I went to college for six years.
The first two years were in high school, taking community college classes to complete a high school degree. The next two years were as a regular community college student, exploring my options for university. The last two years were as a university student.
During that time, I had to write a lot of essays. Some were very good – others not as good. What united most of them was that they were very long.
Academic writing usually prioritizes length, with page and word requirements. Sometimes this is reasonable or necessary, forcing the student to prove they fully understand the topic. Often this isn’t reasonable or necessary – the student is asked to write in 1000 words what could be said in 100, and in 20 pages what could be said in one or two. The length means that something was said, but not necessarily that anything important was said.
Academic writing also emphasizes technical vocabulary – jargon. This is also sometimes reasonable or necessary, since difficult subjects can be hard to talk about otherwise. Often this isn’t reasonable or necessary, creating confusion in the reader, and hiding a lack of understanding from the author.
As you can guess, I’m changing my writing style to avoid length and jargon from now on. Looking back on some of the things I’ve written on this blog in the past, some of them could be half as long and twice as clear. If something can be clearly said in fewer words, I’ll try to do so. If something can be said with simpler words, I’ll replace them.
What does this look like? As an example, it looks like something George Orwell wrote called Politics and the English Language. In the essay Orwell lays out his 6 rules for good writing:
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.
Basically: the opposite of academic writing.
There’s also a tweet thread by Naval Ravikant, about How to Get Rich (without getting lucky). Rather than write a long book, he tweets out about 40 simple principles for getting rich. Also: no jargon.
It’s not just about essays: I’m also going to go over my list of reviews – I call them “short reviews” but most of them are still too long. I’m going rewrite all of them to be less than 50 words – with writing that short, every word counts.
For most writing, being clear and understood is more important than length or jargon. Universities will tell you otherwise.
I’m sure this will take practice to get right.