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How To Unlearn Academic Writing

Lynn Brown Posted by Lynn Brown, Digital Editorial Intern.

How To Unlearn Academic Writing


One of the first things we learn in school is how to write a nonfiction essay. From our very first book reports on through intro to composition classes in college, we’re taught to follow the well known structure of ‘Introduction, Body and Conclusion’. Further academic training encourages us to adopt a formal tone in our work and to always write in the distant third person. This is all well and good for a thesis paper or dissertation, but how many people are really interested in reading 100 or more pages of this?
The reality is that the average person is more interested in reading for entertainment than for academic purposes. While it’s true that nonfiction books are often more focused on imparting specific information, than on entertaining the reader, there’s nothing that says that you can’t do both! In fact, some of the most successful nonfiction titles found their way onto the bestseller list by adopting a more creative and entertaining writing style.

So how do you go about making a shift from writing in a formal academic tone to something more engaging?

Read more fun stuff
Think about your favorite fiction novel. What was it that made it compelling? The witty dialogue? The suspense? See if you can incorporate these elements into your own work in some way. John Perkins’ best selling book ‘Confessions of an Economic Hitman’ was styled after spy novels. Are there any fiction styles that you can copy to make your nonfiction prose more exciting?

Have a conversation
The tone of your work is one of the most important elements you can use to keep a reader engaged with your content. The formal, third person style so common in academic writing can feel like a slog to read after a few dozen pages. However, a more upbeat and conversational tone will keep the reader turning pages and help you connect with your audience.

Be Inspiring
Academic writing is often focused solely on imparting information while being as objective as possible. However, it is more often the writing that speaks to the reader on a deep emotional level that is the most memorable. If you can educate your reader and touch them emotionally at the same time, you’ll have reached a perfect balance.

Imagine You’re Talking to a Teenager
Often when we’re very familiar with a topic, we forget that the specific language and background that surrounds it is not common knowledge. This is particularly the case if you’re used to writing to your peers in an academic or technical setting. One way to break out of this habit when writing is to pretend that you’re writing to a teenager.

Watch your words
You know...those multi-syllabic, highly technical words you learned in college and only use when you’re writing an academic paper or trying to impress someone at a party. While they are impressive, they’re not always accessible. Readers who are unfamiliar with them will find themselves distracted or worse, turned off entirely. That goes double for scientific terms in Latin or Greek. Remember. You want your reader to be fully focused on the book’s message, using words that make them reach for their dictionary, distracts from that goal.

Writing a book can sometimes be a balancing act between informing your reader and entertaining them. A really good writer is one who can find the way to do both.


Gregory Park

What a refreshing, 21st century view of writing management/leadership books, particularly for practitioners. I have written a few books following these tenets which were moderately successful but, with hindsight perhaps they were published and marketed by a publisher with a more traditional, 20th century perspective.

June 7, 2016