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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

Soulless academic writing happens on purpose

Updated: Apr 6

A woman stands in front of a brightly painted mural. Her head is thrown back and her mouth is wide open, like she is yelling. The patterns of the mural make it look like a big arc of colorful paint is coming out of her mouth as she shouts.
When we learn through science, it can feel like we have an exploding rainbow of ideas to share. But, academic writing isn't "allowed" to feel like that. Or is it!?! (Image: ritinhacorain/Pixabay)

Every semester, students in my courses and the graduate student scholarly writing program I co-run bemoan the bland, almost robotic vibe of academic writing. They are also usually quite worried that they will fail to reproduce it. They care about reproducing the tone and style of academic writing not because they want to, but because they feel like they must write this way to get a good grade, satisfy an advisor, get past peer reviewer gauntlets, etc.

And every semester, I tell them they're right -- a lot of academic writing is miserable to read. And trying to write like that is pretty miserable, too.

Fortunately, they do not actually have to imitate and perpetuate the worst versions of academic writing. But most of their training and conditioning says they do. So, of course, my argument that they have options must acknowledge what they are up against. Just look at the latest draft you received (from any student/trainee, at any level), and you'll see: students are acutely aware that making academic writing more engaging is really hard. Indeed, threading the needle between "rules" versus gatekeepers' preferences is a fine art that most students don't dare attempt.

But, we can do better. And, we can help our students do and write better, too.

This shift is especially important because writing is part of how we think and question, learn, and share knowledge (not just what we do after we're done "doing science"). If we only let ourselves (or our trainees) think in the ways that we know will get past funding and publishing gatekeepers, we are stuffing a lot of people and ideas into boxes that will never see the light of day. Resisting the soullessness of academic writing also matters because science is done, and written about, by real, live people. (Or at least, it should be!) You, and your students, are people with your own interests, biases, values, and motivations [1]. The same is true for the people we hope will read and use our science. We can just look around us and see a lot of the ethical and moral implications of pretending (and writing) otherwise.

The good news is that there are great resources for making this shift [2]. You'll especially want to look at (and recommend) some of these if you're helping a student or other developing writer. Given the near-infinite avalanches of stodgy scientific writing, students need help to find these alternative models. And when I say alternatives, I mean scholarly writing that acknowledges conventions enough to satisfy gatekeepers while expressing curiosity, humility, and the reality that science is done by humans not robots or AI.

There's one thing to do before you share those resources, though.

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