Writing Academic Texts

4 minute read

Writing academic articles is harder than it needs to be.

Writing research articles takes a long time. Depending on the data and the methodology used, there may be years of fieldwork or multiple experiments or analyses to be done before getting to the final part of finally writing something down for others to read. The final product of that process, the scientific article, is still pretty similar across fields and has stayed relatively stable over time.

Typically, article manuscripts accepted for publication are turned into PDF files and uploaded on to the publishers web page, where the publisher sells them mostly to academic libraries for ridiculous prices. You would think that after centuries of academic writing and decades of working with digital formats this process would be easy, efficient or at least make sense.

There are roughly two approaches to writing academic manuscripts. The first one is more common in mathematics and other fields that rely on complex mathematical formulas. In this model, the writing part is complex, because computer keyboards are not really designed for writing mathematical symbols. In order to write these manuscripts users learn a relatively complex and error-prone markup language (LaTeX) where small errors can turn the whole manuscript into gibberish. The publication part is relatively easy here: you send the publisher your text, images and other files, and they combine it with their template file. Making sure that everything looks right is mostly the publishers problem.

The other approach is more common in humanities and in fields where you need less complex mathematical formulas. There are roughly two technical problems with writing these types of manuscripts: making sure that the references are in the right place and in the right format, and making sure that the overall structure of the article makes sense. The most common tool for writing articles in humanities is Microsoft Word, which can solve neither of these technical problems.

Word is not really a writing program. It can help you reorganize your text, which is slightly better than writing with a pen on paper. Most of the other functionality is focused on layout and styling the text in different ways, not writing it. Academic publishers are smart people so they have noticed this. To send a manuscript to a humanities journal you get the publishers Word template, their often complex guide on how to use that template and then you bang your head against the wall until the manuscript starts looking like the template they gave you.

If I sound like I don’t like this process it’s because I don’t. Last month I spent six hours formatting an article for a journal. That journal asked us to change the article in substantive way before sending it out for review and we decided that some other journal would be a better fit. This means that I wasted six hours struggling with Microsoft Word. The best part is that no part of the process actually needed that Word file. We wrote the article on Google Docs and the publishers system converted it to a PDF file before it was sent to the editors.

We never used Word in writing the article and the editors never used Word for reviewing it, but somehow it was still a necessary part of the process. Word solves no problems in academic writing, but it still manages to be the most common tool for it, probably because it was a half decent way to write text on a computer 30 years ago.

I know complaining is easy and solutions are hard. Fortunately, in this case the solution is also very easy. Writing in plain text is very easy and there a tons of tools for it. It’s easy to convert plain text documents to different formats – maybe one for reviewing and one for publication. It’s easy to come up with new tools for writing plain text, because there are no fancy tricks needed to edit text files. Plain text is easy to store afterwards and will not become unreadable because some big company updated their software again.

Writing in plain text would save time and resources from both academics and publishers, but it seems unlikely that I will get to live in the world where I don’t have to use Microsoft Word for typesetting texts. Plain text doesn’t have a huge IT company behind it and lobbyists aren’t going to make lucrative deals with universities selling plain text. It can be edited with anything that resembles a computer, which means that it’s hard to make money selling it.

I might not get to live in the world where I write in plain text, but in case you want to take a step to that direction, you can check