Among the choices you have as a writer is to choose the style and tone of your paper. This includes the "register" or style that is most appropriate for the context (and audiences) of your work. Registers can range from the chatty, informal style to the distant, formal abstract style. In between these two extremes are the more moderate styles including the popular style (found in magazines), and the conventional/consultive style (often used in making oral presentations).1
Choosing which register to use is important, because it determines how readable and professional your documents appear to your audience. Many academic scholars prefer and imitate the formal abstract style, because it is commonly used in scientific and specialized journals. However, just because this style conforms to many journal articles does not mean it is always the best choice.
It is widely believed that the formal abstract style communicates a serious, precise, authoritative, professional and objective tone, even though it is often hard to read and understand. This style tends to use longer, complex sentences, more passive voice, and more abstract and longer functional words averaging three to five syllables. The information tends to assume the reader has the background to understand all the specialist and technical information. Many of you may choose this style on the advice of others, because, as some believe, it will contribute to getting your article approved and published. But, if this formal style is the only style you know, you risk overusing it for all your professional written communications – even e-mail.2
Although this formal and opaque (meaning "muddy, dense, unclear") communication style may communicate a certain professional code language that confers "membership" in your specialized field, it is not appropriate for all audiences. I tell writers that this style is only one choice, and in fact a conventional/consultive style may be more suitable for a journal article.
One of the most interesting books I read last year was the linguist Steven Pinker's best-selling,"The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century." An advocate of the "Plain English Campaign," which seeks to persuade organizations to communicate to the public in plain, understandable English, Pinker's book is a thoughtful and useful discussion on how we can make our writing plainer and more readable by avoiding muddy, abstract style. Pinker looks at the writing style not defined not by a set of writing techniques, but rather by an attitude toward writing itself.
What is most fundamental to that attitude is that you, as the author, know something and want to present it to us. This attitude will help you decide how and what you tell the reader.
Pinker outlines the approaches to this attitude as follows:
(1) The writer has seen something in the world.
(2) He positions the readers so they can see it with their own eyes.
(3) The readers and writer are equals.
(4) The goal is to help the readers see objective reality.
(5) The style is conversational. 3
Pinker calls this the "Classic style," but these five approaches to writing are similar to the conventional/consultive style, especially with regard to conversational style. In academia, "conversation" around research is most often presentational, so when communicating your research ideas and data in writing, it makes sense to frame them in language similar to what you would use in oral presentations.
In the AWEC presentation course, I propose the idea that your paper is not your presentation; that the (presumably abstract/formal) style you used in your paper should not be the same language used in the oral presentation of your paper. The reason for the difference is obvious: what is hard to read is even more difficult to listen to if presented orally in the same style. Pinker proposes reversing that idea by communicating your writing with the language of the oral presentation; a plainer but still sophisticated language allows the reader to more easily analyze the information and reach their own conclusions.
The key difference in these arguments is how we define the language of oral presentation. The words "plain" and "clear" are often used, but they are hard to apply meaningfully. In fact, Pinker states that he does not define "plain language" as in "simplistic' or "bare-bones," language, but rather communicating with well-chosen words, words that reflect your character, words that deliver your desire to communicate meaning efficiently and professionally.4
The statistician and information design expert, Dr. Edward Tufte, observed that good oral presenting shares the same principles as good teaching, with both embracing, "explanation, reasoning, finding things out, questioning, content, evidence, credible authority [but] not patronizing authoritarianism."5 We could also argue that so does good writing. Pinker states, "The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth…It succeeds when it aligns language with the truth..."6
A dense, impenetrable formal style, on the other hand, obscures information; it is the author's intention to keep you from knowing the truth. Richard Lanham in his book, "Style: An Anti-Textbook," suggests that writers who choose this style obscure information on purpose to exclude, to maintain status, or to purposely obscure meaning to prevent threat to face.7 Choosing a professional, more readable, more accessible, and yes, more pleasurable8 style for your readers is a worthwhile pursuit for nearly all your academic and professional writing.
This essay is written in a consultive/conventional style. As you can see, there is not much passive voice. The language is directed at a non-specialist, well-educated adult, and the average functional word length is 2-3 syllables. The sentences are complex, but tend to branch left to right, thus improving the logical flow and ease of reading/understanding. The feeling is energetic. The tone is presentational. Yet, does it seem professional enough to you?
- See Writing Science in Plain English by Anne E. Greene for good example of different registers. The search engine, "Google Books" has an excerpt on their website. You can link to this example by clicking on "Before You Write" link: https://books.google.com.tw/books?id=l6pBR29W7isC&dq=writing%20science%20in%20plain%20english&source=gbs_book_other_versions
- I'm not proposing in this essay that we should abandon using the formal abstract register altogether, but choosing it for a good reason. Indeed, there is evidence that this style is preferred in some journals, as well as for communicating academic or technical ideas within a specialized field that could lead to promotions and accolades.
- Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Penguin Books, 2014
- Pinker. ibid.
- Tufte, Edward. The Cognitive Power of PowerPoint. http://users.ha.uth.gr/tgd/pt0501/09/Tufte.pdf (23 April 2016)
- Pinker. ibid.
- Lanham, Richard A. Style: An Anti-Textbook. Paul Dry Books, Philadelphia, 2007
- Pleasure in this context refers to the ability to read the author's accessible ideas, thus delighting in the ability to understand and analyze the content, and allowing yourself to associate it with what you already know.