September 29, 2014

Academic writing is so bad on so many levels for so many reasons.

Explained by Steven Pinker.

And he's not even talking about legal academic writing, where it's possible (and popular) to blame the student editors. (Here's a PDF of something I wrote 20 years ago: "Who's to Blame for Law Reviews?" Spoiler alert: I blame the professors.)

27 comments:

MadisonMan said...

You mention the problem in your linked-to article. When an academic writes for a Journal, he or she tailors what they write to what they've read in that journal. It's what the reviewers, editors and readers expect. Journals are chock-full of bad writing. Some of that you can attribute to ESL authors, but the majority lies at the feet of people who don't know how to edit.

It's a self-perpetuating problem, and I don't see much of a push for change (because no one will underwrite the cost).

Anonymous said...

To avoid the awkwardness of strings of he or she, I borrow a convention from linguistics and will refer to a male generic writer and a female generic reader.

Mansplaining!

rhhardin said...

Latin-derived words.

Ann Althouse said...

"To avoid the awkwardness of strings of he or she, I borrow a convention from linguistics and will refer to a male generic writer and a female generic reader."

What a sexist convention!

The female is the receptacle.

traditionalguy said...

The written legal filings are always Grandstanding" to one audience or another to show off superior legal knowledge. That comes from an innate, and half true, belief that there is an AUTHORITY over all matters.

Good writing moves the focus to the skills of the person writing. It is refreshing, but it does not carry weight.

Bob Ellison said...

"Together with wearing earth tones, driving Priuses, and having a foreign policy, the most conspicuous trait of the American professoriate may be the prose style called academese."

Pinker should have started an essay about writing with a better-written first sentence.

chuck said...

(To avoid the awkwardness of strings of he or she, I borrow a convention from linguistics and will refer to a male generic writer and a female generic reader.

That's part of the problem right there. Conforming to the silly dictates of the utopian dream that academics inhabit sidetracks the article into pointless verbiage.

Fernandinande said...

Ann Althouse said...
What a sexist convention!
The female is the receptacle.


So what?

Seriously: so ... what?

Anonymous said...

Many fail to comprehend why the intersectionality of communicative academic enterprise and genuine knowledge discovery and transfer need be so complex and abstruse.

To counter this trend, the committee recommends a movement beyond immediate academic circles into the lives of a more general audience:

The academic at home!

Anonymous said...

I seduce my female pronouns.

Mark said...

Pinker should have started an essay about writing with a better-written first sentence.

I believe he was reaching for Irony.

Irony is the most conspicuous trait of the popular intellectual.

Hammond X. Gritzkofe said...

"To avoid the awkwardness of..." I propose the word "sheesh".

Peter said...

May I bring Ockham's razor to the table?

Perhaps most academic writing is bad because few academics have the talent to write well?

Mark said...

"To avoid the awkwardness of strings of he or she, I borrow a convention from linguistics and will refer to a gigolo and a client."

Bob Ellison said...

Mark, so you're claiming the Pee-wee Herman excuse on Pinker's behalf?

You're correct in observing that many academics reach for irony. It's usually a long, inappropriate reach, and hard sciences don't put up with it as much as soft ones do.

One can write "juvenile humans strive for language almost as much as do adults" in a linguistics paper, but try writing "proof of this theorem should, of course, be so obvious as not to merit statement in this paper" in a math paper.

John Lynch said...

The problem with academic writing is that no one reads it. Almost all research is read by one or two people, if that.

Æthelflæd said...

Richard Mitchell explained all this years ago. All the old Underground Grammarian stuff is still on line. Delightful in a depressing, ridiculous, Mencken sort of way.

Mike said...

I liked Pinker's article, but found his focus on "expertise" a little annoying. Clarity is for everybody and lack of same afflicts many forms of writing.

Skeptical Voter said...

MadisonMan, let's be real here. I've read the linked law review article by our host. In that article she's talking about style rather than substance.

If you are talking about a law review article on some substantive area of the law, you've got three things in play. First is the substantive accuracy of what the writer writes. That's the dull grind familiar to generations of law review members (including myself) of cite checking. Second is the law review editor's sense of style and grammar. Law review editors have two years of law review work while they are learning how to edit. Most of them will remain "rookies" at the process, and only a few of them will pass the "beginner" stage by the time they graduate. Third is the writing style of the law professor author of the article.

Lawyers and law professors are advocates--they "tell stories". When an author or lawyer develops a skill in "telling stories" that elicits the comment, "It sounds better when you tell it." then they have arrived at a successful style. Not many of us get there.

Beldar said...

Readers aren't just receptacles, Prof. Althouse. Readers have power over writers. Writers without readers are nothing.

(Ask any blogger who's an Amazon Associate.)

Joe said...

It's simple; academics aren't that smart and using fancy language hides that. In connection with this, avoiding clear, declarative allows them to not be pinned down on anything. Unfortunately, this latter point is in full force in the business world as well.

David said...

I still remember being astonished by the range of quality in articles submitted to the law review. Some were well organized and written. Others were a total mess. I was quite shocked that some professors would let something so bad go out under their names. The worst part was that the writers with the crappiest organization and prose were usually the most difficult and contentious to deal with. We had some very clear thinkers and good writers as editors. I still remember my LR co workers as some of the best people I've ever worked with.

David said...

What a sexist convention!

The female is the receptacle.


You must love the terminology of electronics.

Mark said...

Math-speak in written publications: "proof of this theorem should, of course, be so obvious as not to merit statement in this paper"

Math-speak during a lecture: "from here the proof is trivial."

Bob Ellison said...

Mark, yeah, I thought that as I was typing it. The fictional example should be better written than that.

My brother tells the story of a math professor who was asked in class something like, "Can you prove that?" The professor, chalk in hand, responded, "Not only can I, but I WILL!"

Zach said...

Papers in my field (physics) actually aren't that bad. Not that they're stylistic wonders -- not by a long shot. But most people can manage a plain vanilla style if they work at it long enough.

The question of whether a paper should be pleasurable to read is one with many hidden landmines. Should we let the author skip over important exceptions or lines of evidence that might lead to the opposite conclusion? Lots of "good" writing does that.

Ultimately, people read a paper because they want to orient themselves in an unfamiliar field, or to answer a specific question, or with some other well defined goal in mind. If that's the case, then screwing around with rhetoric and argument and metonymy and metaphor is actually making the paper less useful.

Zach said...

Note, though, that a "plain vanilla" style should strive to eliminate puffed up language, contorted sentences, endless qualifications and hedging, etc.

If you've got something to say, you should say it as quickly and accurately as possible. Mentioning important exceptions or counterarguments is part of this, but that's not the same as wimping out with wishy-washy language.