Academic Writing Makes You a Better Writer

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Jacob Musselman. He has put his life “all in” and encourages others to do the same. You can follow him on Twitter @jakemusselman and find out if you are all in.

I’ll admit it: I got lazy. Writing comes easy to me, and, in the academic world, you receive a good grade by comparison. That means I only have to write better than my classmates to get a good grade. Usually.

Academic Writing
Photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik (Creative Commons)

This is the problem with talent. You and I meet talented people. You and I probably possess some talent. Unfortunately, talent doesn’t guarantee success. Because talented people can practice less. Talented people can fly by the seat of their pants and still get the job done.

In other words: Talent makes you lazy.

So I had gotten lazy. Writing for school came easy. Writing for work came easy. Then I had a bright idea: I should get paid for writing.

I wrote an article and submitted it to some publications, and when the rejections came back I chalked it up to a misfit of content rather than lazy writing on my part.

Things changed last month. I took my usual approach to writing for some school assignments, turned in my work, and waited for my “A” grade to be returned. What I received was an average grade and some criticisms of my average writing.

Ouch. My ego didn’t like that.

Luckily, the barbs of a poor grade stoked my passion for words. Right now, writing academically makes me a better writer. Let me share how:

Academic writing demands active writing

My writing had taken on a conversational tone. Unfortunately, conversation uses a lot of to be verbs, helping verbs, and generally passive language. Academic writing bores people already; academic, passive writing drives the reader into a coma.

When the professor cannot escape your soporific prose then you doom yourself to a poor grade.

As a writer/blogger, passive writing similarly dooms your work. Passive writing results in poor engagement and feedback, and, eventually, the reader’s boredom forces them to search for something that will awaken their soul.

I fell into a conversational trap. I assumed I could achieve a conversational tone by transcribing the conversation I heard in my head. Turns out, reading conversations bores people.

Now, instead of conversations, I aim to tell stories. Stories activate our senses and imagination. Stories engage our souls. Stories create a conversational tone. And stories use active language.

Academic writing requires diverse language

The professor commented, “You’ve used that word twelve times. Get a thesaurus.” Good writing revolves around one idea, giving multiple perspectives on single issue, but using the same words over and over again muddies the water instead of bringing clarity.

I tend to fall in love, or at least like, with certain words. I use them incessantly, until I find a new word. But this professor noticed my over-usage of the same word.

I vaguely remember a lesson in high school rhetoric about widening my vocabulary, but my repetitive writing voice usually got the job done.

That one comment snapped me out of my infatuation with one word and forced me back to my idea. Instead of focusing on the words, I honed in on the idea.

How many different words can I use to present the same idea?

Diverse language packs a punch, actually multiple punches. The boxer with a jab falls to the boxer with a jab, cross, and uppercut. The pitcher with a fastball loses to the pitcher with a fastball, curve, and slider.

The writer with a limited vocabulary forces readers to discover the magical breadth and depth of language elsewhere.

Academic writing takes away the content excuse

Why did the publications reject my article? Content didn’t match up. Why don’t people read my blog? They don’t connect with the content.

“Content” provides an easy excuse until you write a paper.

My disappointing grade resulted from lackluster writing, not content mismatch. The syllabus clearly listed the expectations for content, and my work met those expectations. My writing, on the other hand, did not. The grade and comments from my professor forced me to acknowledge what truly lowered my grade.

In reality, we hold much more in common than we readily see or admit. My content connects with hundreds of thousands of people. Content doesn’t keep people away from or draw people to my blog. I find the mismatch in my writing rather than my ideas.

The harsh mirror of academic writing reminded me of what truly connects a reader to my writing.

With one grade and few well-placed comments, a professor reminded me that talent doesn’t cut it. Talent makes me lazy, but passion fuels a fire.

Now, I craft words instead of writing. I have not arrived; I still have vast improvements to make. Yet, I’m having more fun, and I will not be satisfied to fly by the seat of my talent. In a simple twist, academic writing makes me better.

What makes you a better writer? Share in the comments.