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The Sense Of Style

Recently the staff at Metavision were discussing the challenge of academic writing, and how the formal structure of “academic writing” can be stifling, if not outright intimidating for students. How can one write in an academic style, without losing (or entirely ignoring) the sense of self?

Academese” - the convoluted and contrived language of the academy - has become the standard for formal, respectable, knowledgeable writing. Anyone studying the humanities has likely come across a paragraph like this:

“The phenomenological exploration of liminal spaces elucidates a palimpsest of interstitial identities, which, when subjected to critical hermeneutics, reveal their semiotic potentialities."

There is, likely, a meaning behind these words. But the meaning is not clear at first glance. Similar problems face the reader of scientific, medical or legal writing. Sometimes terms of trade or jargon are used as a shortcut to meaning - think “habeas corpus” or “myocardial infarction”. These words indicate something meaningful - but only to those ‘in the know’. For the average reader they are impenetrable and meaningless.

In the book The Sense of Style, psychologist Steven Pinker criticises the convoluted and jargon-laden style often found in academic writing. He argues that many academics prioritise impressing their peers over clear communication, leading to obscurity. Pinker encourages academics to shed unnecessary complexity and jargon, making their work more accessible to a broader audience.

As an example, Pinker discusses philosophical and scientific literature from the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods. Far from the modern trend of heavy intricate prose, much of the written work of thinkers from the times is simple, clear, and often framed as ‘dialogues’ or conversations amongst knowledgeable colleagues. The purpose of these writings was clear: to educate and persuade the reader to understand the writer’s point of view – not to appear knowledgeable, but to persuade. The labour to write as one spoke was seen as an honourable pursuit, not a valueless intricacy.

Most essays would likely not permit the kind of footnote Nikolai Berdyaev's book, The Divine and the Human, included: has: “This was once revealed to me in a dream.” Academic writing requires reference to previous work. It is assumed that truly original thought cannot exist. Within that framework that may be a correct assumption. But how should an individual experience, valuable as it is, be written into an essay?

For the student, academese is a shortcut to the appearance of knowledge. However, the purpose of any writing, especially academic writing, is to explain, argue, clarify or persuade. To succeed in any of those attempts is to write clearly, sensibly and usefully.

Meanwhile, many students struggle with the academic conventions of avoiding the first-person point of view. Rather than saying "I studied ...", for example, the convention is to write, “An examination of the literature was made.” But this passive-voiced, disembodied style, removes the writer from the story.

While it may be easy to fall into these conventional styles, it is not necessary. Any modern style guide is evolving to permit clarity and individuality. The American Psychological Association Style, for example, has revised their guidelines to permit the first-person point of view.

It is still important for academic writing to be based upon defensible premises, or to make reference to existing literature. But it is not necessary, or desirable to hold onto the old indefensible styles of prose against prose which holds clear meaning. Importantly, in taking this approach, the individual is able able to include one’s sense of self within the work whilst staying within the bounds of the required academic structure.

Reece Jones is Metavision's IT Manager.


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