The Problem with Complexity in Academic Writing

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All my academic clients are interested in communicating complexity. In some cases, authors are researching and writing about a complex social problem like poverty or housing insecurity. Others are exploring a new idea throughout a book that captures the relationships between people and technology. They want the reader to see for themselves all the moving parts in these complex relationships. However, as an editor, I’ve found a problem with complexity: it is necessary but alone insufficient to capture the attention of the reader.

Cat Marina: Complex, but Boring

I sometimes joke that most rote descriptions of complex systems are incredibly boring. Readers—even academic audiences—aren’t naturally excited to read a book about the sewer system or housing code violations. Lately, my wife has been falling asleep by listening to “sleepcasts” on an app called Headspace. It features stories that are richly descriptive, yet ultimately pointless. One story, titled simply Pebble Pile, describes a bunch of stones and minerals in great detail. “Each of these stones has a story,” its description reads, and is “subtly different each night.” Her favorite series is Cat Marina, which describes the complex world of cats that reside in a seaside town. Each cat has a long history and a personality, calmly delivered with attention to detail. Each story is designed to be mundane and pointless. These stories are so boring that they will literally put you to sleep.

Of course, an author should capture the nuances of their selected topic using compelling language. Scholars have spent innumerable hours studying a phenomena, and deserve a chance to share their novel insights. And readers do ultimately like to understand complex situations that matter. But as my dissertation advisor used to say, simply writing descriptions about “what” happened isn’t very intriguing (one of his favorite phrases). Complex descriptions are most effectively delivered to bolster a more powerful argument. He believed that the academic writer should be concerned with writing about “how” and “why” something happens.

So rather than just describing complexity, use it to support higher-order questions. How does an unjust situation persist, and how do people resist it? Writing towards this question may reveal a tension, or even an underdog story. Is there a simple rule or force that explains why a complex phenomena happens? Why does it ultimately matter, from a social or moral standpoint? Addressing these types of questions can bolster your argument and are inherently more intriguing to readers.

Ultimately, a concern with these higher-order concepts characterizes the writing found in the best academic books. By asking these questions as you write, you can better shape your argument for readers by selecting only the evidence that is necessary for them to encounter. It’s a healthy habit for writers too, because you’ll also find you won’t get “lost in the weeds” of complexity in your own writing!


Dr. Andrew Schrock is Senior Editor at Indelible Voice, an editing service for academic book proposals, book manuscripts, and journal article manuscripts. You can find him on Twitter at @aschrock.