How do I lose the academic writing style? —Frequent Questions

Q: How do I lose the academic writing style?
A: Stop writing.

I know my initial answers to these Frequent Questions tend toward the flippant, but with this one I’m dead serious.

One of the best ways to knock the stuffiness out of your writing style is to talk through your ideas. Write out loud.

Now, I’m not talking about improvising. Please in the name of all that is good, do not improvise your talk. Unless you’re a member of Second City or the Upright Citizens Brigade, in which case I wish you Godspeed.

But unless you speak like an academic 24/7, you should be able to find a more informal way to talk through your ideas. Try it as if you were chatting with a colleague. (But make sure it’s someone you like.) Record your conversation, transcribe it, and the next day go back and sort out the great stuff you can use as is, the stuff you can make great with a little tinkering, and the stuff that needs to go in the Outtakes folder I’ve written about before.

Once you’ve translated your thoughts into English from the original Academese, make sure the level of detail works for your audience. Have you fallen afoul of the Curse of Knowledge the Heath Brothers talk about in their book Made to Stick? If you think you may be getting into the weeds with details, find a bright 10-year-old (real or imaginary) and talk through your ideas again.

Academic writing won’t fly when you’re out of school

Academics are not the only people who write like academics. Anyone who’s been trained by an academic will write like one, too. At least until they hit the real world and realize no one’s reading what they write.

After I spoke at the conference last weekend, several people told me that writing frustrated them because they hadn’t been able to shake the academic writing style.

That’s an easy fix: Just write more. And not just about work. Go outside your lane once in a while and write something completely different—a poem, a silly story, a meditation on the letter U.

Just 15 minutes a day will make a huge difference over time.


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