A few weeks ago I was listening to a lovely piece of music—the worship band has an interlude as we pass old-school wooden offering ‘plates’—and paused as I heard Anna’s light, lilting soprano sing “depravity”

That word gets me every time. Not in a good way, either. And you may be thinking, “Didn’t she already rant write about this?” and you’d sort of be right*.

See, the word depravity has problems for multiple reasons. First and foremost is the antique language part—we don’t even use ‘depraved’ as much as we did when I was a teen, so how is anyone going to make it all the way over to depravity? Might as well call people jackanapes, while we’re at it. But I’ve already covered this ground.

Now that I’m writing graduate papers again, I’m coming up against the other problem with depravity and its jargon friends. In some respects, it is the exact right word. Within the proper context, it conveys in four syllables what it would otherwise take a paragraph—or page—to get across. Why waste everyone’s time… or worse, bore everyone by explaining what they already know?

In addition, academic-ese is, in some respects, a requirement in the trade. By using the insider language, you convey (1) you know The Right Things and (2) can wield these tools with aplomb. You are taken more seriously when you deploy the common tools. Only a visitor, or an outsider, would leave these tools on the ground and instead take the long route.

When I last wrote graduate papers, I had been writing business papers for a half-dozen years or so. Memos, training manuals, release notes, technical explanations for first line support staff, project justifications for senior management. The style leans more to Hemingway than Joyce: tell the key part at the beginning in short sentences; if the reader needs more detail, offer it at the end. My mother reminisces about preparing two or three slide decks when presenting to the C-suite (Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Operational Officer…). The first deck was the “real” presentation: terse and full of action. The other decks were the layered underpinnings for the conclusions in the first deck: summaries, then data sheets. In case there were questions, one could pull out the details… but having brought the data, there were often no questions.

I brought my action-packed style to the classroom. My mentor professor said, “This is punchy; I like it. But it won’t get you far here. We still use the language of academia.” Business persons are not revered inside graduate schools; other professors are. Sound like a professor, and professors will listen.

First define “everyone.” Then communicate according to what you want to accomplish with “everyone.”


My sister helpfully gave me a quick review of my most recent paper for school. I’ve been struggling with the word limits, as you may have noticed, but not simply because I write long (!). I’ve also realized the papers don’t seem “right.” On this last pass, I sent her a 2/3 draft with a mental headshake attached, because I was convinced it was too skimpy. That it needed more scaffolding alongside my statements. The kinds of things I would have attached to my English papers, or my information studies papers. She gently pushed back, pointing out I was not as far away from the word limit as I might be thinking.

And then she commented, “You write like an academic. <smile> (not a criticism)”

Sure enough. Without paying attention, I shifted back into that particular insider language. And have even adapted it for this particular “everyone:” I gather that my prof, like the executives, is willing to trust that you can provide all the supporting quotes and resources were he to ask. Which he won’t; it’s a sunny day and there are more interesting things to do.

And since I can gather up all these scholarly tools and swiftly wield them to build an intriguing structure of thoughts, I can get where we both want to be in 2000 words or fewer… back in the sun, smiling, and thinking, “Wasn’t that fun?”

Perhaps, therefore, I will agree to elucidate depravity within what I consider are its appropriate confines.

Outside these brick and ivy walls? My lips are sealed.


*If you thought, “Huh? Wrote about what?” this is the post I was referring to:

Explanatory commas, by way of Code Switch

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