Academic Writing really needs to be this complex? Photo @Pinterest

Make academic writing less academic

Edwin Battistella

Edwin Battistella

Edwin is Professor Emeritus of English and linguistics at southern Oregon University and the author of
Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels and other books.

Present-day academic writing is often dry, faceless, exclusive, and more formulaic that it needs to be. The language and formula we learned in high-school term papers, undergraduate research courses, and emulate in master’s theses, PhD dissertations, professional publications, and grant applications is not the only game in town capable of meeting the goals of academic research.
In the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1671, Isaac Newton described his observation of dispersive refraction this way:

I procured a triangular glass prism, to try therewith the celebrated phaenomena of colours. And for that purpose having darkened my chamber, and made a small hole in the window shuts, to let in a convenient quantity of the sun’s light, I place my prism at his entrance, that it might be thereby refracted to the opposite wall. It was at first a very pleasing diversion to view the vivid and intense colours produced thereby; but after a while applying myself to consider them more circumspectly, I was surprised to see them in an oblong form; which, according to the received laws of refraction, I expected would have been circular. (1)

Newton went on to document the way in which a prism disperses white light into component colors and then recombines them as white light. His observations led to the invention of a new type of telescope based on reflection rather than refraction.

Newton does not write in the style we have come to associate with scientific or academic writing.  He uses the first-person I.  He omits unnecessary details like the size of the hole in the window shutters or the distance of the prism from the hole. He tracks his impressions (pleasure, surprise). And he omits a discussion of previous research, referring only to “the received laws of refraction.”  (1) To make sense of Newton’s writing, you need to know a bit about optics, but you can stand behind Newton, watching as he figures things out.

Present-day academic writing—whatever the field—is different. It is not something you might want to read or enjoy reading.  As Joshua Rothman puts it academic writing is “supposed to be dry but also clever; faceless but also persuasive; clear but also completist. … written by one disinterested mind for other equally disinterested minds.”  Writing from a disinterested mind for a disinterested mind can come across as uninterested and uninteresting.

The language of academic writing is also a distinct genre. It is a style, as Douglas Biber and Bethany Gray have argued, that is compressed, characterized by implicit grammatical structure such as nominalizations passive constructions, and phrasal modifiers. And, as Biber and Gray note, it has gotten that way largely in the last 150 years. Their study of corpus features has tracked an increase in such features from about 1875 to the present. As they put it “the shift to the compressed, inexplicit style of discourse described above is largely a 20th century phenomenon …” (2) Academic writing has gotten more academic.

Writing is just part of the problem. The formula of the research publication, with its literature review, hypothesis, methodology, results, and conclusion is one that many of us are familiar with. We use it in high-school term papers, undergraduate research courses, master’s theses, PhD dissertations, professional publications, and grant applications. That formula encapsulates some important aspects of academic research: understanding and acknowledging the antecedents of a problem, establishing the relevant question and analytic factors, and proposing a clearly reasoning conclusion. But the formulaic research publication is like any other literary form, from Mad-Libs to the five-paragraph essay to the inverted pyramid: it can be a constraint as much as a model.

Is it worth the effort to rethink research writing and models? YES, and we can see that by considering three consequences of dry, faceless, disinterested writing.

One is that academics lose the ears of the general public. In a day when everyone has an opinion – and a social media soapbox with a blue checkmark – experts are already suspect as elites and drowned out in a sea of posts and click-bait. If academics give up on trying to communicate research broadly, our work will be “academic” in the most pejorative sense or the word. It will be inaccessible and unread, except by a small, exclusive group.

Another consequence is that fields may stagnate. A 2023 study by Michael Park, Erin Leahey, and Russell J. Funk found that scientific publications were “increasingly less likely to break with the past in ways that push science and technology in new directions.” Papers, patents and even grant applications have become less novel relative to prior work and less likely to connect disparate areas of knowledge, both of which are precursors of innovation. Park, Leahey, and Funk also note that the language of disruptive and innovative publications tends to be more diverse and less recycled than that of publications that merely consolidate previous work. (3) Innovative work introduces new language and new ideas to fields; treadmill work reiterates by increment.

Academic Writing really needs to be this complex? Photo @Pinterest

A third consequence is that researchers themselves will be less committed to journal publication. While studies show that academics do not become less productive over the course of their careers, their productivity shifts in focus. A study in Scientometrics noted that, whatever the field, “scholars increasingly turn to longer-term projects suitable for publication of books as a means to disseminate their research” and for STEM fields there is a shift away from journal publication. (4) While many factors may figure into this shift, the constraints of journal publication as opposed to book publication cannot be discounted.

