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Writing for Movements: Navigating the Maze of Academic Jargon


By Meriam Salem, Narrative Specialist

As a visual storyteller and academic, I know that words and images are powerful in creating social change. Whether working on a film project, writing an academic paper or advocating for a cause, I am always looking for ways to communicate my message more effectively and authentically.

That said, I know language can be a barrier rather than a bridge. The world of academia is notorious for its abstract language, complex data and confusing jargon – and so is nonprofit and advocacy communications. We often become so absorbed in constructing a maze of words and ideas that we forget about the central message we are trying to convey. 

I like to think of this tendency as a “writing gremlin” – a well-meaning but sometimes troublesome creature that lurks in the minds of writers. This gremlin encourages us to use big words and complicated syntax, and makes us resistant to feedback from people who have difficulty understanding the language we use. Over time, we are rewarded by those who think like us, that we forgot the value of reaching the many who don’t. 

To illustrate this point, imagine a version of “The Wizard of Oz” that might have been written by your writing gremlin in question. In this version Dorothy’s classic statement, “There’s no place like home” becomes “Research shows that individuals who have experienced homelessness when placed in permanent housing are found to have generally positive effects on health and wellbeing as a result of a stable environment.” 

The story would have been so convoluted and technical that no one would have been able to understand it, let alone feel inspired by it.

But what can we do to combat this tendency towards academic jargon and language? How can we communicate our message in a way that is authentic, engaging and relevant to people’s lives?

First and foremost, we need to remember that the power of storytelling lies in its ability to connect with people’s emotions and values. We need to tell stories and use language that is clear, concise and accessible.

Second, we need to be open to feedback from people outside of our discipline. By listening to a wider group of people we can learn to communicate more effectively and authentically.

For instance, at a recent training, a workshop participant was unfamiliar with the phrase ‘storytelling tropes.’ ‘Trope’ is fairly common in our circles but that doesn’t mean it’s widely known. In reality, there are much easier ways to talk about overused stories without getting caught up in the jargon. 

Our goal as writers is not to impress our peers, but to engage and inspire a wider audience. Whether we are writing an academic paper or a social media post, we need to remember that our words have the power to create change in the world. By rejecting academic jargon and technical language, we can create a more connected and empowered community of advocates and activists.

So, to all the gremlins out there – let’s learn to speak in a language that everyone can understand.