5 reasons NOT to write like an academic

Aristides Agramonte (LOC)
As schools everywhere are restarting and the latest crop of college graduates settles into new jobs, I thought I’d share a few of the harsh, early business writing lessons I learned on the job.

I was an English major. When I entered the business world, I quickly found that what worked so well for me in college was a huge problem in the work world – particularly when it comes to business writing and marketing writing.  The academic writing style I had spent years acquiring was a problem.

New graduates aren’t the only ones who struggle.  I still run into people who feel compelled to write in an ‘academic’ style, either because that’s what they learned and value or because they still have one foot in the ivory tower.

Academic writing generally doesn’t work in business marketing. Here are five reasons why.

1. Nobody has to read what you write.

In academia, your readers have to read what you write – either they’re paid to grade it, or they are graded based on having read it.

In business marketing, nobody has to read what you write. They’re only going to read it and keep reading if it grabs their interest.

2. In the real world, there’s no required length.

In academia, length is often valued.  (Remember papers with minimum length assignments?)  Not so in marketing – and especially true when it comes to website text.  There are no points for being verbose. Really.

3.  Nobody cares about the writer.

In academia, your objective is often to convey authority or knowledge – either as a student looking for a high grade, or as someone reaching for tenure by proving their authority. You want the reader to pay attention to you, the writer.

In marketing, the ‘writer’ often needs to get out of the way. The authorial voice is frequently informal and unassuming – and rarely attributed to a single individual. It’s all about the reader.  (Blogging is one exception.)

4. You get no points for vocabulary.

In academia, using obscure vocabulary and esoteric references can help prove your depth of study.  In marketing, these things usually antagonize your readers.

5. You’re trying to motivate behavior, not grades.

Finally and most importantly, the objectives of business marketing writing and academic writing are completely different.  In academic writing, you are usually trying to prove a thesis of some type – whether through argumentation or presenting hard evidence.

In business marketing, you are hoping to influence behavior. You want something more than a shrug and “huh, that sounds plausible.”  Ideally, you want your reader to take some specific action, whether approving a project or contacting a sales person. To do that, you generally have to understand your reader as well as you understand your topic.

3 Comments on “5 reasons NOT to write like an academic

  1. Anne – I couldn’t agree with you more. After getting a Master’s degree, I still write like an academic at work and it is now hurting me. I am an urban planner and my reports/memos have been called “verbose”, “not to the point” and, after just discovering this feature in MS Word, I apprently write on a 16th grade level.

    Any advice as to where I can turn for help? Thanks.

  2. Jonny – It takes a while to retrain yourself. You’re going to have to make the changes in the revision cycle. In other words, write what you want to write. Then go do a major revision and look for and eliminate the following:

    – passive voice construction (a little is okay, a lot is lazy and annoying)
    – extra wordy phrases “in order to” and “in service of”
    – strings of adjectives – especially ones including ‘very’, ‘extremely’ etc, as you can almost make the text stronger by removing them.
    – the $10 words when a $1 word will do (you know what I mean)
    – long, complex sentence structure with multiple dependent or independent clauses. These can almost always be broken into shorter sentences and the reading will be easier.
    – long strings of semi-colons, when a simple list will do better

    It’s a lot of work, but in this kind of revision you may be able to cut some length and add readability. And over time, after you do these edits, you will begin to internalize these ideas and and affect your writing style in the first draft. Good luck!

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