APU Careers & Learning Online Learning Original

Writing Well for Everyone’s Comprehension (Part I)

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

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

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? This is an interesting question, but perhaps an even more relevant one is: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does anyone care? I submit that the answer is a resounding no.

As an academic by profession, I read and write a lot. I’ve read thousands and thousands of pages of published content, from novels and memoirs to news articles, encyclopedias, and academic journals. And as a writer, I’ve published more than 200,000 words of my own content.

Start a degree program at American Public University.

Over the course of my reading and writing, I’ve thought a lot about the way different writers express thoughts and ideas. And I’ve realized that the choices authors make can have a tremendous impact on their readership.

I’m a university professor with two doctorate degrees. As such, I work with a lot of distinguished professionals with credentials and experience as or more refined than my own.

Devoting so many years to work and school in academe usually means that one’s vernacular tends to grow far beyond that of the norm. The average English speaker generally possesses a vocabulary of, say, 20,000 or 30,000 words. However, the vocabulary of a highly educated person would naturally be larger by virtue of their training and experience.

University Professors Are Often Conversant in Two Different Vocabularies

As such, university professors are often conversant in what I like to think of as two different vocabularies. They are of course fluent in what I call “conversational English,” which is the vocabulary that the average person understands and is comfortable with. But they are also fluent in what I commonly refer to — if a little tongue-in-cheek — as “academese,” or the advanced vocabulary of complex and less commonly used words that are learned through years of higher education and sophisticated study.

The problem, of course, is that these two vocabularies are not equally accessible to everyone, and their differences can make attempts to communicate complicated. Take, for example, the word “complicated.” That is a fairly common word that most adult English speakers understand. But notice that I could have used a less common synonym for “complicated,” such as “byzantine,” “daedal,” “involute” or even “labyrinthine.”

If I’m being honest, I wasn’t even familiar with a few of those synonyms before writing this article; I looked them up. But the fact remains that they are a part of the English language, and someone whose vocabulary included them could rightfully choose to substitute any of them anytime for “complicated.”

But at what cost? When we write using more obscure and less commonly understood words, we limit the potential scope of our reading audience. Everyone who is literate in English understands conversational English, but only the more learned demographic can decipher academese. This would be as if you, an English speaker, were having a conversation with someone who speaks both English and Cantonese, but that person insisted on only speaking Cantonese. There is a common language for communication available to both of you, but one of you refuses to use it.

Why Authors Choose More Complicated Vocabularies in Their Writing

So why do authors sometimes choose a more complicated vocabulary for their writing when a simpler one will do? To be fair, there may be some legitimate reasons. For one, sometimes when a narrative references the same concept multiple times, writers use a variety of synonyms so that the flow of the discussion doesn’t sound clumsy or repetitive.

As an example, in this very paragraph I used the words “author” and “writer” interchangeably. For my purposes, they are used to denote the same idea, but I mix them up a bit so that the article doesn’t read awkwardly. But note that even here, both words are fairly common and well understood by the average reader.

Another reason for using a complex word could be that no simpler synonyms are available. For example, the word epistemology means the study of knowledge and what distinguishes established theories from conjecture. Epistemology is not a commonly known or commonly used word, yet I know of no simpler synonym for epistemology that has the same meaning and effect, so its use might be necessary in certain contexts because there is no alternative.

A third reason for a diverse vocabulary could be the writer’s desire to add an artistic flare or a personal touch to his literary creations. For example, going back to the synonyms for the word “complicated,” a writer might elect to use the word “byzantine” as a creative choice in order to express his personality in the writing. This is fair on the basis that writing can be described as an art.

But another reason for complicated writing that involves arcane language — which I see far too often in the academic world, and which I argue is entirely indefensible — is an unspoken effort to use “big words.” The idea is to show how smart the writer is (or how much smarter the writer is than the reader). I did my dissertation work at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and I had a mentor there who used to describe unnecessarily complicated professorial writing, humorously, as “academic ego stroking.” My mentor was an extremely accomplished author in his own right, but he would criticize his colleagues for stroking their own egos with their obscure lexicon in an attempt to satisfy the insatiable appetite of an intellectual superiority complex.

And I have to say I agree with him. There is a sense of pressured competition in intellectual circles to prove one’s merits and establish who the “alphas” are in terms of knowledge and sophistication. In some ways, this is a product of our animal nature. And the use of complicated language is often seen as a way of displaying one’s feathers or thumping one’s chest to establish dominance. But this is awfully primitive and childish.

And the really sad part about authorship of this kind is that it virtually guarantees brilliant insights will rarely be seen by the majority of potential readers because of the cryptic, complex language in which they’re written. Academics work extremely hard on their research agendas, and they regularly publish their work in academic journals. But who is the readership for academic journals? Other academics, and that’s about it.

Don’t believe me? In the second part of this series, I’ll offer an example from my own professional background in hospitality management.

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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