The Limits of Academic Writing – Essay

The Limits of Academic Writing – Essay

While studying professional academic writing, one does not often contemplate the level of rhetorical difficulty required of academic authors.  An academic author has to grapple with challenging subject matter and thorough logic all whilst contending with the field’s rhetoric, accepted writing style, and language.  In a way, all these challenges make academic writing its own type of art.  However, all forms of art have their limitations and boundaries.  Academics are not free to just write as they please; they follow specific conventions and do not dare stray far from the demands and requirements imposed on them and their particular fields.  Popular writing on the other hand, provides for a practically unlimited range of rhetorical freedom and does not necessarily follow a specific format or structure.  An excellent illustration of the limits of academic writing is found in the way academics write about the well-known topic of sleep deprivation.  When compared to popular texts, academic peer-reviewed articles demonstrate that professional writing is much more limited in terms of language, audience, and especially content.

Because academic writing uses wording that is specific to a certain discipline or area of study, academic authors do not enjoy the freedom of language allowed to popular authors writing on the same subject.  In fact, two articles bearing a very similar title can be loaded with completely different diction merely because one is considered “pop” and the other is defined as “scholarly.”  For instance, in a popular article titled “The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Brain and Behavior,” the author describes sleep deprivation as “a commonplace occurrence in modern culture.” The article then goes on to say the following: “Every day there seems to be twice as much work and half as much time to complete it in. This results in either extended periods of wakefulness or a decrease in sleep over an extended period of time” (L.S.)  The author seems to speak on an almost personal level, ruminating about the amount of work there is and how little time people have, etc.  Obviously, the candid diction of the author’s observations on sleep deprivation makes it clear that the author has no qualms about sounding too simple or straightforward.  On the other hand, an academic article titled, “Impact of insufficient sleep on total daily energy expenditure, food intake, and weight gain,” seems to pay much more attention to sounding serious, focused, and very specific.  For example, the authors state, “Little is known about how repeated nights of insufficient sleep influence energy expenditure and balance.  We studied 16 adults in a 14- to 15-d-long inpatient study and quantified effects of 5 d of insufficient sleep, equivalent to a work week, on energy expenditure and energy intake compared with adequate sleep” (Markwald).  Although there is a brief general statement in the beginning that addresses how “little is known,” the rest of the introduction – as well as the rest of the entire full text – is filled with jargon and code-words like “inpatient study” and “quantified effects.” Academic writing demands language of a higher level and specific to an area of scholarship.  An academic author would not get away with simple speculations that fill modern popular discourse.  Clearly, academic writing demands academic language – only academic language – limiting its diction to a restricted, jargonized area without freedom of personalization or expression.

Because academics use field specific language, professional academic writing also limits itself in terms of the audience it addresses and even the audience to whom it is available.  Indeed, an average person will not understand the following explanation of the results of an experiment performed by the author: “As designed, participants slept similar amounts in BL, 460.7 ± 29.0 (±SD) and 9 h, 461.5 ± 42.6 min conditions, and slept less in the 5-h condition, 280.0 ± 10.1 min as determined by polysomnography. As participants did not sleep for all of each sleep opportunity, the difference in sleep time between 9-h and 5-h conditions was ∼3 h, equivalent to ∼39% reduction in sleep duration” (Markwald).  Surely, the authors of the article know that their writing sounds like a mystery to the majority of the world’s population.  Nonetheless, it is not even in their interest to appear understandable to average English speakers, as they have a clear target audience composed of other experts and specialists who will understand.  In contrast, popular writing usually attempts to extend itself to as many people as possible, appealing to anyone with a general interest to a subject.  For example, in “10 Signs You May be Sleep Deprived,” the author addresses his audience in first-person, saying “After several days of inadequate rest, we begin thinking muddled thoughts, getting upset over trivial matters and even seeing things that aren’t there. We’re experiencing sleep deprivation.”  Using pronouns like “we” and “our” the author attempts to close the gap between himself and his audience, making his readers feel like he is addressing them personally.  In addition, popular writing appeals to a broader audience by using humor. For instance, the same article cleverly proclaims, “So what are 10 signs you may be sleep deprived? Slap yourself in the face a few times, and then keep reading to find out!” (Scheve).  Such humor would be completely out of place in an academic article about sleep depravity; likewise, any use of the first-person voice would be frowned upon.  Such limits in the rhetorical conventions of academic writing thus restrict the audience to professionals, professors, and other specialists.

However, the most obvious boundaries evident in academic writing are found in the content of the writing itself.  While popular writing freely expresses opinions, focuses on current events, and addresses topics of general interest, academic writing tends to focus on communicating research-based facts.  Even when writing about a scientific subject like sleep deprivation, authors of popular sources tend to be subjective and often sneak in their personal opinions about the subject.  An example of this found in a popular article is the following: “If you’re facing a task that will call heavily upon a sharp memory, you may want to choose sleep over late-night preparation. For instance, a student during ‘finals week’ shouldn’t pull an all-nighter. It’s better to study until feeling tired and then get plenty of sleep before the next day’s test” (Scheve).  Although the assertion that sleep is better than late-night preparations is probably a legitimate, well-studied claim, it is obvious that the author freely offers his personal insight by using words like “should” and “it is better.”  On the contrary, academic writing strains to be entirely objective and unbiased.  Even when hinting at something that might not be a fact, academic offers try to refer to other studies done and cite references carefully to show that the information provided is not and independent opinion.  For instance, in “Pain–autonomic interaction after work-induced sleep restriction” the authors claim, “When studied separately, SR usually tends to increase sensory perception [2], whereas stress tends to decrease it [27]. In our study, we aimed to combine stressful work with SR to replicate a common real-life situation” (Schestatsky).  The authors are very particular to cite every claim, making most of the content in their writing directly research based.  Interestingly, even the tables, charts, and graphs found in academic articles are limited in their content.  While popular articles feature bright bold photographs depicting sleepy groups of people, the scholarly articles limit their illustrations to black and white charts and graphs with headings like, “Hourly energy expenditure in the calorimetry room” (Schetatsky).  Academic writing clearly does not take liberties with breaking expected standards and limits its content to what is rhetorically acceptable.

Based on the evidence found both in academic and popular articles about sleep deprivation, it is obvious that academics write on an entirely different level.  This level requires so much of them as authors, that ultimately they are limited in terms of having to adhere to certain styles of language, audience, and even the very substance of their writing material.  Being aware of such limits and perimeters that exist in academic writing and rhetoric surely demands an appreciation of the art of professional academic writing.


Works Cited

L. S. “The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Brain and Behavior.” Serendip Studio. (2008). Web. 4 April, 2013.

Markwald, Rachel, Edward Melanson, Mark Smith, Janine Higgins, Leigh Perreault, Robert Eckel, and Kenneth Wright. “Impact of Insufficient Sleep on Total Daily Energy Expenditure, Food Intake, and Weight Gain.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110.14 (2013): 5695-5700.

Schestatsky, P, L Dall-Agnol, L Gheller, L Stefani, P. R Sanches, I de Souza, I Torres, and W Caumo. “Pain-autonomic Interaction After Work-induced Sleep Restriction.”European Journal of Neurology, 20.4 (2013): 638-646.

Scheve, Tom. “10 Signs You May be Sleep Deprived.” Discovery Fit & Health. (2013). Web. 4 April, 2013.