How to NOT Write like an Academic

Remember the good old days, the days of classrooms and pencil sharpeners and shiny red apples? A time of innocence, when vowels were mandatory, cursive was cool, and Pluto was definitively a planet.  

For a lucky few of you, your school days didn’t end after you received a diploma or two—instead, you built a career in academia, teaching and writing and publishing-or-perishing. For years you’ve likely practiced a particular writing style, one that your colleagues embrace but which, sadly, doesn’t transfer so well to a more general audience. From my own experience—including eighteen formative years living under the same roof as an academic—I offer you five tips for writing for the layperson.

Be a Scientist and a Storyteller

Prioritize entertaining your audience over proving a point. Readers want to learn about both your conclusions and the funny and strange ways you figured them out. How many times did you burn the quiche before finding the perfect oven temperature? What exciting adventures did you go on to become such an expert in gardening, traveling, African yodeling? Okay, sure, so you observed the pirates boarding your ship, but how did you feel? Channel the spirit of Carl Sagan and find the relatable human element within the scientific.

While you’re at it, cut every sentence in half, drop the fifty-cent words (sorry!), and weave your research into the narrative rather than quoting it.

Try Not to Bum Everyone Out

If ignorance is bliss, one might conclude that the opposite is true: knowing too much of anything is a real buzzkill. As an academic, you relish that your job is to dig deep, answer tough questions, and find root causes. Unfortunately, this practice can sometimes make a person thoroughly depressed, able to see only the pit we’ve dug ourselves into and not the ladder that can get us out. And sometimes the writing reflects this.

When you are writing for an audience outside of academia, steer toward the positive. This doesn’t mean pop a Valium and change your topic to sunbeams and fairy dust. Instead, imagine that you are one of those weird naturally cheerful people, and look for beauty, good intentions, and reasons to be optimistic. Then don’t forget to write about those too.

I Is Not a Four-Letter Word

I learned in high school that the word I has no place in essays. Taking yourself out of the equation is an excellent way to hone objectivity or even to battle narcissism. But unless done really well, it can create a bleak landscape of passive voice, uncredited assertions, and authoritarian shoulds. For example:

Breathing deeply while relaxing the musculature of the lower abdomen is the optimal way to lengthen the breath and should be done anytime stress is experienced.

Compare that to this sentence:

I find that whenever I feel stressed, taking a deep breath and softening my belly really helps me to relax.

Which one of these is understandable and practical, and which one makes you want to never take a deep breath again, just out of spite?

A Little Humor Goes a Long Way

’Nuff said.

Hit the Books

If you’ve long been sheltered within an institution’s hallowed halls, you might not be all that familiar with nonacademic writing. But you’re good at studying, right? So take some time to study the writing laypeople like. If you’re hoping to get a publisher interested in your business book, read popular business books. Read bestsellers by folks with PhDs. Also read novels. And blogs. And the funnies. Read just about anything to stretch your brain a little. Then circle back to the specific kinds of books that are good role models for yours.

Here are a few, to get you started:

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel

Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind 

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s Freakonomics 

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow 

Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice 

All of these tips support the same goal: to communicate clearly and well. Tailoring your writing to your audience does not mean you have to sacrifice intellectual integrity. Rather, it means that more people will understand—and be excited by—whatever topic it is that fascinates you so much that you just had to write a book about it.

Of course, as always, GFP is here to help.