academic prose

There’s no such thing as a text without an audience. Texts are written for someone or some group. It’s no different in academia. Why then, I would like to ask, do students have to write texts that don’t address an audience (except the teachers or supervisors)? Read More


The Danish physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962) was one of the pioneers of nuclear physics, winning the Nobel prize in 1922. At his research institute in Copenhagen, he gathered a community of international physicists. Bohr availed himself of his colleagues to develop his ideas and theories. He talked to them about problems for hours or even days; his discussion partners took notes. While talking, he could spend a long time on a single statement, refining it more and more. He never seemed to be satisfied with his thoughts, which led to more discussions and more refinements. His texts suffered from this process, because they became complicated and laborious. Biophysicist Max Delbrück, a colleague of Bohr, seems to have said that Bohr’s texts were a “crime for the readers”.

After talking to his colleagues, Bohr used to dictate his texts to his wife Margrethe. It is likely that while taking the dictation his wife revised the text. Bohr seemed to have accepted her revisions, without revising the text again himself. In contrast, however, he did not accept suggested revisions from other physicists, such as Ernest Rutherford.

In one case, when presenting a paper, Bohr apologized for his convoluted prose. He hadn’t been trying to present facts, he told his audience, but intended to pose questions, which could be pondered further. Despite this apology, the audience likely still had a hard time understanding Bohr.

Fischer, Ernst Peter (2012): Niels Bohr. Physiker und Philosoph des Atomzeitalters. München: Siedler Verlag.

Famous for his unrelenting effort to develop sociological systems theory and the theory of society, Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) produced several dozens of books and many more articles in his career. While that in itself was impressive, he was that prolific despite being a single parent of three after his wife died.

Although Luhmann complained about the lack of time in general, he still managed to use his available hours to the fullest. In an interview, Luhmann explained his writing habits. He obviously didn’t have a regular writing schedule. However, when he was home and didn’t have anything else to do, he was writing all day: 8:30 a.m. until lunch time; 2 p.m. until 4 p.m.; and in the evening until 11 p.m. Between the writing sessions he walked his dog, took a nap in the afternoon or did other things. While working for so many hours, Luhmann never forced himself to do anything he didn’t like. He preferred to work on things that were easy for him. As soon as he didn’t know how to proceed, he changed the task. At this point, the interviewers were curious, because it seemed that Luhmann was talking about doing things unrelated to writing. But they couldn’t be more wrong: when coming to a standstill with one text, he just switched to another one, even if that meant to beginning a new book.

Luhmann understood his strategy, which we can call patchwork writing, well. It allowed him to work on different texts in parallel, while avoiding being blocked. Although patchwork writing might not sound that organized, Luhmann knew what he was doing. Since he worked with his famous Zettelkasten (a card system or slip box), he only needed a plan for a text and to find the required cards and then write. He stated that organizing the card system and retrieving the required cards took the most amount of time; writing a book took him less. After finishing a manuscript, he usually didn’t revise it. So most of his time went into organizing the content of a text and then writing and not, as in the case of other researchers presented here, into revising a manuscript several times.

Using the patchwork writing strategy and leaving aside the revision phase might be one reason that many students and researchers have trouble reading his texts. As Hans-Georg Moeller put it, Luhmann’s texts are “extremely dry, unnecessarily convoluted, poorly structured, highly repetitive, overly long, and aesthetically unpleasing” (p. 10). As I will indicate for other researchers as well, the writing strategy of a researcher can have an effect on the writing style.

Luhmann represents a writer who didn’t try to seek the perfect text, as he himself said. He instead kept on writing and refining his ideas from text to text. He seemed to have understood his own habits and used them to his advantage. Writing was not a chore, he said, but rather a need to let out all his ideas. He would even have preferred to work on different things at the same time, with 30 hours a day on hand.

Luhmann, Niklas (2002): Biographie, Attitüden, Zettelkasten. Interview. In: Luhmann, Niklas: Short Cuts. Frankfurt a. M.: Zweitausendeins. 7-40.
Moeller, Hans-Georg (2012): The Radical Luhmann. New York: Columbia University Press.

The philosopher Sir Karl Raimund Popper (1902-1994) represents well-known positions in epistemology, philosophy of science and the social sciences. But how did a scholar such as Popper write and under which circumstances did he produce the texts that started some of the most famous debates in science?

Popper seemed to have shared a trait with many other professional writers: persistence. From 1938 to 1943, for example, Popper wrote The Open Society and its Enemies, revising his manuscript by hand 22 times, while his wife typed it out five times – persistence at its best.

Working on a text for a long time and revising it again and again is an example of how Popper worked on his ideas. He refined and developed them through rewriting. Today, we would say that he wrote in order to learn more about his ideas and to dig deeper into the subject.

Maybe his thorough work was what led Popper to be a famous defender of clear and comprehensible academic prose. He detested those who needed to make things more complex and complicated than they were in order to impress. His advice: Those who can’t write clearly should return to their desk and try again until they succeed – or simply remain silent. He addressed philosophers and sociologists in particular. To make his point, he even dared to translate Habermas’ prose into clear language.

