By Cally Guerin
Many years ago, I wrote a PhD thesis that used French psychoanalytic and postmodern theory. It may have been the translation of the texts, but I found it necessary to read, and re-read and re-read again before I even began to understand the concepts, let alone learn how to work with them. Part of my difficulty was the cultural preference in those texts for long, convoluted sentence structures; another part was the slow process of becoming familiar with a new vocabulary.
However, it took many years before I started to recognise that sometimes when I couldn’t understand a piece of writing, the problem lay in the writing rather than me.
There are plenty of jokes about how obscure academic writing can be. Many readers will be familiar with the Bad Writing Contest from the 1990s; or have read Steven Pinker’s diatribe on how and why academic writing stinks. As Pat Thomson points out, this kind of writing is an easy target. But you undoutedly know what these critics mean – those sentences with very long noun groups, filled with abstract nouns or ‘nominalisations’ and lots of punctuation.
So, given the poor reputation of academic writing, how should we best advise doctoral candidates to strike the right balance in their writing?
These days I encourage students to keep the sentences simple and straight forward – being clear and easily understood are not actually bad things. This can sometimes be even more important when English isn’t the author’s first language, especially if there is an inclination to translate from a first language that does privilege very complex structures for formal writing. Relatively short sentences allow the author to control the subject, verb and object so that readers can follow who is doing what to whom.
The trouble with this advice about sentence structure is that it becomes possible for the writing to appear rather naïve – not doctoral level at all. One way to ramp it up to a more appropriate level is to use more complex vocabulary within those simple sentence structures. For example, instead of ‘Participants were asked to answer the questions’, it might be better to write: ‘Participants were invited to respond to the questionnaire’. Or ‘We got some good results, showing we chose the right method’ might become: ‘We collected reliable data, indicating the appropriateness of the method’. Subject, verb and object are all firmly in place, but the language is a little less rudimentary.
Care is needed to ensure that word choice doesn’t tip the balance towards the equally irritating practice of using language that sounds pompous and overblown. It is always important to be wary of bloated jargon and overuse of abstract nouns, but simple sentences can effectively communicate complex ideas through more sophisticated vocabulary.
Statements in doctoral writing sometimes require numerous caveats to ensure accuracy and clarity of purpose; anxious acknowledgements of all the limitations in order to head off potential criticisms can lead to very long and complex sentence structures with many clauses and sub-clauses. Even these situations can be much easier to comprehend when the sentences are shortened. Although some disciplines still don’t seem to approve of dot-point lists, for many this is a very good way to deal with a number of points that need clarification.
Writing for different audiences can be a very useful way of learning how to manipulate sentence structure and vocabulary. Considering the requirements of non-specialist audiences can help move away from the kind of constructions that obscure meaning; instead, efforts to show how the research is relevant and useful forces the author to clear out anything unnecessary to the central message. This is one of the reasons I like the Three Minute Thesis Competition so much – it’s such a good way to help researchers think about communication as their main purpose. Blogging for a general audience can also help to focus on straight forward explanations of complex ideas.
Of course, this all relates to the idea of authorial voice, a topic for another day (we have covered some aspects of voice in previous posts: here, here and here). As I’ve pointed out in a previous post, voice is made up of many elements. I’d argue that choices about sentence structure and vocabulary are an important part of this mix, leading ultimately to the creation of a doctoral identity.
Have you found other ways of balancing the need for simplicity and complexity in doctoral writing? I’d love to hear about how others have solved this problem.