Advice & News

July 28, 2020

Making Your Academic Writing Pop

The dog days of summer are a good chance for each of us -- with a book in hand or podcast in ear -- to pause and think about the impact our work is really having. Writing is a big portion of this "work" in higher education, but academic writing is often dismissed as being unreadable, uninteresting, or just plain out of touch with the general population, and much of it is never read. How do we create writing that's more accessible and memorable to the everyday reader? First, let's take a good hard look at why some writing seems to stick but most fades away.

Hard Truths about Writing
There are three hard truths about most written content in today's world, whether it be for journals, online publications, class assignments, or other sources:

1. Most of what you write will not be read. According to the Nielsen Norman Group, during a typical visit to a web page, most readers read only 20-28 percent of the text. More than 50 percent of these views remain above the fold, meaning most users never even scroll down to see what's below. For academic publications, like journals, the situation is not much better. While people are reading more articles than ever before, they may be spending less time per article with the ease of hopping from one article to the next online.

2. Most of what is read will be forgotten. Even if someone reads your content, chances are they will soon forget most of it. We lose an astronomically high amount of information we read in the first 24 hours. Plus, retaining information may be even less important in a cloud-storage world. Why strain to remember that quote from a movie or book when you can just look it up?

3. Most of what is not forgotten is tied to an emotional or sensory experience. Most readers default to skimming rather than carefully reading the content. As a result, the information they pick up gets sent to short-term storage. On the contrary, when readers are engaged by an emotional or sensory experience with the content, they retain a much higher amount. This information imprints on our minds and can be recalled much more easily.

Writing Engaging & Memorable Content
So, how do we unlock the senses, add emotion, and invite our readers to engage with us in our writing? Here are seven tips.

Use Stories: Nothing captures the mind of children through adults like a good story. People can retain information up to six to seven times better in a story. Anna Clemens writes that a good research paper should read like an adventure story. Give us the characters (the objects of study), the conflict (research problem), the setting (the background of study), and of course the plot (your methods and findings). And keep the plot moving!

Make a Metaphor: Metaphors help us see new ideas in familiar ways or familiar ideas in new ways. Good metaphors are sensory, and others can easily identify with the feelings associated with them. For example, when F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "All good writing is swimming underwater and holding your breath," he gave a feeling we can relate with. Metaphors are also efficient -- you can say more in one well-placed metaphor than in several sentences. However, make sure your argument makes sense before applying the metaphor or analogy, or using it may undermine your whole point.

Get Hooked on Mnemonics: When children learn to read music or play the piano, they learn that 'Every Good Boy Does Fine,' 'All Cars Eat Gas,' and 'Good Burritos Don't Fall Apart' to remember the spacing of notes and keys. Words and concepts become stickier when tied to a mental acronym, rhyme, rhythm, or sound because it invokes a sensory image. Mnemonics are not just for children. How can you use them to help your readers remember your key findings or points?

Image It: When words fail, show a picture. Models, diagrams, and pictures have a powerful way of simplifying the complex and opening the mind to new ways of seeing things. A well-placed picture or diagram can accomplish more than several paragraphs or pages of writing.

Add Humor: We know that creativity improves when humor is involved, but so does retention and recall. Add a joke, cartoon, or humorous picture to your writing to help the content stick, but ensure the humor is appropriate for the age and characteristics of your audience.

Get Some High-tech Help: Many tools are now available to help you simplify and improve your writing. If you are struggling to keep your writing simple and accessible, pop your text into and get a less complex version. Also check out or the Hemingway app for readability scores and feedback on your content. Knowing the reading level people need to have to understand your content can vastly improve how you write.

Create Your Own "Kitchen Table Test": Finally, set up your own readability test. Most academic papers go through a peer-review process, but these peers often write and think the same way as you. Instead of only testing ideas with office mates and colleagues, how about also running your writing by your friend, your neighbor, or your family at the kitchen table? Can they understand what you're saying? Is there a simpler way to say it? This "near-review" process can help shed new light on your work.

If there is one silver lining to most people working or studying from home over the last few months, it's that our work and personal lives are much more closely tied. This can be a good thing if it helps us think about how our work is making a difference in everyday life. This summer, let's resolve to get our ideas to stick with those who need them most by making our writing more engaging, clear, and memorable.