What might change look like? Genres change over time. Read a New York Times piece from 1930, 1960, 1990, and 2020 and you can see the progression toward colloquial language. In 2001, Jack Rosenthal, the paper’s former managing editor noted proudly that “Written English, which reigned as America’s national language for most of The New York Times‘s 150 years, has been dethroned. The spoken word now rules, in all its informality and occasional vulgarity.” Academic research is different from journalism, of course, but it too should evolve in the direction of more effective form and style. The research-paper model doesn’t need to be the only way to publish research or to value it, and the disinterested language of past research doesn’t need to be the only way to present one’s work. With academic publishing moving toward open access, it is time for a more open vision of what makes publishable research. What would that look like?

One of the things I look forward to is the publication of the presidential addresses in Language, the journal of the Linguistic Society of America. These are the written versions of the addresses given annually by presidents of the Society. The publications tend to be more personal essays in which a writer – nearer the end of their career than the beginning – is permitted to depart from the standard formula. They write about their personal intellectual history, their successes and failures in exploring ideas, and their epiphanies or visceral reactions to earlier views. And they often bring forward a call to action for changing practices.

In 1972, Dwight Bolinger’s “Truth is a Linguistic Question” proposed that “The lie, broadly conceived, is therefore a proper object of study for linguists, and a necessary one at a time when lying is cultivated as an art.” (5) Bolinger’s piece spurred other to look at public language. More recently, John R. Rickford, together with co-author Sharese King, devoted his 2016 presidential address and later article to the language of Rachel Jenteal, the key witness in the trial of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin. Rickford and King called for linguists “to get out of our offices, labs, or libraries and make a difference in the world”. (6)

While we cannot give every scholar in every field a presidential address, we can make academic communication less of a straitjacket by encouraging more of that style of personal history, reflection, and advocacy.

In my own field of linguistics, there are promising signs that this is already underway in some quarters.  The journal Language has added section on Teaching Linguistics, Language and Public Policy, and Language Revitalization and Documentation, each with independent editorial teams. The work is scholarly but the new sections bring new styles, new topics, and new energy.  Language is not alone: many other journals are rethinking the style, format, and content of their professional offerings.

How do we help change along? Journal editors and journal publishers have a certain responsibility to ensure that work is not just significant and sound, but also that it is presented credibly and more-or-less uniformly. A journal whose contributions differ helter-skelter runs a risk of seeming amateurish. But editors and editorial boards can be proactive in establishing guidelines that allow for maximal individuality, and in reining in heavy-handed copyeditors when necessary.

Peer reviewers can help by reading generously. This does not mean relaxing standards, but asking “What is the author’s vision for this piece?” and “Does it work?” rather than “How would I write this?” or “Does it seem academic enough?”

Academic institutions and professional societies can help by shifting the criteria they value for hiring, promotion, tenure, and other badges of merit to include forms of writing that, at first blush, appear non-academic or non-canonical.

Scholars and researchers can help by trying new forms of expression, by attending to the scholarship on academic style, and by pushing back when the established authorial guidelines are stultifying. The final decision is still in the hands of the editor, but good editors want to be engaged in this way and will appreciate learning what style and language works best for authors, audience, and the material itself.

Journalists and readers can help by carefully reading and promoting the most engaging academic research. Good writing will let you go beyond the abstract!

If fresh thinking about writing and publication becomes widespread, academic writing may be more widely read, appreciated, and understood. And it might be more enjoyable for writers as well.


Edwin Battistella



  1. Newton, I., “A Letter of Mr. Isaac Newton … containing his New Theory about Light and Colors”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1671/2.
  2. Biber, D., and Gray, B., “Challenging stereotypes about academic writing: Complexity, elaboration, explicitness,” Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 2010.
  3. Park, M., Leahey, E., and Funk, R.J., “Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time.” Nature, 2023.
  4. Savage, W.E., and Olejniczak, A.J., “Do senior faculty members produce fewer research publications than their younger colleagues? Evidence from Ph.D. granting institutions in the United States,” Scientometrics, 2021.
  5. Bolinger, D. “Truth Is a Linguistic Question.” Language, 1973.
  6. Rickford, J.R., and King, S. “Language and linguistics on trial: Hearing Rachel Jeantel (and other vernacular speakers) in the courtroom and beyond.” Language, 2016.
Received: 29.05.23, Ready: 13.06.23,. Editors: Federico Germani and Robert Ganley

The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Culturico, its editorial team and of the editors who revised the article.

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