The best advice for academic writing I ever received was from my advertising and social science research professor at Kansas State University Dr. Carol J. Pardun back in 1995:
Write for an intelligent reader who may know little to nothing about your topic.
Why is this the best advice ever?
Because it forces me to write clearly, logically, and economically. If you assume your readers are smart you give them the respect by not chewing everything up and serving it up to them on a plastic plate like you would to a toddler. You write for smart adults responsible for their own learning thus treating them like equals who are just as curious and inquisitive as you are. Provide them with the minimum information necessary for the understanding of the topic and let them do additional work as needed to fill their own knowledge gaps.
It also is useful to remember that no one knows everything. Only ignorant and intellectually lazy people think they know everything. In academia, we live by the idea that “the more you know, the less you know.” Even the most accomplished and published scholars and researchers suffer from what we call “the imposter syndrome,” i.e. self-doubt of intellect, skills, or accomplishments among high-achieving individuals.
Here, I could give you an anecdote about an extraordinarily accomplished scholar in my field, the chief editor of a leading international public communication research journal based in Great Britain, who once told me in a one-on-one mentoring meeting that he was afraid to have been "found out for the fraud" that he was, multiple times in his career. I could also tell you how floored I was by that comment, but I will leave it for another story.
Instead, let's flip the table and take the perspective of an intelligent reader: If you are aware that you don’t know everything or know little about something, but have well-developed cognitive structures and patterns in your brain to operate with, you will be grateful for the minimally efficient information on the topic that will fill your knowledge gap. You can take it from there and dive deeper into the topic if you wish to, but a good writer will give you a spring board and point out the resources to use for a deeper dive (that’s why we provide reference lists and/or bibliographies).
I still remember the first “assignment” Dr.Pardun gave me to put that wisdom into practice: In one paragraph of no longer than 150 words, describe your country for a smart reader who may know nothing about it.
Oh, how much time I spent breaking my head over that assignment! How can you describe a whole country where you grew up in just one hundred and fifty words? There’s so much to know and share about it! Here is what I finally came up with, after much cutting and trimming and five years before Wikipedia (not a joke, Wikipedia was launched in January 2001):
Kyrgyzstan is a newly independent democratic republic of nearly 4.5 million people in Central Asia, with the capital of Bishkek. Formerly one of the 15 Soviet Union republics, the land-locked mountainous country borders three of the other four post-Soviet “stans” (excluding Turkmenistan) and China. Home to diverse ethnic groups speaking over 80 languages, it is the land of the titular Kyrgyz (~53% of the population), followed by Russians (~22%), Uzbeks (~13%), and smaller ethnic groups. Although Kyrgyzstan is secular constitutionally, many Kyrgyz and Uzbeks practice Islam, while Russians return to Orthodox Christianity. The Kyrgyz and Uzbeks share the Turkic languages and culture, while the Kyrgyz also have a rich ancient nomadic tradition embodied in “Manas,” one of the world’s oldest epics. Formerly among the poorest Soviet republics, Kyrgyzstan is a developing economy that thanks to its powerful mountain rivers and Soviet-era hydropower infrastructure currently is a large regional energy producer.
Exactly 150 words that give the reader the basic knowledge of the country's history, geography, political structure, culture, and economy. I have used this paragraph many times since then, updating information and adjusting it for various purposes. I am particularly proud of the fact that as a starter paragraph, it gives the reader many directions for researching additional information and resources on the country.
Over the years, I have learned to apply Dr.Pardun's principle to other types of non-academic writing (except for fiction, perhaps), such as opinion and educational features that I sometimes publish here. I also use it when the goal is the economy of language (minimum words for the maximum action or imagery) and show-don't-tell imperative. It works well for me and I hope it will help other writers as well.
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