On bad academic writing

The article on bad academic writing that’s been going around strikes me as perhaps a little cruel, and as unlikely to actually get through to the people who most need the message — after all, it’s notoriously difficult to see the flaws in one’s own writing. As a peer reviewer, I’ve seen many articles that amount to a “paper in search of a thesis,” so I think there’s definitely a grain of truth in the problem the author diagnoses. And as an academic writer, I can testify that it’s good prudential advice. I’ve had disproportionate success in getting through peer review, and I credit that in part to the fact that I’m a clear, fluent writer.

Nevertheless, there’s something a little suspicious about the notion that every academic must be a “good writer.” First of all, nearly all the important theoretical sources academics study violate multiple norms of American academic writing — Europeans are much looser in their citational practices, for instance, and in general the authors who have entered into the Theory canon are much more comfortable with indirection and density. Reading these types of authors in translation certainly militates against the development of a fluent English style.

Further, I’m uncomfortable with the implied uniformity of style demanded here, particularly since an important motivation is not to make undue demands on editors and readers. It seems like we’re not too far from grading papers based in large part on how easy they are to grade. I understand that editors and readers are pressed for time, and I also realize that it’s unrealistic to think that a significant percentage of “bad” articles are actually using advanced stylistic and rhetorical approaches that enhance their meaning — but maybe some of them are, and the risk is that they will get thrown out because they didn’t follow a more convenient formula.

What do you think, dearest readers?

5 thoughts on “On bad academic writing

  1. Some of the advice in the HigherEd article does ring true to me, but some things seem to vary between humanities disciplines. Sentence length, for example. I began my graduate school career in English literature where semicolons, enormous parentheticals, and en/em dashes abound–most likely influences from those grammatically lawless European academics and their translators. Some professors appreciated flourishes like those less than others, but by and large, a three to four line sentence was acceptable as long as there was variety. Sometimes longer sentences were justifiable. When I made the move to theology/religious studies, I had to alter my style quite a bit, only using semicolons and parentheticals when absolutely necessary for clarification and keeping the sentence length down. I’ve always thought that these changes have benefitted my writing by tightening it, though maybe there’s something to be said for those changes simply making my writing better suited to the discipline–at least in the eyes of my adviser!

  2. One thing that bothered me in the article was the improper use of the term “run-on sentence” to mean simply a “very long sentence.” There is nothing wrong with long sentences as such! (A run-on sentence, properly so called, joins two independent clauses without intervening punctuation, and I would say that among native English speakers, it’s a very rare error.)

  3. When I read “if you’re not a writer, you’re not a player,” I was delighted to find out that usage of gross sports and business page cliches are not an impediment to getting published at IHE. To say nothing of its rank falsity–so we will finally have meritocratic justice in academia, but only once our prose is readable? He even fantasizes about who he would fire. You’re totally right to be wary of his uniformity of style.

    My miseries in writing academic prose have always been related to the many standards of “clarity” in an academic audience. This goes doubly true for written proposals, which may pass through a half-dozen layers at a press, with each publisher using a different process.

  4. “Europeans are much looser in their citational practices, for instance” – this is not quite right: At least two German ministers – one being the minister for research and science! – lost their jobs in recent years due to negligent citation practices in their phd-thesis.

  5. “Reading these types of authors in translation certainly militates against the development of a fluent English style.”

    Isn’t this as much an argument for insisting on clear writing as it is an excuse for its lack? A writing style based on translations of brilliant but poorly edited thinkers struggling with brand new ideas is a terrible model for communication. I confess that demanding every academic be a “good writer” strikes me as about as suspicious as demanding that every bus driver be a “good steerer.” It is literally the job, as much or more than generating theoretic insights. I grant that density and indirectness have their niche, but I also submit that in modern academia they have far exceeded their reasonable bounds.

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