Kick the academic habit – academic writing vs business writing

Most students are familiar with that morning-after feeling. But academic life can leave you with another kind of hangover you’ll want to shake off before heading off to work: an academic writing style.

When your key reader is more likely to be found in a boardroom than a staffroom, you need to change your approach. The focus should be less on displaying every last bit of knowledge and more on the results you want your document to produce. Plus, it’s pretty likely your new reader won’t have the patience of your university lecturer. So save the flowery prose and make sure to leave these three typical habits behind, along with your lava lamp and Pink Floyd poster.

Confusing transitions

No, not the last few stops on the pub crawl. This is the careless use of linking words – such as moreover, however, furthermore and nevertheless.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these words, but using them doesn’t automatically make the connection between paragraphs clear, or even guarantee that what you write is connected to what went before. If you imply a link that is unclear or non-existent, you’re going to end up with a confused reader – or, worse, an ex-reader.

Ask yourself if you can make the connection more explicit to help your reader follow your argument. A good way to do this is to bring a phrase or reference from the previous paragraph into the next. For example, if in one paragraph you’ve been describing the benefits for a certain department of using a particular system, you might follow with something like: ‘However, the benefits for HR have been outweighed by problems elsewhere …’

One too many

Hey, we’re not here to judge what you do after you clock out. But in working hours, try to show a little restraint – with how much you try to fit into one sentence, that is.

The overeager student – starry-eyed with newly acquired knowledge and an excess of Red Bull – is often moved to squeeze every last thing they know about a topic into one paragraph, or even one very long sentence. Post-graduation, give your reader (and yourself) an easier time – and a better chance of understanding and acting on your information – by sticking to one idea per sentence.

Be selective with your information, too. The goal is to give your reader the information they need to know, not a brief history of everything that could possibly be related to it.

Short paragraphs can be helpful too, as huge blocks of text on a page can be overwhelming or offputting for the reader. But don’t break at a random point just to accomplish this: it will be disorientating and disrupt the flow. Make sure that while every sentence contains only one idea, every paragraph contains just one theme.

Sesquipedalian* show-offs
* (adj.) pertaining to or given to the use of overly long words

Your lecturer may have sighed rapturously at displays of a wide and poetic vocabulary, but the reader of your report may be less entranced. In fact, if you send them off to find a dictionary, they may never return. So make sure you swap unnecessarily long words and phrases for simpler alternatives. For example, is it really vital to write  ‘in close proximity to’  rather than  ‘near’?

Not only are shorter versions understood more readily, being more direct will help the connections you’re making come across more clearly: a bold  ‘because’ is preferable to a detached  ‘due to the fact that’.

And avoid nominalisations (the use of a verb as a noun), as they attract unnecessary extra words and disguise the action in a sentence. Why say  ‘undertake the implementation of’ when you could simply say  ‘implement’, or an even more everyday alternative such as  ‘put into place’?

Why, academia, why?

And now, class, let us draw to a close with this question: would it be better if students weren’t encouraged to write in the academic style in the first place?

Richard Dixon, a freelance journalist and commentator who was chief revise editor of The Times for nine years, would say a resounding ‘yes’. He recalls having to defend the ‘clear, precise language’ in his PhD thesis to the external examiner:

‘She criticised my thesis as “having some paragraphs with only two ideas”, as if this were a mortal sin, and being written in a simple (or maybe simplistic) style not usual in academic writing. I told her that those were the early benefits of training as a sub-editor on a properly edited research journal.’

And, having himself helped recovering academics grope towards a clear journalistic style, he notes: ‘Very few of them have felt they needed to buy a Dixon voodoo doll and stick pins in it in retaliation. Some have even been grateful.’

Sadly, even with Richard’s input, we probably can’t expect to change the entire university system’s writing habits in the immediate future. But if you can take on board a few of these tips, at least we can help you graduate into the world of business writing with flying colours.

The definitive guide to transforming the writing of individuals and teams