APU Careers & Learning Online Learning Original

Writing Well for Everyone’s Comprehension (Part II)

By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

Note: This is the second article in a two-part series about good writing that is designed to ensure a reader’s comprehension.

In the first part of this series, I showed how academics who write in a needlessly complicated vocabulary alienate reader demographics who might be interested in the ideas that they have to share. Here, we’ll look at a real-world example from my time as both a professional writer and an academic in the world of hospitality management.

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Industry Readers Might Be Interested in Your Writing, But It Still Needs to Be Written for Easy Comprehension

There are extremely capable scholars who do research into hospitality management at schools around the country. They publish their work either in hospitality management academic journals or they present it at hospitality management academic conferences. But can you guess who virtually never reads those journals or attends those conferences? The hospitality industry, of course.

Hotel managers, restaurant chefs, casino operators, airline CEOs and cruise line directors hardly ever look at the research coming out of academe. I know this because I was a hotel manager for years.

And why don’t they? It’s certainly not because of a lack of awareness of the work. The hospitality industry regularly partners with the academic world on initiatives like internships, training programs and funding for new projects, so the industry knows what academe is up to. I submit that it’s mostly a reluctance to read complex studies that require both a dictionary and a thesaurus in order to decrypt every other sentence.

Here’s a simple example in an article abstract that I pulled, at random, from a 2000 issue of the journal Tourism Management:

“This study was conducted to layout [sic] an effective plan for reforming the hotel management curriculum of Korean universities. On the basis of the purpose of the study and review of the literature, four research questions and hypotheses were addressed and tested. After two-round panel discussions, 800 questionnaires were distributed to randomly selected alumni, and this procedure resulted in 422 usable sample size. The hypotheses were tested by the relevant statistical analyses such as the factor analysis, canonical correlation analysis, multiple regression analysis, and discriminant analysis for identifying significant relationships between the independent and dependent variables. All of the four proposed hypotheses were supported and major findings, implications, discussions, and recommendations were provided.”

I think it’s important to emphasize here that an abstract is supposed to be a top-level summary of the written work that describes the subject and draws readers in. And I would argue that this particular abstract — which is typical of academic writing in general — does just the opposite. It is complicated and cryptic and uses research jargon to convey information that most readers don’t care about, such as the specifics of the statistical tests used.

At the same time, it leaves out key information that a reader would need and want in order to appreciate the thesis of the article, such as what questions the researchers asked and what they learned from this research!

So I went ahead and read the full research article to understand the context. Having done so, here’s a thought as to how this researcher could have written this abstract to express the same points in a more accessible and inviting way:

“The researchers here wanted to know whether hotel management programs at Korean universities were actually helping students with their careers after graduation. Specifically, they looked at whether graduates of these hospitality management programs thought the classes they took and the lessons they learned were useful to them. They sent out 800 surveys and got back 422 useful responses. What they learned from this study is that there is in fact a connection between the classes hospitality students take, the duties they have to perform in the industry, and the eventual hospitality career success they will achieve.”

Now wasn’t that easier? To be clear, I’m not saying that technical components such as statistical methods and demographic characteristics shouldn’t be included somewhere in the body of the article. And perhaps some of the content might rightfully require the use of some complicated vocabulary. But the point is that it should only be used where necessary, and it should be eliminated wherever simpler, more accessible language is available.

Above All, Your Writing Must Be Comprehensive to Your Audience

Here are a few olive branches to my criticisms in this piece. First, the industry does partner with academicians on some research, such as grant-funded projects. But when this does happen, the researchers generally know that they’re going to have to present their findings to their sponsors in a very different tone and style from that with which they would normally write. The value of the work has to be clear and comprehensible to those who are writing the checks, lest they shouldn’t expect to see any future grant funding.

Second, not all scholars write in this cryptic, needlessly complex vernacular. There are some brilliant authors who manage to convey their ideas in easily understood and accessible ways. But academese is so prevalent in the academic world that it is easily noticeable. If you doubt it, pick up any reputable academic journal and just start reading. The abundance of seldom-used words and needlessly complicated language should be readily apparent.

This would not be a problem if these brilliant minds weren’t trying to communicate valuable information. If they were simply writing in their private diaries for their own personal benefit, the language they use wouldn’t matter at all.

Writing in ‘Academese’ Can Alienate Potential Readers

For what it’s worth, I think people should obviously be allowed to write however they like. But insofar as writing and publishing is aimed at sharing knowledge and ideas, the use of academese is entirely counterproductive as it alienates 99% of those who might otherwise be interested in absorbing the content.

Getting people interested in learning is a difficult enough battle on its own, but writing in cryptic language is like tying both hands behind one’s own back before entering the arena. If the goal is to communicate with as many people as possible for maximum impact, then get out of your own way.

I am by no means a perfect writer, but I do my best to write in a very casual and comfortable way for a mass-market reading audience because a) my goal is to communicate and b) I don’t need to validate my own intellect by spurring ‘vocabulary measuring’ contests with others. That’s not to say that it comes easy for anyone, myself included. Writing accessibly takes practice. But it can be learned and honed like anything else.

Again, academic researchers and writers work extremely hard, and they deserve a lot of credit for the work they do. But it’s all in vain if no one ever cares to read it. So if scholars can keep these practices in mind in their own writing, we might just manage to reach some folks with all the immense wisdom that the academic world has to offer, and more people might just begin to care about the sounds we’re making.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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