Academic Writing AdviceAcademic, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2011

Making Academic Writing More Digestible

PrecisionEdit

Academic research provides the basis for many different texts written for many different purposes. Marketing campaigns, proposals, essays — they commonly begin with a writer pouring through pages of research, looking through all the numbers, and determining which needles to pull out of the haystack of jargon and methodology. Learning how to understand and sift through the data and protocol descriptions is often a key talent of the best writers. In this case, knowing how to adapt the academic 4-course meal into a more easily digestible snack becomes crucial in reaching a wide range of people, interests, and reading levels.

As with any effective medium, writing requires consideration of the audience. A general audience requires less jargon — and fewer technical details — than a specialized audience expects. Therefore, the first thing to keep in mind is that when adapting academic text, audience engagement is crucial. Most writers will readily admit: academic writing isn't exactly the most exciting (or easy) read. So how does a writer adapt academic writing to get the message across in the right way, and to an expanded audience?

This can be done in several ways. The easiest is to pretend that you are explaining the research publication to a friend. How would you describe the gist of the study, and more importantly, what highlights would you choose to point out to be the most convincing data from the research? Would you use words like "therefore" and "furthermore", or would you opt for a more conversational tone? These questions are important to take into account before beginning a rough draft, and should be revisited at the various stages of the editing and final draft process.

Making academic writing more digestible is not only a matter of shortening sentences and removing jargon — it involves being able to quickly get to the "heart" of the matter. While a marketer's first impulse might be to simply reword the abstract to achieve this goal, the abstract rarely contains the specifics of the study's goals and aims, or even the exact statistics revealed. These factors are crucial in engaging a more general audience, because they will be the concerns that drive the purpose of the adapted text in the first place.

Beyond these general considerations, there are specific tasks a writer can focus on to make the process of adapting an academic text a smoother one.

Relax on the formalities

Some grammar rules are accepted (at least for now) as being "set in stone." Take, for example, run-on sentences. Fiction authors get away with it, but I have yet to see any non-fiction writers or copywriters pull it off. Ending with a sentence or clause with a preposition, however — that's an entirely different story.

When adapting academic writing for a broader audience, the following grammar rules can be relaxed, making the text seem less "stuffy" and nondescript.

  • Semicolon usage — semicolons most often connect two independent thoughts and tend to make sentences more convoluted. It's best to avoid them entirely, if possible.
  • Avoiding contractions — most academic writers shy away from contractions, especially sense writing in passive voice tends to circumvent them, anyway. To adapt an academic text to a more mainstream audience, contractions are fine, and can be useful in giving the writing a more approachable "voice".
  • Referencing the source of every fact — the research approval and monitoring process demands that researchers state every source they've taken from in their writing. This is such a focus within academic circles that researchers must almost be overly cautious about making a statement of fact or relevant theory that isn't referenced by previous studies.

A lot can be learned from the appendix

The graphs and charts that are usually included in the Appendix of a research publication are often quick, visual indicators of the findings of the study. You can reference these by looking at the end of the paper, after the References or Bibliography section. Bar charts and graphs are often used, or mapped webs to show hierarchical relationships and connections. Researchers are required to make these easily understandable, with applicable keys included, making them a great resource for beginning a scaled-down adaptation.

Pay attention to the abstract, but don't use the same language

This one is important. Abstracts are purposefully written to summarize the framework and methodology of the research. The language used is succinct, formulated, and chocked full of terminology that is edited specifically for removing wordiness and unnecessary language.

The abstract is also typically written with a lot of passive verbs. Below is a common passive sentence you may find in a research abstract:

"The researchers found…"

The trick to modifying this statement is to simply state the findings of the research. Instead of "The researchers found that 63% of employees reacted positively to a career ladder incentive plan," instead explain that, "This career ladder incentive plan works — and the research proves it!" The specific details can always be included in footnotes in case the reader wants to fact check.

PowerPoint®

The above information also applies well when attempting to convert research into PowerPoint presentations. This type of writing is becoming a common task as modern workplaces are focusing professional development on data driven strategies.

In fact, the commonly accepted "grammar rules" for PowerPoint slides are often even more lax than those of informal business correspondence. Bullet points are preferred to complete sentences, and end punctuation is sporadic.

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