Thread: Promising Practices

The elephant in the room: why are academics often poor writers?

Mike Gould – Arnhem, the Netherlands

Few academics are enthusiastic writers. They usually write because they have to, not because they enjoy it. And, as they believe that their readers will be impressed by long, elaborate, impenetrable sentences, they tend to adopt a style that reduces readability. Unfortunately journal editors often lack the time, money or skills to make articles more coherent. I will argue the need for further training of journal editors so that they can provide authors with guidelines on writing readable text as well as usage and format.

With the exception of James Jasper’s excellent article in 2002 in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I have rarely seen the reasons for the poor quality of much academic writing discussed seriously. In the view of most writing teachers, to be effective, academic English should meet at least two criteria: its meaning should be clear to target readers, and it should be appropriate to the genre.

These aspects depend not only on writing skills and a command of English, but also on the extent to which writing is influenced by the author’s mother tongue and writing culture. I will refer to research among 116 editors (Gosden, 1992), which reveals the factors that help non-native speakers of English (NNSE) get published and the consequences for teaching academic writing. I will also present a pre-submission checklist from Hengl and Gould (2006). The presentation will cover the following:

  • problems that prevent NNSE authors getting work published
  • some proposals for improving academic writing (for editors and writers)
  • a pre-submission checklist: practical tips that will increase the chances of your paper being published.

Mike Gould, born in Scotland, has been a director of communication consultants Michael Gould Associates in the Netherlands for 15 years. He helps companies enhance the impact of their communication, trains PhD students in academic writing and is particularly interested in communication across cultures. Michael Gould Associates:


Gosden H. (1992) Research writing and NNSs: from the editors. Journal of Second Language Writing. 1992; 1(2); 123-39.

Hengl T, Gould M. (2006) The unofficial guide for authors (or how to produce research articles worth citing). Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities. Available from:

Jasper J. (2002). Why so many academics are lousy writers. Chronicle of Higher Education. Available from: