Plain Language in Research Writing, or, How I learned to chill out and love contractions

by Ruby (Lavallee) Warren
User Experience Librarian, University of Manitoba Libraries

When I came to academic writing, I was terrified. As a first generation student and (I’ll be honest) a pretty extreme example of a high school slacker, I had a deep conviction that I didn’t belong in a University at all. To try and “prove” that I was worthwhile to academia, I tried to bend my writing in imitation of the journal articles I struggled through, in imitation of the ideas of my professors, even in imitation of the practices of other students if I was sufficiently intimidated by them. I tried to make myself sound important and knowledgeable in the way I wrote. The stuffier and more impenetrable my language was, as far as I could tell, the better I was doing at “fitting in”.

Of course, I was really just learning how to write poorly and look pretentious. In my third year, one of my professors gave us all an invitation to come and talk with him about our first essays and basically told me as much (sincere thank you to Joshua Schuster at Western University!). It took me years to relax enough to understand the advice he gave me on writing over the course of his class, but eventually I accepted that I didn’t need to write mazes to make people listen to my ideas. Writing mazes, in fact, accomplished the opposite feat; almost no one will reach understanding while fighting through writing that’s actively obscuring your meaning. Now I try and live by three rules when I write up my research for an audience:

Use the Two-Dollar Word Instead of the Ten

Writing is a lot like cooking. Sometimes you need a very, very specific ingredient of high value – a truffle oil, for example – to get the flavour you’re going for and make the occasion special. But most of the time you just want regular ingredients, in the cheapest and easiest way you can get them, to combine so you can make something nourishing and tasty.

Research writing, in particular, is an everyday-meal writing situation. Whether it’s a report for your institution or a paper for an academic journal, no reader comes to research writing looking to be dazzled by your ingredients. If there’s a way to say something with two different words, go for the most common option. Nobody has ever been impressed by a writer utilizing prodigiously assorted terminology (ugh, see?). And if absolutely only the truffle oil of words will do, make certain that its surroundings are simple and the meaning of the term is clear to your intended reader. Absolutely no one wants to eat (or read) something entirely made of truffle oils.

Simplify, and Make Reading Easy

To quote Serena Golden (of the Washington Post Express), “language isn’t a fence to keep the riffraff out”. Make your sentences easy to read – keep your phrasing as direct and simple as possible, and change up your sentence length to make your paragraphs feel more like speech and less like someone barking in your face. People complain about the “passive voice”1 , but the passive voice serves a purpose – as far as I’m concerned, the real crime in academic writing is writing that wastes time. Every word and clause you write should create meaning or readability. If it doesn’t, throw it out.

Straightforward writing may come easily to you. My misconceptions and brainwashing about needing to sound smart in academic writing took up a pretty strong residence in my brain, so often I find I have to write my paragraph, stare at it for a while, and read it out loud a few times before I can try out replacement sentences that are easier to understand. If you struggle, keep at it. When you’re stuck, I find it also helps to have someone less familiar with your specific field take a look and tell you when it’s becoming harder to read.

Be Human

While you should tailor your tone to your audience, you don’t have to obliterate any presence of personality from your writing. Say “I” or “we” instead of “the researchers” – a phrase that makes you sound like you’re having an out of body experience. Use contractions. View the piece of research writing as a conversation you’re looking to have with someone, and shape it accordingly. When speaking you have a style for your coworkers, a style for your boss, a style for strangers you’re secretly afraid know way more than you do – use them! Practice adapting yourself to writing and find out where your voice is for each level of formality.

(Admittedly, I have bit of trouble with this last rule. I lean toward the colloquial and slang-y, which is really only appropriate for research dissemination in blog posts and presentations, and I tend to over-compensate for it when I need to be formal. Further, it’s difficult to find your own voice while also trying to write in a way that other people can easily digest. And if you have stuffy editors or reviewers or collaborators, there are times that not a whole lot of your humanity comes across on the final page. But it’s worth trying. I think.)

You might not ever come to enjoy your own writing, but if you follow those three rules, you can at least be confident most people will be able to understand it. As long as people can understand your ideas, you can actually be part of the conversation – regardless of how confident you feel in your own style or credentials. And I guess that’s a good Rule Four for me to add in the future: If they Get It, It’s Good Enough.
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1Check http://advice.writing.utoronto.ca/revising/passive-voice/ for help with the passive voice if you aren’t sure when it’s appropriate.

This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

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