Since 2015, I have served as an Action Editor or Editor for three different journals with different audiences: Psycholinguists (Applied Psycholinguistics); speech-language practitioners (Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools); and developmentalists (Child Development). I published a practitioner-focused book on which I served as lead editor, and as of this writing, I am advising 11 outstanding doctoral students, 8 of whom will be defending their dissertations this year or next. In short, for the past 5 years, I have been reading a lot of writing that is designed for academic publication. It is important to acknowledge that academic registers do exist, but their bandwidths can be wide enough that lots of people can find a voice within them. As my editorships wind down, and as my excellent students are finishing their dissertations this year, I've been reflecting on what constitutes successful writing for academic publication. I think things come down to a rather simple notion: Signal versus Noise.
The biggest problem I see, over and over, is people writing for academic publication fail to get their signal across to the reader because there is too much noise surrounding it. While not exhaustive, 3 key sources of noise have emerged for me as a reader of chapters, journal submissions, and dissertations. I include #4 below as a low-noise example. It's my hope that this could be useful for examining published academic writing and for your own writing for academic publication.
1) Overuse of infrequent/rare vocabulary. Using terms that are never defined for the reader and do little to nothing to enhance what the author is trying to say induces many eye rolls and groans. For example, "The ontological characteristics of x framework include: a, b, and c" versus, simply, "The characteristics of x framework include: a, b, and c". If you've established or defined ontology/ontological up front, then maybe go ahead and overuse the word, but using jargony terms because you know what they mean and think they sound "academic" doesn't help. It creates lexical noise for the reader because now they are working to figure out (on their own) how ontology goes with characteristics a, b, and c, and what that means for framework x. It's better to just tell the reader in a straightforward way, so your signal is clear.
2) Unnecessarily complex syntax and morphology. This includes syntax most often characterized by lengthy sentences with multiple clauses that contain more than two ideas. This is problematic primarily because your reader can only hold so much information in short term working memory before it starts to fade. If you write a 5-line sentence that contains 3 different ideas, strung together via commas, colons and/or semi colons, using rare words you haven't defined, the reader cannot hold it all long enough to make sense of it. Shorter sentences that hold one or two ideas at a time allow for better processing an aid construction of a more cohesive argument. This is not to say that syntax can't be complex, or sentences occasionally lengthy. That can be fine, but shouldn't characterize the entirety of your writing. I also join Johnny Saldaña (2014) in strongly believing that "[i[f you put prefixes in parentheses, like (re)search or (de)construction, or separate ’em with slashes like un/conditional or mis/appropriation, you need to bring it down a notch" (p. 979). Overly complex syntax and morphology can be strong sources of noise that obscure signal.
3) Structure. Headers and sub-headers aren't always necessary, but they can be super-helpful when trying to make an argument, frame an issue, present your method/findings, and/or discuss your results. Well-considered headers and sub-headers serve as an outline. Try extracting just the headers and sub-headers from whatever journal article you're currently crushing on, and see how they serve as guideposts, or structural landmarks, for orienting the reader to the genre in question. When your writing lacks clear structure, the signal is substantially weakened because the reader is trying to make organizational sense of it, which detracts from detecting the signal you are trying to send.
4) Sending a strong signal. Of course it's important that, when the noise is stripped away, the signal is strong. That is, the ideas, the study, the messages you're sending, are relevant, coherent, and worthy of taking up. I don't believe there is a lot of brand-spanking-new ideas out there, but there are strong signals. Raciolinguistics -- the notion that race and language are intertwined with one another -- is a good example. A half-century ago, June Jordan (1972) was writing about raciolinguistics in her chapter called "White English/Black English: The politics of translation", but she didn't use that term. Flores and Rosa (2015) have been successful in harnessing ideas that have been in circulation for quite some time and attaching them to a useful term in raciolinguistics. The term itself has strong signal and little noise: It resonates in the current moment, it's morphologically easy to deconstruct (i.e., you can begin to guess what it means without too much effort), and the writing that defines its details is clear, coherent, and constructive. Flores and Rosa's (2015) article uses complex language, but it is straightforward. Sentences do not meander - they get to the point. They use big terms (e.g., linguistic prescriptivism), but those terms are defined for the reader before they get used in sentences. And as an exercise, try looking at the headers of this article. In so doing, you know what the article is about and then you just need to read for the details. This is just one example. You can do it with most articles where there is a strong signal and little noise.
Obviously, not everything that gets published meets these criteria. But I do believe that the work that sticks around, that introduces ideas and research that you remember and want to return to over time, has strong signal and little noise. Writing for academic publication is not just translanguaging all over the place. There are registers in academic publishing: Please recognize this or you won't be successful at it. But we don't have to call it "academic language". More simply, by stripping away noise, you can situate your voice within these academic writing registers, and let your signal come through.
References (full text files linked here)
Flores, N. & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education. Harvard Educational Review, 85, 149 - 171.
Jordan, J. (1972). White English/Black English: The politics of translation. In C. Keller & J.H. Levi (Eds.), We’re on: A June Jordan reader (pp. 1 – 12). Alice James Books.
Saldaña, J. (2014). Blue-Collar Qualitative Research: A rant. Qualitative Inquiry, 20, 976 - 980.