How to Write a Paper That Someone Can Read

by | Feb 2, 2019

A few years ago, a student stopped by my office. She announced that she’d finished her big term paper. “But—” she added, with the apologetic air of someone taking a needless precaution, “I’d like you to read it over one last time before I turn it in, just in case there’s anything I need to tweak.” Nothing in this exchange seemed to signal the beginning of a productive conversation. But I agreed to read it over and give her my thoughts.

For the next twenty minutes or so, we sat in silence. The student must have supposed that I was savoring the depths of her insights. In fact, though, I was roughly calculating how many layers of sugar-coating to apply to the advice I was about to give her. (Judging by her straight-A demeanor and perfectly manicured day planner, “start over” didn’t seem like the productive way of framing my critique.) Every thirty seconds or so, to maintain the illusion of activity, I would force my eyes back down on the paper in front of me. But I could never choke down more than a few sentences at a time:

“Viewed from a world-historical concept, Montaigne’s bifurcated interpretation is indicative of various pathways of understanding, initially accounting for the subjectivity of people, places and things, yet also encompassing national and cultural solipsism, rooted in the intellectual notion of a transhistorical position…” (Here I start to feel my attention wandering again.)

Even after the fourth or fifth re-read, I had not the slightest clue what these words were actually tryin to convey. I could hardly even guess what the paper was about. It was, in short, an unreadable disaster – a mass of superfluous adjectives, schizophrenic circumlocutions, and dorm-room philosophizing. If that sounds harsh, let me assure you that the point of this story is not to pick on one naively optimistic undergraduate. At one time or another, just about every teenager on the face of the planet has written a paper in a similarly brain-melting style. Yes, that includes me. And if twenty years of teaching are any
guide, that includes you, too. But the good news is, you don’t have to write that way forever.

For most of our school lives, we’re trained to write down other people’s ideas. We describe the plots of novels, and summarize laboratory procedures. And so long as we’re reasonably brushed up on our alphabet, this is usually not too hard a task. But at some point in our education, usually towards the end of our high school careers, we’re asked to write down our own ideas. This is an altogether different task, and infinitely more difficult. First we’ve got to think through a million pieces of conflicting evidence, so that you can figure out what you actually want to say. And then we’ve got to somehow set those thoughts down on paper in a way that another human being can follow. When we first find ourselves up against this challenge – feeling inadequate and overmatched – we do what humans almost always do in this situation: we fake it. We take our own half-formed thoughts and we try to dress them up as something profound. Keep in mind, too, that when a sixteen-year-old sets out to make something sound “profound,” they’ve got a pretty limited number of models to draw from.

So we borrow a bit of Fitzgerald or Thoreau (or whatever we’re reading in AP Lang). Add in a few dashes of politi-speak and the King James Bible. Make liberal use of Shift+F7. And we end up with something that looks like, well, the essay of that poor girl in my office. Very occasionally, this style of writing might be enough to get a B- from an overworked teacher. But any serious reader – say, a college professor, or a college admissions reader – will immediately understand the scam you are running. They will see that you’re trying to make something that simply sounds smart, rather than something that actually is smart – that has something thoughtful, nuanced and original to say.

It gets worse. By trying to write like James Joyce, you will probably end up obscuring or neglecting the interesting ideas that you really do have. Down deep somewhere, almost every student has something to say – an interesting take, a new perspective. And when I sit and talk with my students, face to face, they usually end up being able to state these ideas reasonably well. But when they try to set these ideas down on paper, they get lost, buried in a landslide of misapplied jargon and unnecessary verbiage. Rather than do the hard work of explaining and clarifying our ideas, they spend their time just making them sound fancy.

If your reader cannot understand what you are saying, or can’t bear to make the attempt, then your piece of writing has failed, and no amount of big words will save it. And this is why, dear reader, clarity comes ahead of everything else. Forget big words. Forget Faulknerian turns of phrase. Smash the F7 key on your laptop. Express yourself in plain language.

When I say “plain” here, I don’t mean bland or basic or bureaucratic. I’m not telling you to make your essays sound like a DMV handbook. Nor am I telling you to thoughtlessly pepper your writing with slang or informalities. When I say “plain language,” I mean a style of writing that corresponds to the ways that you normally speak. Even in the age of smartphones, we first learn to communicate verbally – through face-to-face conversations. And this continues to be the mode of communication where we express ourselves most easily and naturally. So, you can use this as guide or model when you write. When you are composing a sentence, ask yourself “would I ever actually speak these words? Can I imagine myself ever actually saying this in a conversation?” If the answer is a definitive “no,” then I can pretty much guarantee that you that you reader will find it strange or confusing.

By the same token, it is usually ok to do the same things in your writing that you would do in a conversation – a joke, an aside, the occasional use of the first person. Different teachers, of course, will pick nits about different things. But I never knew a teacher who was outraged by having to read something that had a little wit and energy.

I know, dear reader, that you probably still don’t believe anything I’m saying. Some bad habits run too deep to be fixed with a simple talking-to. Fine. But to all you skeptics I say: go and see for yourself. Read an opinion piece on the New York Times, or an article in Scientific American. Or you can even go for something really high-brow, The New Yorker or the London Review of Books. And you will see — nobody writes in the kind of grand, philosophical style that you are trying to emulate.

Got it? Good. So maybe just think twice the next time you’re tempted to say “pedestrianize” instead of “walk.”