"Academic Writing:" The Dos and Don'ts

I'm writing a paper that examines Telemachus's character in the Odyssey. Was he a coward? Was he a match for his father? Was his limiting factor his resources, his character, or his beliefs about himself? While searching for sources, I stumbled across Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature by Auerbach. The first chapter is called "Odysseus's Scar," which sounded like it might be useful for my paper. Imagine my horror when this is what I read:

There is also room and time for orderly, perfectly well-articulated, uniformly illuminated descriptions of implements, ministrations, and gestures .... Clearly outlined, brightly and uniformly illuminated, men and things stand out in a realm where everything is visible, and not less clear - wholly expressed, orderly even in their ardor - are the feelings and thoughts of the persons involved .... But the true cause of the impression of "retardation" appears to me to lie elsewhere - namely, in the need of the Homeric style to leave nothing which it mentions half in darkness and unexternalized.

I hope you stopped reading, because I certainly did. If I had to rephrase that paragraph, this is what I'd say:

Homer's pacing seems slow, but it gives him time to provide vivid description.

I'm guessing that if I polled everyone reading this article, there would be unanimous consensus: The rewrite is much easier to read. So why doesn't Auerbach use such simple language? Well, who knows? I can, however, save you from falling into the same trap. Here are some specific points to watch out for when you're writing "academically."

1. Avoid words with obvious Latin roots. This point has a long history in English linguistics, but here's a practical example. Consider the Hunger Games. Characters who represent corrupted authority have Latinate or Greek names (Seneca, Coreolanus, Caesar, Claudius) whereas those who represent youthful resilience have Saxon names (Katniss, Primrose, Rue, Clove). English is a Germanic language, not a Latinate language, and as such our nearest and dearest words are almost all Germanic. Words with Latinate stems are often colder and more formal than their corresponding Saxon equivalents (such as 'paternal' versus 'fatherly' or 'fortune' versus 'luck'). When in doubt, consult a dictionary, which will usually have at least a basic etymology (history) of the word in question. Be sure to follow George Orwell's advice to "break [this rule] sooner than say anything outright barbarous."

Some Latinate words in Auerbach's paragraph include "ministrations," "articulate," "unexternalized," "ardor," and "illuminated" (among several others). Replace these with "hospitality," "express," "unclear," "passion," and "described," and the passage becomes already a little easier to read. (Notice that the Latinate words are usually the longest and most confusing.)

2. Simple sentences sound smart. "Homer writes descriptively" is just as intelligent of a statement as "men and things stand out in a realm where everything is visible, and not less clear ... are [their] feelings and thoughts." Say what you mean. If it only takes you three words to say it, that doesn't mean it's not worth saying. The shortest verse in the Bible, "Jesus wept," was included for a reason.

3. Avoid words with unclear or double meanings. I saw it. I know you saw it. And I know what you were thinking: Is that a slur? "Retardation" is a legitimate word when applied to processes, but if you Google it, you'll get a Mayo Clinic page because it's often crudely applied to people. In Auerbach's day, this word may not have been such a problem, but it does illustrate an important point: Unless you know exactly what a word means, and unless you know all of its meanings, avoid it. Don't use "enormity" to mean "something extremely large" if you don't know that its connotation is "something extremely evil."

4. Banish flabby opinion statements. "It appears to me ..." should never appear in any academic essay. Angels appear to people. Opinions do not. Chances are good that you did not stumble on your opinion one day while casually taking a stroll through a field of flowers. You thought about it, you argued for and against it, you went to the intellectual effort of forming and holding an original idea. Fight for it. "Argue" your thesis statement. "Claim" your facts. "Acknowledge" your opponents. Don't "seem" or "appear" to be "expressing." Do or do not. There is no "appearing." 

5. Don't overuse pronouns. "Which" and "that" are the most common culprits. "I need to go to the party that my friend is having" could be shortened to: "I need to go to my friend's party." "...To leave nothing which it mentions half in darkness ..." could be shortened to: "... to leave nothing it mentions half in darkness." Strunk and White (of Elements of Style fame) suggest letting your ear guide you. If you see a "that" or a "which," it's a good sign that you need to read the sentence aloud and make sure that pronoun is necessary.

6. Give your pronouns antecedents. The "antecedent" (there's a fun Latinate word!) is the noun to which a pronoun refers. There's an excellent scene in Augustine's Confessions where he says that "he" dies, and it's not at all clear who "he" is. It could be Augustine's friend, or it could be a public figure with no connection to Augustine. In either case, the meaning is drastically different. The more clauses a sentence has, the more likely it is that the antecedent is either missing or is not the word you think it is.

7. There's no such thing as "academic writing." There's only writing. You either successfully and gracefully communicate a thought or you don't. Unburden yourself of the idea that academic writing is "smart writing" and novel writing is "easy writing." If you can't lay out the theory of gravity and its relevance to modern astronomy as clearly as you can describe your favorite character, something has gone wrong. Your writing is "smart" if it's engaging, beautiful, and interesting, and if the point it conveys is valid, original, and useful. Big words, long sentences, complicated structure, and general obscurity don't make it smart.