At a certain point in every college student’s career, it becomes necessary to tame the elusive beast known as academic writing. This monster roams the fields of every discipline, from anthropology to chemistry to even mathematics.
We are told that we must make friends with it, lest we fall victim to being “too informal.” The remedy, we are told, is to follow a series of seemingly arbitrary rules and guidelines, phrased not unlike biblical commandments: thou shalt not say “I” or “me,” thou shalt use the comma correctly, and so on. To many students, the purpose of such rules may be unclear.
Perhaps the greatest cause for headaches in academic writing is how foreign it is. Crossing the bridge between high school writing and academic writing involves leaving behind a myriad of tools that we’ve grown accustomed to, the most infamous of which is the five-paragraph essay. That said, academic writing is certainly nothing like creative writing either, which is more or less defined by its complete lack of rules and structure.
What about speaking? Initially, academic writing and speaking seem as different as can be. In general, people do not speak in the same manner that they formally write. An email to a professor is not the same as a conversation during office hours; a math textbook is (hopefully) not the same as a lecture, and so on. Despite the differences, exploring the potential similarities between writing and speaking may reveal why writing well is not only beneficial but necessary.
Whether we speak or write, we ultimately are trying to accomplish the same task — namely, to communicate an idea. Whatever that idea might be is unimportant. The crucial point to understand is that no matter if we speak or write, we are trying to bake our thoughts and feelings into a pie that is easily digestible for our audience.
Continuing with this analogy, the fundamental difference between speaking and writing is that when we write, we find ourselves in a kitchen with no bowls, whisks, or spoons. All of the tools that we previously were accustomed to are now gone. That is to say, when speaking, we use many techniques to communicate that we lack when writing. Among these are body movements, tone of voice, facial expressions, the physical environment, and the ability to stop, slow down, and stutter.
This larger context is what allows verbal communication to be so informal and imprecise. A speaker could accidentally say a wrong word or make some kind of grammar or pronunciation mistake, and yet still be understood by much of the audience. As the saying goes, it’s not about what you say, it’s about how you say it.
But when we write, we do not have the luxury of making such inaccuracies. The only place where meaning can be found is in the writing itself. There are no vocal cues or hand gestures to assist the reader, only words. Herein lies the crux of the argument in favor of formal writing rules: if the words of a paper are not understandable by themselves, then the paper as a whole will not be understood.
Sy tht a righter makes menny speling mistaeks. Perhaps there grammar are subpar, or. may/be, they”re — using, punc-tuation; incorrectly?!
Even if a writer has an artful mastery of their language, they may write in such a way — and write in such a way they will — so as to make it quite difficult for a reader to fully follow their train of thought, a train of thought which, by the way, appears to be never-ending, as they continue to write more and more and more, showing no clear consideration for the reader, who must, of course, you understand, naturally, read all that there is that they say, in the event that they, the reader, miss a crucial point in the writing, writing which, by the way, seems to have spent its entire budget for full stops on adverbs instead. I’m well aware that this goes against everything that is holy and good in this world. That is more or less the point.
If a writer for a formal publication or an academic class chooses to write in any of the ways described above, it should be abundantly clear that they will not be understood to the degree that they desire. Instead, their readers will be sent on a wild goose chase as they attempt to negotiate meaning out of an incomprehensible text. As they search for all those wondrous clues of speech that could shed light onto the text — only to find more unreadable words and sentences — they will realize by and by that they are doomed.
Admittedly, this may be a melodramatic way of looking at things. After all, indecipherable language isn’t really that much of an epidemic within publications right now. When was the last time you opened a scholarly article or a news source written in your native language and didn’t understand what was going on, solely due to inconsistent language?
Of course, consistent language doesn’t guarantee that the substance — the argument — of an article is logical or understandable, but inconsistent language certainly will hinder any chance of understanding, as seen previously.
This is essentially the argument in favor of writing rules or, at least, guidelines; by putting forth rules that seem to facilitate comprehensible writing, publications guarantee that their writers will make pieces that are comprehensible. Whether or not the argument of the piece makes any sense at all is a question for another time.
Bear in mind that these guidelines and rules are still arbitrary. A style guide is not the most correct way to write. It is simply someone’s idea of what’s good, subjectively, to them. Any given style guide producing works that are understandable has less to do with its objective correctness and more to do with its consistency. The truly marvelous thing about style guides, though, is that not only do they help make pieces of writing internally consistent, but they also ensure that the entire publication is consistent.
And so we land, at last, on the possibly unnerving truth about academic writing. While using a style guide can have its benefits, formal and academic writers don’t really have much of a choice.
For example, a writer for a publication is required to use that publication’s style guide whether they like it or not. If they choose not to without a very good reason to do so, there could be an array of consequences. At best, their editors have an awful time tearing apart their articles to meet their standards. At worst, they don’t even get published at all. A third, more sinister possibility is that they do get published, but all of their inconsistencies look incredibly out of place with the rest of the publication. Readers, editors, and fellow writers may begin to question that writer’s legitimacy among their ranks.
Nothing we do in this world truly involves only ourselves, and formal writing is no exception. If we wish to be understood, we must follow all the same rules that everyone else does. These rules aren’t set in stone, of course. Just as a Russian paper would look out of place in an English journal, so would a verbose, academic article in a children’s chess magazine. We must always match the context that we are writing in, if not to be understood, then to make other people happy.
~ Pat Mallory `26