back-to-school High academic and low academic

How we write is as important as what we write.

I earned my MS in Scientific and Technical Communication about ten years ago. And during that program, I studied different writing styles, from the very informal to the “much too formal.” How we write about a topic is just as important as what we write about it. If we write in a very stuffy “voice” that is difficult to read, we risk losing our audience. At the other end of the spectrum, a too “loose” style will be equally difficult to understand because it will rely on jargon, acronyms, and other highly technical speech.

The spectrum of writing styles

Successful technical writers need to find a middle ground that is informative yet approachable. I’ve developed a “shorthand” terminology to refer to these different writing styles. It’s really a spectrum, from “High Academic” to “Medium Academic” to “Low Academic.” I define it this way:

High Academic is common for many academic peer-reviewed journals. Articles and papers published here are often written by experts in their fields, and they are written for other experts in the field. The writing style is typically very dense and uses large words that demonstrate the author’s command of the field.

Low Academic usually refers to informal speech such as emails, but can also include some professional and trade publications, depending on the editor. Low academic authors generally write in a very “loose” style such as writing numbers as numbers (“2 ways to do it..”) and relying on abbreviations that only an “internal” audience would know (“the X100 system..”).

“Medium academic” style

In the middle is the obviously-named Medium Academic. This is typical of good professional writing for a broad audience, such as the “how-to” articles we run here on Technically We Write - or other kinds of writing such as manuals and “explainer” documents.

Medium academic writing uses contractions, although not all the time. For example, it’s okay to use “it’s” instead of “it is,” or “there’s” instead of “there is.” Medium academic authors can also use “we” and “I” when appropriate, such as to describe something the author did (“I needed to write a small program to remove formatting from an HTML file, and this is how I did it”) or to include the reader in the journey (“We can use the grep command to find exact matches from a list of words”).

By contrast, high academic writing would never use contractions - and certainly never use “I” to refer to the author. Sometimes, this high academic writing can lead to passive voice, which is typical in some academic journals.

Medium academic also uses some technical terms, but carefully placed so as to not overwhelm the audience. For example, when writing about web pages, you will need to use “HTML” - but more likely, you’ll explain what that means the first time you use it, like “HTML, or Hyper Text Markup Language, is the ‘coding language’ for web pages.”

This is in contrast to low academic writing, which often uses abbreviations, even when it’s not necessary.

Write for your audience

It’s okay to write in a “High Academic” style when you are writing an academic paper for your peers, usually in a peer-reviewed journal. But if you are writing for a more broad audience, one that may not have the same background as you do, it’s important to write about your topic in a way that everyone can understand. If you aim for “High Academic” when your audience isn’t at that technical or academic level, you will lose your audience. The same is true if you write in “Low Academic” style, but for different reasons. Using too much jargon, and frequent use of abbreviations and contractions, will present your material as too informal or casual.

Find the middle ground, and adopt a “Medium Academic” style. It’s okay to use abbreviations for some long terms, especially for highly technical terms, but please define them first (“The Personal Computer Memory Card Industry Association, or PCMCIA, defined a 16-bit expansion card..”). But avoid using abbreviations where you don’t need to; if the original term is a few words, consider writing it out.