Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Academic versus Non-Academic Writing

Good advice from John McIntyre at You Don't Say to an academic writer/editor on how to write "less academically":
Vocabulary: Being fond of Big Words myself, I enjoy parading them. When a reader of this blog thanks me for the gift of a previously unknown word, I break into one of my unaccustomed smiles. But some people find it painful to have their vocabularies stretched, and you should therefore make sure that your diction is not too abstract or elevated. I’m not sure that your six-year-old daughter would be the best source of advice on vocabulary, but if you know a twelve-year-old to consult, you would fall into the range of most adults. (Don’t, for God’s sake, imitate me.)

Syntax and paragraphs: I’m not saying that you should break everything down to a series of simple declarative sentences in the manner of the Hemingway parodists (among whom the first and greatest was Ernest Hemingway). But many of my undergraduate students at Loyola will identify any sentence longer than a dozen words as a “run-on,” especially if it has two or more clauses. Academic writing tends to boast longer, clause-clustered sentences, and you might want to stick to more abbreviated versions. Similarly, academic paragraphs tend to be longer. One-sentence paragraphs are fine, and three or four sentences are probably as many as you want to pack into a single paragraph. Look at a daily newspaper or popular magazine for models. Or Web sites.

Content: Not having seen any examples of the work you do, I can’t comment knowledgeably about it. In general terms, journalistic writing tends to look for and showcase the significant detail rather than flatten the text with a barrage of details. It focuses more on people than on objects or procedures, and it tends to explain objects or procedures through the relationship of identifiable people to them — thus the “anecdotal lead,” which presents a person whose situation is representative before describing the forces and events that created the situation.

Style: Written American English has been growing increasingly informal, even colloquial, over the past century. Newspaper journalism from the 1930s and 1940s, for example, looks much more formal, even stodgy, than what is currently published. What the contemporary reader looks for is the sense of the writer speaking directly to him or her. Read aloud what you have written. Anything that sounds false or strained when you read it aloud is probably something you ought to revise to make more conversational.

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