Style Files: Writing for Academia

Academic writing

Like most writers, I used to worry that I’d never find my own voice. But after about 10 years of churning out blogs, articles and feature stories, I haven’t just found it — I sometimes have trouble escaping it.

I love opening sentences that swoop in and carry you off into the story before you realize what’s happened. I would practically pay for the right to use an analogy no one’s ever made before. And I tend to be very conversational; a friend once told me, “You write the way people talk!” It’s one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.

Unfortunately, these features aren’t often used when writing for academia.

And I do a lot of writing for academia.

So what do you do when you’re writing for an audience that’s at odds with your own personal style?

Use your imagination

One of the best tips I’ve ever received was from a former Harvard administrator: “Picture a stodgy, grumpy, but highly accomplished professor as your audience.”

Can you see him? I can. He’s wearing a bow tie and has a commanding set of eyebrows. I don’t know about you, but I’d probably be inclined to sit up a little straighter and speak a little clearer in front of someone like that. Your writing should follow suit.

Up the formality

Make like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady and be as proper as possible. Faculty members usually have a PhD, and most feel that doctorate entitles them to a certain amount of decorum.

Avoid personal pronouns like the plague, especially the very informal, very direct, “you.” Try not to start sentences with conjunctions, as taught by your middle school English teacher. Dust off that thesaurus (or use this handy online version) and find a more elegant word than “good.” And finally, let your guard down when it comes to wordiness. If there’s anywhere that’ll pass, it’s here.


Never sell

When part of your writing efforts are spent on marketing campaigns, it can be hard not to slip into a sales pitch or get a little self-congratulatory. But try to keep your writing unbiased, if at all possible.

For instance, if you want to showcase a great service you have available, tell a story about how a faculty member used it, and let that professor’s success serve as your selling point. Then oh-so-casually invite inquiries and include your contact information at the end.

Of course, your final product may depend a bit on what kind of institution you’re at — Ivy League vs. state school vs. community college — but when writing for academia, this is a good place to start.




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