Problem: Academic writing is exhausting
I was asked to evaluate and rework a report authored a senior researcher at NORC (Prof. H.) and written for a non-academic audience at the AARP Foundation.
Analysis: Tell a story with compelling characters
Academic prose is famously dull. Latinate constructions, inverted syntax, long appositives, and foreign jargon can frustrate the best readers. Though it prevails, bad academic prose routinely fails at its basic goal: to educate and persuade.
Solution: Readers care more about people than concepts
Let’s focus on my edits to the report’s executive summary. Executive summaries are a specific genre. Regardless of the length or detail of the esoterica that follows, an executive summary must be concise, clear, and engaging. If not, readers will happily flip their attention elsewhere.
Professor H.’s text appears in red, while my changes appear in green.
“This report examines the social health of older adults in the United States. Social health is here defined as satisfaction and contentment with one’s social life. Its opposite, loneliness, is defined as dissatisfaction with the quantity or quality of one’s social relationships.”
“In the United States, adults often struggle to find fulfillment in their social lives as they grow older. While some older adults have found the secret to fostering healthy, meaningful bonds, many others find that their social relationships wither as they become increasingly isolated and alone.
Instead of introducing definitions (a commonplace in the sciences), I begin by situating the reader with thematic language. Words like “struggle,” “social lives” and “older” present both a character and a problem. Then I turn to “character.” I change the subject of the first two sentences from abstracted categories like “report,” “social health,” and “loneliness” into one consistent character: adults. For one, readers usually struggle to track multiple characters in the same paragraph. Secondly, readers at the AARP Foundation will likely care more about adults rather than concepts like social health.
I also carefully turn neutral words into active ones. The original draft says that older adults are dissatisfied with the quantity and quality of their relationships. To make things more compelling I replace “quantity” with what it actually insinuates (“they wither”) and “quality” with “isolated and alone”–words that describe quality. Just like strong characters, strong verbs add active drama and interest.
Loneliness, in addition to making people’s lives miserable, has been associated with increased mortality and a range of adverse physiological and health outcomes that are prevalent and costly in older age. The scope of the problem is related to the prevalence of loneliness in older adults in the USA, and existing estimates of prevalence are dated.
For these adults, loneliness is not only emotionally unhealthy but physiologically unhealthy too. Loneliness can lead to increased mortality and a range of adverse health outcomes that are both prevalent and costly. Though the consequences of loneliness may afflict millions of older adults, current estimates about the prevalence of loneliness remain outdated.
Notice that I focus on adding more obvious problem language to show that while this topic is very important, no one has yet fixed the data.
Moreover, lonely older adults have been inadequately characterized, and segments of the current older adult population that are at high risk for loneliness have not been identified. This report addresses these issues.
Moreover, past research has both inadequately characterized lonely older adults while also overlooking important segments of the current older adult population that are at high risk for loneliness. This report on social health addresses these crucial issues.
Now I drive the problem home. The original language uses weak intransitive verbs. By adding a subject (“research”) I’ve also identified a bad guy to be vanquished. It’s bad research that’s “overlooked” this. That’s why you need good research.
Let’s skip ahead to the next paragraph:
Characteristics that differ between the socially healthy and unhealthy groups included socioeconomic and demographic characteristics as well as health, social engagement, social network characteristics, and qualities of relationships. Relative to the socially healthy group, the lonely group has lower household income; less wealth; is less likely to be married; and lives alone. The lonely group also has poorer self-rated health; more physical limitations in carrying out the activities of daily living; fewer friends; and less frequently socializes, volunteers, attends church, and participates in organized groups. In addition, the lonely group reports less support and greater strain in their relationships with family and friends.”
Loneliness always stems from a variety of characteristics: from a respondent’s socioeconomic and demographic background to their health, social engagement, social network characteristics, and the quality of their relationships. For example, relative to the socially healthy sample group, the lonely group possessed less wealth and less household income. Physically, they rated their health poorer than their socially healthy peers, and they reported more limitations when carrying out the activities of daily living. Socially, they less frequently socialized, volunteered, attended church, and participated in other organized groups. The lonely group reported having fewer friends, were less likely to be married, and were more likely to live alone. Finally, respondents in the lonely group reported having less support and carrying a greater strain in their relationships with family and friends.
