Language barrier: why your words could be shutting readers out

Ontological. Hermeneutics. Liminal. Epistemiology. Synecdochic. Dialectics.

Reading that list of words probably made you feel one of two ways, depending on whether or not you work in academia. To the academic, those words might’ve felt natural – like speaking in a familiar dialect. 

The non-academic, though, probably felt lost. Perhaps a bit shut out of the conversation, or that it’s not really meant for them.

That difference sums up the problem with academic jargon.

By definition, jargon’s exclusive 

It creates a clear divide between those who get it, and those who don’t. When you’re writing to experienced academics in your field, that’s not as much of a problem. But what about when you’re trying to reach a wider audience – like policymakers, journalists or the general public? Or readers whose first language isn’t English?

Two thirds of academics want to see more knowledge being shared between academia and practice, to make academia more inclusive. To break down that barrier between academia and the wider world, we’ve got to use our language to draw people in – not shut them out. And exclusivity isn’t the only problem…

Jargon can make even the most interesting topics pretty dull

An Ohio State University study found that reading specialised terms actually makes us less excited about certain topics .

In the study, two groups read about topics like surgical robots or self-driving cars. Afterwards, the group exposed to technical language reported that they were less interested in science than those who read the same content, without the technical terms. (Even when those terms were explained, it didn’t help – the presence of jargon alone was enough to put readers off.)

Insider language is only part of the picture

It’s not just jargon that’s working against us in our bid to make academia more accessible. Overly complex language and long, winding sentences make for writing that’s dense and difficult to read. 

A recent study of the readability of scientific journals found that 22% of papers published in 2015 had a readability score of less than 0 . That means not even university graduates could be expected to understand them. (For context, the readability of the BBC typically sits at around 60.)

When we’re writing to a wider audience, our language needs to shed light on things – not make them murkier. Here are some tips to help. 

1. Find your own Doris and Bertie 

When US investor Warren Buffett writes his annual reports, he imagines writing to his sisters, Doris and Bertie – they’re smart, but they’re not experts in finance.

To get out of your academic bubble, think of your favourite non-academic (like a friend, family member or partner), and write to them.

2. Cure acronymitis

Plenty of acronyms make your writing look like hard work, so use as few as possible. 

Say you’re writing about the BPS, the British Psychological Society. The first time you use it, explain it. But any time after that, you could just say ‘the society…’ rather than repeating the acronym.

3. Watch out for zombie nouns

Academics love turning verbs into nouns: the utilisation of, the implementation of. Higher education professor Helen Sword calls them zombie nouns: they suck the energy out of your writing, and make it hard to see what’s happening. Use more verbs instead.

4. Swap the passive voice for the active

What’s easier to understand: a trend was observed or we observed a trend? The first is in the passive voice – we don’t know who’s doing the action. The passive voice makes your readability worse, so stick to the active. 

5. Shorten your sentences

When your average sentence length is 14 words or fewer, readers take in 90% of your content on a first read. When your sentences stretch up to 43 words, that understanding drops to 10%. Add in a few more full stops to keep it readable.

Bonus tip: track your readability score in Microsoft Word. Find out how to switch it on.

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We wrote this blog for academic publisher Emerald Publishing. They turned our tips into a nice infographic, which you can find here.

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