Back then, of course, everyday life must have been less distracting than it is today, but Popper still had to shield himself from possible distractions. He didn’t like big city life with all its diversions. Instead, he lived (for some time) in the country in Britain and dedicated much of his time to thinking and writing. There was no television or daily newspaper to distract him. He deliberately sought the best environment in which to write. That’s dedication.

Geier, Manfred (1994): Karl Popper. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag.
Popper, Karl (1984): In Search of a Better World: Lectures and Essays from Thirty Years. London: Routledge.

The quote in the title is among my most loved statements from William Zinsser (On Writing Well, 2006, p. 9). The statement not only captures how writing is, but it also soothes us: “don’t worry,” it seems to say, “it’s not your fault; it’s simply the nature of writing”. That’s one truth about writing that I like to pass on to my clients.

After a long life of writing and editing, William Zinsser recently died 92 years old. But his book On Writing Well will continue to influence writers. As it says on the cover of the 2006 edition (Collins), it’s “The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction”. The lessons we learn from Zinsser can and should be applied to academic writing as well (he refers to academic writers a few times). Zinsser asks us to show our passion for the topics we write about. That’s what interested him the most, even if he didn’t care about the topic at all (you know what he means when reading the excerpt from E. B. White’s “The Hen (An Appreciation)” from 1944; pp. 26-27). Zinsser asks that writers, including academic ones, show themselves and their passion in the text.

“Simplify, simplify”, is another lesson from Zinsser (2006, p. 16). Simplifying is hard work, though. With the reminder to “simplify”, Zinsser means to get rid of the clutter that burdens our prose. He wasn’t against writing beautiful sentences or using words with special meaning. However, he asks us to decide whether or not we need a word, phrase or sentence and whether we can simplify what we have written. We have to master the basic craft of writing, before we dare to adorn our prose. This applies to academic writers too. Simplifying might not only help you to show your passion for your topic, but also to convey the information clearly.

There are many other lessons in Zinsser’s books. If you want to improve your writing, see for yourself. But don’t despair if it doesn’t work immediately. I still need to learn a lot myself. But what better way to write well than to write and rewrite a lot?

Recently, I held a writing workshop with university students. We talked about how and why one uses academic language. I have ceased being surprised when I hear about what supervisors and teachers are saying. For example, the students are not allowed to use “I” in an academic paper nor are meant to include their own opinions in an essay. There is certainly nothing wrong with setting some rules for writing assignments. That is what researchers usually find when they want to publish a research article. The teachers and supervisors forget, however, to give the students sufficient reasons why this is so; forget to tell them that this might only apply for this specific assignment; and forget to tell them how they can write in order to stick to those rules. They don’t teach them the basic language tools that no researcher writing academic prose can do without.

In the case of not using “I”, we have a variety of ways to write about a topic while still bringing our opinion or perspective to the text. We can do it as if the study or research is responsible (“This study argues that…”) or create an even greater distance with other means (“As will be shown…”, “It can be postulated…”). The latter usually appears with passive sentences that create their own stylistic challenges. There is, however, also the possibility to talk about other texts and sources while at the same time saying what we think about them. After all, what will interest our readers is not simply whom we read, but also what we think of their research and how our research relates to them (the niche we want to occupy). That is where reporting verbs, hedges and boosters, and other rhetoric formulas come into play: “Miller discusses X, while Barns asks why…”; “According to Bourdieu…”; “Jones correctly suggests the thesis that…”; “Contrary to the position put forth by Adams, this study suggests that…” and so on (see the very helpful book by Graff and Birkenstein: “They Say/I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, 2006). This is how we discuss the work of others, while identifying their position as well as ours – even without the need to write “I”. In this way, we engage in controversies and debates in our field of research, instead of just listing research results without any comment.

I guess many university teachers and supervisors (in Switzerland at least) assume that the students will learn these basic tools by themselves. I learnt it that way as well. While this may happen incidentally by imitating what we read, there is still much that can go wrong: when students don’t truly understand what they are imitating and when and how they should use it. If teachers and supervisors told their students how and why they should write in a certain way, they would learn to write more consciously. They would use these tools of academic language more strategically for the purpose of communicating questions, arguments, or results. Then, they would also better understand the many corrections and (if they’re lucky) comments in their graded assignments and could learn from them.

To the teachers and supervisors: If you don’t know how exactly the academic language works yourself, even if you do it correctly and have for a long time, please get someone else to explain it to your students before they start their assignment (e.g. a writing coach like me). You will do yourself a big favour (the papers will turn out much better) and you will allow your students to learn the basic tools they need to write academic prose. Those students who decide to pursue a PhD will thank you, because then they will be able to focus on more important things such as getting funding, doing research, and learning to be a researcher who has something to contribute.

Mast 31 | Fabian Leuthold

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