs, who subsequently pissed away $10 billion in taxpayer money”, it’s “the project failed to deliver”. It’s worth noting that while language like this might be oblique to the public, other public servants know exactly what it means… and thus which projects not to touch with a hazmat suit and a giant pole. ^
2017-07-17T11:37:14+00:0027th March, 2016|Tags: writing|


  1. Vickie 30th March, 2016 at 3:28 pm

    I’m currently working for an ex-academic, an esteemed professor and former chair of a top university department (totally bragging through him here). I think he hired me, an ex-student of his, because my academic side appealed to his (yep, definitely bragging). It took us a long long time to adjust to the business world, but as soon as we look away, the boss would very quickly slip back into academic mode.

    No, boss, we really don’t need an acronym and an accompanying essay for everything, or a full stop after every bullet point…

    (I’d tell you some of our rather unfortunate product or service names but I want to keep my job.)

    • Alis 30th March, 2016 at 6:29 pm

      Hah. How long has he been out of academia? People usually eventually grow out of the style, but… yeah. It can be an interesting learning curve.

      • Vickie 31st March, 2016 at 4:47 pm

        I suppose he did spend decades in academia and only just retired from uni a few years ago… We’re doomed!

        Just kidding boss. We’re awesome. Please don’t fire me.

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