Academics spend considerable time writing: dissertations, journal articles, books, reference letters, memos, and even blog posts. But most of us receive very little training on how to write well. They teach us how to find good information (research) and how to record that information in our footnotes and bibliographies. But everyone seems to assume that if you’ve made it all the way to “academic” status, you must know how to write.
That’s what I used to think. I was wrong.
I’ve begun reflecting on what I’ve gained from blogging. And some of the most important lessons so far have been about writing. To be honest, I’ve learned more in the last two years about how to write well than I learned in any of my college or seminary classes.
1. Brevity breeds understanding
I used to hate word limits. If there’s one thing every academic knows, it’s that the value of a thought is directly proportional to the number of words you use to express it. A single sentence is trite, and anything less than 1,000 words is a mere summary. So, away with word counts! Let verbosity rule.
Blogging taught me to value brevity. You don’t have much time with a blog post. Unless you’re writing about the most controversial subjects, people aren’t going to last to the end of your 5,000 word treatise. Odds are, they won’t even make it through the introduction. So, if you have something important to say, say it quickly.
And to my surprise, I discovered that not only can you say important things quickly, but they often have greater impact when you do. Fewer words means that there’s less to distract your reader from your main point. So they’re more likely to appreciate your point and its significance. Done well, brevity beats verbosity every time.
2. Clarity is king
Brevity and clarity are not the same thing. I’ve read pithy statements that were close to meaningless, and long books that were masterfully clear. Indeed, brevity can sometimes be the enemy of clarity. Some writers use brevity as a rhetorical device to say things that sound meaningful but have no substance. Or worse, brevity can actually hide outright incoherence. Just read many blog posts. (Not mine, of course.)
Academic writing often makes the opposite mistake, valuing information and argumentation over clarity. It doesn’t really matter if I’ve written clearly, as long as I’ve gotten everything down on paper. It may take you a few days (or weeks) to figure out what I’m trying to say. But once you do, you’ll be really impressed.
Blogging is different. I can’t assume that people will take hours to unpack my densely worded and almost intentionally obscure argument. So I have two choices: (1) restate the argument so people can figure out what I’m saying more easily or (2) skip it and save the argument for some journal article that most people won’t read. For the most part, I’ve opted for #1. And that’s pressed my writing in new and helpful directions.
3. Creativity isn’t just for artists
As a youth pastor, I was encouraged to think creatively about how to communicate. I spent hours coming up with interesting introductions, compelling stories, and meaningful life applications. As an academic, it was a different story. I spent so much time on research and argumentation that I had little left for creativity. Besides, I thought, who needs creativity? This is an academic work. Academics don’t need to be creative.
Blogging has helped me realize that there is a place for creativity in academic writing. My writing doesn’t have to be so stale and formal. I can loosen up a bit and let my inner muse out for a walk. And when I do, I think my writing becomes more effective and enjoyable.
4. Grammar is good
Before I started blogging, I thought I was reasonably well versed in grammar. I may not have learned much in my English classes, but I’d taken enough foreign languages to grow in the grammatical graces. And I’d written a ThM thesis, a doctoral dissertation, and a couple of books. Surely I knew something about grammar.
That’s true. But I didn’t know as much as I thought.
Blogging improved my grammar for two reasons. First, because I wanted to write with greater clarity, I started to pay more attention to how good grammar leads to good communication. I realized that the rules are there for a reason and should violated with great caution. And second, I found out that the grammar goons are watching. This wasn’t a problem earlier in my blogging. But once some people find out that you’re trying to write well, they being pointing out all of the ways in which you are failing. That can be frustrating, but at times it’s also helpful. So blogging has improved my grammar and, along with it, my writing. (Of course, now I’m nervous that everyone will point out all of the grammatical mistakes I’ve made in this post. Such is life.)
5. Accessibility stretches you
Academic writing works very well for a particular audience. We can get away with our convoluted sentences, awkward grammar, and impossibly technical jargon because we’re writing for an audience of sufficiently motivated and adequately trained co-specialists. For that niche, academic writing works just fine.
But when I started blogging, I decided that I wanted to write for a broader audience. I still enjoy engaging my fellow academics, but I wanted to extend the dialog to include non-specialists as well. And I came to realize that writing for a broader audience can actually stretch you more than writing for specialists. In academic writing, you can often hide your ignorance behind those technical terms and convoluted arguments. Sharp readers will still see what you’re doing, but many will miss it. Writing for a broader audience forces you to operate without those safety nets. And that can stretch you to understand your material even better than before.
So those are some of the lessons that I’ve learned in my two years of blogging. I realize that this isn’t how everyone experiences blogging. For some, blogging is like journaling. How you write doesn’t really matter. The blog is simply a forum for getting your thoughts down “on paper.” And there’s nothing wrong with blogging like that. But I’ve come to value blogging for something else: learning to write well. I still have a lot to learn, but I think I’ve made some progress. And I’ve learned some great lessons along the way.