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?