We are all familiar with fusty, complicated, roundabout academic writing – no doubt it filled many of the textbooks you struggled through at school and university; and if you have to read academic texts in your working life, you may dread the task because it is such a chore ploughing through all that verbiage. But it has to be that way, right? The authors are conveying complicated concepts, so because of the very nature of the content, the language must be complicated too, surely? Well – only up to a point.

The jargon, unfortunately, usually can’t be avoided – in most cases, those words are specialist terms with very specific meanings, and replacing them with simpler words is likely to remove important nuances. However, there is a lot of text in academic writing that is not jargon, and this is where there is plenty of room for adjusting and improving the way things are written.

With a view to making texts more accessible at first reading, the Plain Language guidelines call for simplifying authors’ words in several ways. For example:

  • Keep sentences short (approximately 20 words is ideal)
  • Keep sentences simple (as opposed to compound or complex)
  • Use the active voice; avoid the passive voice where possible
  • Don’t use a complicated or polysyllabic word where a simpler or shorter one will do (eg try vs endeavour)
  • Avoid ‘nounisms’ – phrases and word forms that turn active verbs into passive nouns (eg the importation of vs import; an infringement of vs infringe)
  • Avoid lengthy noun strings where possible.

Much of this advice is at odds with the ideas about academic writing that many writers seem to have absorbed, presumably from their supervisors and the literature they’ve read. In particular, many writers appear convinced that they should use the passive voice as much as possible in academic writing.

This practice was indeed encouraged for a long time, the idea being that it removed the impression of subjectivity from the writing and therefore made it appear more objective – more ‘scientific’ – especially by eliminating personal pronouns such as ‘I’ and ‘we’. However, for years (at least 20), that practice has been discouraged in many disciplines, since the passive voice is less clear and more difficult to parse. (There has probably also been growing recognition that it is never really possible to remove observer bias entirely from a situation, so maybe it is best to be up front about the fact that actual people were involved in doing the work – as in this example: ‘we conducted online interviews’ instead of ‘online interviews were conducted’.)

Many writers seem to feel they have to use not only the passive voice, but also the longest, most complicated constructions possible, using the fanciest words available. For some reason, passive nounisms seem better and more ‘academic’ than active verbs. Long sentences are de rigueur. These writers seem to have no feeling for the poor reader – whereas of course we, as editors, do 😊. And we are in the fortunate position of being able to do something about this sorry state of affairs, at least with those manuscripts that land on our desks.

In parts 2 and 3 of this post, I will look at some examples of the kinds of verbose construction that academic writers often use, which (in non-examinable texts) we can render far more reader-friendly by applying Plain Language principles.


Many thanks to John Linnegar for his help with improving the clarity and flow of this post.


The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PEG.

About Sally Hofmeyr

Sally Hofmeyr is a biologist with a passion for good writing. She loves to bring out the best in both academic texts and other editors. At PEG and Uni-edit, the editing company she freelances for, she helps editors to hone their skills and appreciate the nuances of crystal-clear writing.

About PEG

The Professional Editors’ Guild (PEG) is a non-profit company (NPC) in South Africa. Since moving to online activities in March 2020, PEG has been able to offer members across South Africa, and internationally, access to an extensive online webinar programme. Continuing professional development remains a key offering and the first PEG Accreditation Test was administered in August 2020 to benchmark excellence in the field of editing.