The sensible lens

There are two types of writer. Well, okay, there’s a lot more than two types and how dare I be so reductive, but bear with me.

Much academic writing seems to be dominated by dense prose (verbiage might be more the word) that seems to go on forever and defines its terms lightly. It tends to flow only from the perspective of the writer, with really very little thought about the reader, their background or prior reading aside from a general assumption that they are roughly the same as the writer.

Some might follow this approach up with a review by someone else with a different perspective or lived experience to make it more accessible – thus offloading the responsibility and effort onto someone else.

I’d like to propose that rather than writing in a way that makes us sound clever, we try to adopt an approach that looks at our writing from a critical accessibility angle.

Sensible Lens Tests:

  • Is my argument laid out as simply as possible, given its subject?
  • Is the overall structure logical?
  • Are my terms defined, using words that most people in the target audience can understand?
  • Is there any way I can make it more accessible without changing the meaning?
  • Would a graphic help convey meaning?
  • If there are graphics, are they adequately explained if someone can’t see it and it’s not just pretty?
  • Am I asking someone to do something they may find difficult or impossible? For example, follow a complex process that’s not broken down, visualise something or track multiple complex lines of reasoning? If so, can I simplify or offer alternatives?

I am not saying we should not be rigorous or ‘academic’, but that we have our reader in mind.

None of us experiences the world, processes language or conceptualises in the exact same way. As an example, my own experience is aphantasic – I cannot consciously visualise anything. This means I struggle with understanding things that would be better described by a diagram, and anything that asks me to ‘picture’ something is both lost on me and likely to alienate. Aphantasia is only one of many neurodiverse ways of being and seeing the world.

There’s sometimes no substitute for input from those with different perspectives, but by asking these questions we reduce the weight of the burden we give them when we ask them to read, review or edit. We become a friend to our readers, rather than someone they curse as they hack through the forest of our words. We make our arguments clearer and reach more people with our work.

Cover image by: Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash

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