Writing in the Real World: Theory and Academic Language

book-856151_640The internet has provided an excellent array of sources for learning about theories, as well as many platforms in which to write about them.  This is not just for the ivory tower any more.  But how can you successfully communicate your knowledge, your questions, your analyses in this medium? Most importantly, how can you avoid sounding like a jackass and alienating your audience?

You have to plan ahead…

  • Know your audience

Who will you be writing for?  Are these your peers?  Can you say for certain that they have all had similar educations and backgrounds to you? Are these people more advanced in your field than you are?  Are they just starting?  Is this not even an academic setting?

You have to interrogate yourself frequently when you write about heavy things like theory.  Even if you are in (say) a graduate classroom, not everyone there may have a mental storehouse similar to yours.  Will they understand what you are talking about?  Can you count on them to have at least a “cocktail party knowledge” of the subject you are taking on?  Or do you have to lay some groundwork before you can take them along on your theorizing?

For your writing to be effective, you must make it understandable to the largest portion of your audience that you can manage.  Do not get bogged down in buzzwords, jargon, or overly complex sentences.  By the same token, don’t fear the long sentence – when it is needed.

You cannot know for certain what every other person knows, nor can you run yourself ragged trying to imagine every counterargument and shore up all holes.  But you have to get a thumbnail picture, a profile, of who will be reading or listening to your work.  This will help you modify your language and sentence structure to not alientate your audience.  Guess if you must!  This is more than most academics are taught to do.

  • Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

When we are wrestling with theory, or any abstraction, it is tempting to run off at the pen.  But we must resist.  Condense your thought to the smallest, most plainspoken form.  Try to consciously revisit the groundwork I mentioned above as you explain The Complicated Thing.

Make sure your audience can readily understand the relationship between that groundwork and the theory – the foundation and the building.  After reading your text – will they be able to explain what they just read to others?

This recursiveness will also help people retain the information you are communicating.  Don’t simply repeat – reiterate.  Be creative with your stock of phrases and sentence/paragraph structure.

When you are not writing, read as widely as you can and look at how other people say things.  This is not to encourage plagarism but instead to help you furnish your mind.  Skilled writing does not magically appear, but instead grows after practice.  It bears fruit when nourished with the rich soil from other gardens.

  • Make outlines for everything

Imagine you are going on a road trip to somewhere you’ve never been, and you’ve been dreaming about it for a long time.  You’re taking a group of friends who also have not been there.  You are all going to stay for a while.  You know where you want to end up, but you have no idea how to get there or precisely what you would need on the way.  Wouldn’t you get a map and make a packing list?

Writing about theory is the same way.  You have the idea for your destination, but you have to get there first.  And you have to coordinate multiple peoples’ needs as they join you.

You need an outline. You can’t just start driving and expect everyone to be able to follow you the entire way.  This is simple consideration for your audience, and it helps you organize your thoughts as well.

At its heart, the outline is simply a list of arguments you want to make and points you want to prove in service of your position.  You put your thesis at the top (the main point you’re trying to make) and the steps you need to take to get there go below it.

Don’t worry about starting with the introduction or even writing everything in order.  If you’re using software, you can literally jump around from bullet to bullet and write the piece as it comes.  Worry about structure when you go to edit – this does not have to be perfect right away.  It just has to be written!



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