Will no one think of the students? A call for shorter sentences by Nadia Eldemerdash

posted Oct 11, 2017, 12:05 PM by Writing Center

When I think back to my time at graduate school, most of what I remember is related to my thesis; writing it, reading it, staking out professors’ offices in my desperation for feedback. When I wasn’t poring over my thesis, I was squinting at journal articles from the 1970s and ‘80s, published and printed in that punishingly small font (you know the kind I’m talking about), the ink so dark smaller letters look like smudges on the page.

I developed a lot of resentment for those articles over the course of my graduate education, not so much because of the squinting (although that certainly didn’t help) but because more often than not, they were written in a style that seemed deliberately obtuse: dense, page-long paragraphs crammed with sentences nearly as long, laden with multi-syllabic jargon and little context. It was as if the authors did not want me to follow the conversation, and were indeed hoping I wouldn’t. I could picture them in my mind’s eye, cackling at me from their post-retirement offices: “You think getting into grad school makes you smart, huh? Let’s see you follow this seven-line sentence!”

When I finally finished graduate school I thought that was behind me, but no. As a Writing Consultant, I’ve seen too many (i.e., at least one) people bring in writing that mimics this style. It’s understandable, because as a writer it is only natural to take inspiration from the kind of writing you admire. As academics, we naturally look to the scholars whose ideas we borrow for tips on how to present those ideas as well. But just because Dr. J.J. Johnson is the foremost expert on astrophysics in the world doesn’t mean we should be taking writing advice from her.

The point of writing – any writing – is to transfer information from one person to another. Writing that doesn’t achieve that objective has failed. You don’t get credit for using big words and complex sentences if that basic goal hasn’t been achieved. Even if the purpose is to demonstrate that you understand what those big words mean (and sometimes it is), if I, as a reader, don’t understand that you understand, then that goal hasn’t been achieved.

It can sometimes seem that using big words where small ones would do just as well or cramming an idea into one long sentence instead of breaking it up into smaller ones makes us seem smart. But again, if the reader can’t understand what your overall message is, whether you are smart or not is a moot point. What good is being smart, after all, if I can’t understand you well enough to appreciate it?

This is something I have had to work on myself as a writer. I still find myself mimicking those painful articles sometimes, not because I am trying to sound smart necessarily, but because I’m trying to express a complex idea without taking the reader into consideration. Instead of asking myself what the reader needs to know to understand my point, I’m focused on myself and what I already know. I can follow a four-line sentence as a writer because I know what I’m saying – the reader doesn’t. Even if the reader knows exactly what I know about this topic, they are not in my mind and they can’t follow my train of thought.

If you’re interested in academia and research, over time you will find your writing style morphing to more closely resemble that of your discipline. That’s normal, and shows that you are paying attention to your colleagues and to the work being produced in your field. You’ll start to aim your writing at an audience with a higher knowledge base, and your language and style will reflect that. But as you write, please think of the poor students. Think of them, hunched over in their dark little rooms, the light from their laptops the only thing illuminating the tiny, tiny font your paper has been published in.

Then, for the love of all that is holy, put a period where you are and start another sentence.