The Author Finds…That You Should Start Saying ‘I’

Here are two sentences, based on a fictional report that might appear in an academic study in the world inhabited by the Animorphs.

1. The author finds that these results indicate a likelihood of alien slugs infiltrating the human brain to be quite high.

2. Based on my research, I think it’s likely that alien slugs are capable of infiltrating the human brain.

One of those two is exhaustingly academic (and to those of you stodgy types, that’s not a good thing). The other says what you mean. Both convey a pretty bleak scientific likelihood, which would be a bummer if it came true.

Anyway, aside from wanting to harken back to a book series that captivated me through puberty, I also wanted to draw attention to something that is often discussed, but I wanted to do it bluntly. Academic writing sucks. And, though I grant that I’m no academic myself, I see no reason why it needs to.

I do a lot of academic reading between Yester and my full-time gig at Inc. magazine. Surely many of you academics in the humanities would scoff if I were to tell you how your work compared to your standard business academic. But the truth is that academic writing is pretty similar from ivory tower to ivory tower, if only in that it’s not usually all that accessible.

We non-academics get that you’re grappling with some pretty intense stuff. To me, that just makes it all the more logical that you should find corners to cut to make the writing just a wee-bit more readable. Maybe not in the most academic of journals, but at least in your public-facing writing.

There is no easier place to start than in using the word “I.” Going through hoops to stay in the third person often serves to do little but make the writing convoluted and the point obscured.

To that end, I point to an essay-about-an-essay at Inside Higher Ed. In it, David Jarmul — the associate vice president for news and communications at Duke — describes an essay he helped get placed in a newspaper (he doesn’t say which) that resulted in potential action in Congress. That’s not for nothin’, he writes. Her article was written as an engaging narrative, and in the first-person.

Here’s Jarmul:

This approach is dramatically different than in most journal articles. There the author typically reveals the conclusion only at the end, festooned with caveats, after requiring the reader to wade through pages of experimental protocols or dense analysis. That approach simply doesn’t work with a newspaper reader who is sitting half-awake at the breakfast table, flipping through the editorial pages en route to the local news and sports scores.

Academic articles also eschew the use of “I” or “me.” Their authors learn in graduate school to rely on the power of their data and the brilliance of their arguments. Pundits should dazzle with their intellect, they’re told, not with anecdotes or emotion. As scientists and others like to point out, the plural of anecdotes is not data.

He adds later:

Academics who recognize this are not trivializing themselves or disavowing the intellectual rigor of their research. Rather, they are embracing reality and engaging readers effectively.

One of the main ideas behind Yester, it should be noted, is that so much good stuff comes out of the humanities but nobody would ever know because…well, because it’s unreadable. We’re big fans of academics who can write to a general audience. If you think you have something to say and if you think you know how to say it, you should think about doing so through us.

photo credit: xlibber, Creative Commons/flickr