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  • Writer's pictureCatie Phares

Three shortcuts to clearer writing: Shortcut #3—Make the abstract concrete with one simple question

The most common complaint about academic writing (and sadly, there are many) is usually posed as a question: “But what does this actually mean??” 

The use of “actually” here is telling. It captures the fact that this theoretical reader (whether they’re a bewildered student, a burnt-out reviewer, or an unhelpful thesis advisor) wants to know what you’re saying in real, concrete terms. 

Academia is an abstract world, dealing in thoughts and ideas by definition. That means you won’t be able to avoid abstract language altogether (so don’t bother trying!). But what we can do is inject some much-needed concrete reality into the writing to make it clearer and more accessible to the widest possible audience. There are many ways to do this (a great one that we’ll talk about another time is a real-world, tangible example of whatever you’re saying). But for me, most of these concretizing tools boil down to answering one simple question when you’re stumbling your way through confusing passages:

Who is doing what here?

To put this shortcut into action, let’s look at one of the most “academicky” of academic passages—no, seriously, this won first prize in a “world’s worst writing” competition:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Please note: I don’t share the above passage to denigrate anyone’s work, which is why I’m not explicitly citing its author (who is a highly successful academic, by any metric). Rather, I’m sharing this because it provides the perfect opportunity for me to show you how I’d clear something like this up, using my handy little concretizing question to edit it:

Structuralists argue that structures comprise social relations, organized by capital in relatively uniform ways. Alternatively, View B scholars view structure as a collection of power relations that can repeat, converge, and evolve. The shift from structuralism to View B calls into question how time fits into our ideas of structure, and how structures are not just theoretical objects (as Althusserian theory suggests) but also collections of possibilities. In short, this shift introduces the novel idea that power structures are inseparable from the places and ways they can be created.

Admittedly, I took some leaps here (as all substantive editors do) in guessing at the author’s meaning, so I’d definitely be following my standard practice of flagging this whole passage with a note for the author to confirm that I haven’t lost some key aspect of the intended meaning. But provided that all the necessary info is still there, which type of writing would you rather read: the original version or mine?

We could look at the hard data to see why my version is clearer and more readable: it’s shorter (fewer words), more engaging (way fewer nominalizations), and more accessible (1 huge run-on sentence has become 4 bite-sized chunks).

But that data doesn’t capture the main thing going on here—the main tool I’ve used to increase clarity and readability. I’ve made the abstract concrete by asking myself the same basic question again and again to get to the heart of the matter: Who is doing what here? 

Well, my first impression upon reading the original passage is that some kind of shift has happened, apparently, from one view to another. OK, so “who”/what has really shifted? Let’s give the “who” a name to start clearing this up—how about “View A” (which the sentence later tells us is “a structuralist account”). Let’s make “a structuralist account” even more concrete—let’s turn it into the real, actual human beings who believe this “account”: structuralists. Evidently, View A (structuralism) has shifted to become View B. “View B” never gets a name in this passage, so I’ve just given it that highlighted label for now and would leave a note for the author to replace that with its proper name, if possible.

But still, the question persists: Who is doing what? 

Structuralists (the “who”) say/argue… what? Let’s answer that question for clarity. According to the original wording, structuralism seems to argue that social relations are structured by capital in “relatively homologous” (hm, let’s try the simpler “uniform” and see if that suffices) ways.

Same for the other “who” here (View B)—what does View B say/mean? It appears to involve a view of hegemony (dominance or power) that sees power relations as “subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation” (things that can repeat, converge, and rearticulate (let’s try the simpler “evolve” and see if that captures the meaning just as well). 

So there’s a shift from A to B. But what does that actually mean? Who is doing what? 

Who = the shift 

What is it doing = it’s calling some accepted views into question 

And so on and so on. I do this with every implication from this lengthy passage, teasing out meaning like I’m unraveling a knot with the same question over and over to myself: Who is doing what?

The answer to this question will create the simplest and most basic sentence structure that we have in English: subject-verb-object. This is the way children first learn to read and write in English (John ate an apple. The dog bit the man. Etc.) and it’s a structure that instantly concretizes whatever you’re saying down to a level that anyone can grasp. 

Who is doing what?

Subject verb object.

John is eating an apple.

The dog is biting the man.

Structuralists argue that structures comprise social relations, organized by capital in relatively uniform ways.

Try to use those three colors to “code” the original passage above. You’ll find that you really can’t because unequivocal answers to the question “Who is doing what?” (i.e., a clear subject, verb, and object) can’t be found—at least, not without some serious cognitive labor. This is why even one sentence of this nature, let alone a whole paper of them, leaves even seasoned academics exhausted and irritated.

So next time you’re facing a tricky passage that might confuse the reader, ask yourself: Who is doing what here? Teasing out the answer to that question, again and again, will help you simplify and concretize even the most high-level concepts down to a much lower reading level—which will broaden the audience for your groundbreaking ideas.

-Catie Phares


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