The Magazine

Smart Writing

It’s good to be published, and better to be understood.

Sep 3, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 47 • By BARTON SWAIM
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Modern academics are not celebrated for the clarity and felicity of their writing. One of the most important lessons a postgraduate student can learn—and if he doesn’t learn it soon, he’s doomed—is that academics generally do not write books and articles for the purpose of expressing their ideas as clearly as possible for the benefit of people who don’t already understand and agree with them. Academics don’t write to be read; they write to be published. Typically, the only people who actually read academic books and articles are other academics, who only read them to know what they need to reference in their own books and articles. And that’s not reading; that’s trawling. 

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Helen Sword, associate professor at the Centre for Academic Development at the University of Auckland, wants to persuade her colleagues that they can do better. She has written Stylish Academic Writing in order to “give courage to academics who want to write more engagingly but fear the consequences of violating disciplinary norms.” But surely the point is that the vast majority of academics don’t “aspire to write more engagingly and adventurously.” 

The reasons for this perversity have been debated in the pages of intellectual magazines (like this one) for decades. Academics in the humanities and the social sciences, it’s sometimes suggested, too often wish to give their fields the legitimacy and public authority of science, and so write in highly technical, jargon-laced prose. Academics in the hard sciences, for their part, are too concerned with factual correctness to worry about making their productions agreeable, even to co-specialists. Then, of course, there is the really uncharitable interpretation: Many academics simply haven’t got anything useful to say, but if they say it in a sufficiently complicated fashion and use all the vogue terms, they’ll get credit for having said something without saying anything worth defending.

The really troublesome thing about all this is that many academic writers, even in the humanities, have legitimate and important insights to convey. Yet they genuinely believe, whether for one of the aforementioned reasons or for some other, that it doesn’t serve their interests to write straightforward English sentences. I have before me a book entitled The Making of English Reading Audiences, 1790-1832 by Jon Klancher (University of Wisconsin Press, 1987). The book is deservedly influential in its field; indeed, I have profited from it myself. But here is a typical sentence, drawn more or less at random:

What will finally distinguish the new middle-class audience of the nineteenth century from its radical antagonists and the mass public’s fascination with commodities is the activated interpretive mind in its power to reincarnate everyday life: to form a “philosophy” of one’s encounter with the street and the city, with fashion, with social class, with intellectual systems and the mind’s own unpredictable acts.

No normal person can read that once and feel he knows what Klancher means. And yet, all he means is that, in the 19th century, industrialization was changing the look and social dynamics of British cities at an unprecedented speed, and periodical writers assumed the role of interpreting those changing circumstances for an increasingly wealthy middle-class audience.

A fair and interesting observation, but not one that’s particularly difficult to express. So why did Klancher feel he needed to go on about “the activated interpretive mind” and “the mind’s own unpredictable acts”? I don’t know. But I feel pretty confident in saying that Klancher wasn’t trying to write a clear sentence; he meant to write it precisely as he did—opaquely.

Which is why I suspect Sword’s mission to improve academic writing is doomed. Bad writing is (to use a once-fashionable term) institutionalized. She herself says roughly the same thing when she points out that academics learn how to write from three principal sources: their doctoral supervisors, their academic peers, and the academic journals in which they wish to be published.

Supervisors typically preach stylistic caution [to their postgraduate students]; they want their students to demonstrate mastery of disciplinary norms, not to push against disciplinary boundaries. Editors and referees, likewise, are often more intent on self-cloning than on genuine innovation or empowerment. Peer-reviewed publications, meanwhile, offer a range of stylistic models that are at best unadventurous and at worst downright damaging. .  .  . Academics who learn to write by imitation will almost inevitably pick up the same bad habits.

Academia, if I can give Sword’s observation the sting it deserves, encourages the worst kind of conservatism: a conservatism that values correctness over creativity, and sameness over originality. 

But although her mission may be doomed, she acquits herself well. Her counsel is wise, efficiently written, and infectiously winsome. She advises academic writers to use anecdotes and carefully chosen metaphors, and to write opening sentences that encourage readers to keep reading. She has drawn from a massive array of academic articles (more than a thousand) and given particular attention to authors known for writing readable material.

I was not impressed by her conscientiously balanced criticisms of academic jargon. Sword seems to think of jargon as the overuse of technical language or, at worst, the pretentious use of big words, whereas I think it’s always and only the use of stock verbiage to camouflage the absence of thought—the academic equivalent of political talking points. But I interpret this as Sword’s need to speak to academics as they are, not as they should be, and her emphasis is on clarity and the simple expression of complex ideas. 

Like most, or all, guides to writing, this one sometimes gives the impression of trying to teach the unteachable. Sword suggests, for instance, that her readers can “bring intangible concepts to life by pairing abstract nouns with animating verbs.” Her example, drawn from an actual academic article, is this sentence: “Substantive differences also lurk in this confusion.” Well, okay. But while it’s probably true that “pairing abstract subjects with animating verbs” can put life into an otherwise lifeless sentence, that’s the sort of thing a writer either knows without being told, or not at all. 

Still, Helen Sword’s book contains much wisdom. Leaving aside her irritating use of the word “stylish”—surely no good writer wants to be thought of as “stylish”—Stylish Academic Writing contains superb counsel for academics who want to write with greater clarity and skill. 

Too bad there are so few of them.

Barton Swaim is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.