Stop using so many words.

Stop using so many words. This comes up because I’ve been editing papers lately–good papers, or we wouldn’t be publishing them, but bogged down in verbiage.

Back in high school, my AP English teacher drove this into our heads. A lot of you likely had the same experience; we’re told over and over again not to say in twelve words what you can make clear in five. But somehow, once you get into grad school, all that goes away. The need to hit a word count (or page count, in north America) and the drive to sound clever leave concise expression behind for long, winding sentences full of qualifiers, adjectives, useless particles, and endless jargon.

Jargon is its own issue, and may sometimes drive me so crazy it gets a post of its own. Suffice to say that there is a use for specialised terminology, but if it’s not fulfilling that use, don’t use it. The temptation (in north American graduate students especially, but some departments in Europe and the UK fall to it more than others) is to fill the opening sentence with enough big words to make it very clear that You’re In the Club, you’re a proper academic, and you really do know what you’re talking about. The effect, unfortunately, is to obscure the point rather than express it, and it all comes off a bit desperate.

Obviously, if specialist terminology is necessary to make your point, well, that is why it exists, and that is exactly when it should be used. I’d never try to tell anyone not to use the words that, in your field, reference the thing you’re talking about. (Although here, too, it’s important to be careful. If you are writing about something like ‘courtly love’ or a ‘heroic age’, you’d best be very clear about what it is you mean, because these things have been interpreted in various ways over the years.) Language is a tool to communicate ideas. Yes, it’s also a marker of many other things and yes, can make you part of a community and all that, but a scholarly paper is about the research, not about you.

But that’s not even the unnecessary verbiage that I’m talking about here. I mean things like, ‘Indeed, as you can see, the hypothesis suggested by X is a reasonable reading of Text A, though I might consider also the statement by Y that….’ Unless you’re actually being paid by the word, there is no point to this. First, go through any paper and slice out a full half the instances of the word indeed. It’s not a bad word, but is hopelessly overused. Then cut out anything that gets in the way of ‘X shows us Y, because Z.’ Stylistic flourishes are fine, and sneaky snarkiness even better, though both in small doses, but find anything that detracts from the confidence and clarity of your argument and chop its head off.

The most useful articles read as if you were having a conversation. Not coincidentally, they’re often written by exemplary scholars with shiny reputations–if you are Professor Amazing, Lofty Chair of the Department of Brilliance at Famous University and author of I Invented This Entire Field, you don’t feel the same need to prove yourself as if you’re Jo Random, PhD Student. But you know the advice given out in the business world to dress, talk, and act for the job you want, rather than the one you have? Write like you know what you’re talking about. Because you actually do.


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