Again, I do some character work. The report is fundamentally about lonely older adults. So either adults or loneliness must star in the drama. I also add some important signposts. “For example” is a powerfully appreciated phrase for weary eyes–readers prefer scenes and stories to concepts and abstractions. I also made sure to add coordinating words like “socially,” “physically,” and “finally” to settle readers into a list and give them thematic language with which to better categorize the content.
Data about the older population in general can be used to identify which individuals may be at particular risk for loneliness. In this nationally representative sample of older adults, factors that uniquely identified segments of the population that are at higher risk for loneliness include not having a spouse or partner, socializing less frequently, having fewer friends, and experiencing greater strain in family relationships. Having information on these four aspects of older adults’ lives significantly increases the likelihood that individuals can be identified as lonely or socially healthy.
In addition to describing loneliness, the data can also be used to identify which older adults are particularly at risk for loneliness. For uniquely identified segments of the population four aspects matter when trying to measure whether an individual is at a higher risk for loneliness: if they do not have a spouse or partner, if they socialize less frequently, if they have fewer friends, and if they experience greater strain in family relationships. By collecting information on these four aspects of social health, this data becomes much better at accurately identifying which older adults are lonely or socially healthy.
Readers always need ample help. Simple markers like “four aspects matter” prepare readers for a list. In the last sentence, I again add stronger descriptive language, changing “increases the likelihood” to “better at accurately.” Don’t bury the lede. If your work is doing something well, make sure your readers know.
The ability to predict which individuals are lonely or socially healthy can be further improved by considering married and unmarried older adults separately, in part because the married and unmarried groups differ in more ways than just their marital status. For instance, married older adults are more likely to have a higher income than those who are not married. When examined separately, 14 percent of married older adults and 30 percent of unmarried older adults fall into the lonely group. Women in the married are at higher risk of loneliness than married men, but unmarried women are at lower risk of loneliness than unmarried men. In addition, the sub-group most at risk of loneliness among married older adults includes those with lower income, who attend church relatively infrequently, and experience poor marital quality. Among unmarried older adults, the most at-risk sub-group includes those who have more physical limitations, fewer friends, and greater strain in their family relationships.
Above all else, marriage is an especially important indicator when attempting to predict loneliness—in more ways than one might think. For instance, married older adults are more likely to have a higher income than their unmarried peers. Nearly 30 percent of unmarried older adults fall into the lonely group in comparison to just 14 percent of married older adults. Interestingly, of married adults, married women are at higher risk of loneliness than married men, yet unmarried women are at lower risk of loneliness than unmarried men. Other factors can compound these feelings too. Among married older adults, those with lower income, who attend church relatively infrequently, and who report poor marital quality are all at greatest risk for loneliness. Unmarried individuals are most at-risk if they report greater physical limitations, fewer friends, and more strain in their family relationships.
My character work centers “marriage” as the topic of this paragraph, a fact buried in the original language. A warm phrase like “in more ways than one might think” cues readers to expect content that will challenge their assumptions. Finally, note how I take every opportunity to change passive constructions into active ones: “unmarried individuals have” becomes “older adults report,” and so forth.
Finally, let’s look at the final paragraph:
In sum, although most older adults in the USA are socially healthy and seemingly resilient to the losses that come with aging, a sizeable portion of this population feels lonely. Data identified segments of the population that may be at particularly high risk of loneliness. This information may be of use to set directions for future research, target policies, and assist service agencies to reduce the burden of loneliness in a growing older adult population.
In sum, though many older Americans are socially healthy and seemingly resilient to the losses that come with aging, a sizable portion of this population feels lonely. The data in this report identified segments of the population that may be at particularly high risk of loneliness. This information should help researchers in devising more insightful studies, policy makers advocate for more targeted programs, and service agencies reduce the burden of loneliness in a growing older adult population
By turning “set future research” into “help researchers” I’ve returned living people (and important audiences) to the sentence. This is important. The final line of the last paragraph of the summary is the most expensive real estate in the entire document. Readers will look here for the most compelling and memorable point. I must ensure that readers know that this report will help researchers, policy makers, and service agencies. These groups, of course, are those who have the most to gain.
I hope that this primer has helped give you a window into my method. While much of this might come across as tedious, my point is to show that this kind of highly technical editing and revision is neither magic nor impossible. It is, I hope to have shown, merely another form of strategic design.