Why Is Academic Writing So Unpleasant to Read?

Most of us are trying, really we are! Image via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ll be the first to admit that many academic books and articles just aren’t a good read. Sometimes they could be much better written. Sometimes they’re as well-written as they can be, but the subject matter and purposes of the work don’t lend themselves to easy reading. Not everything can — or should — be easy. Either way, knowing some of the reasons why an academic text you may have been assigned to read is so turgid and unpleasant may ease the pain just a bit.

What follows is my short list of common assumptions about academic writing, and my own explanation for why people get that impression. Important background for this discussion is in my earlier post, What Is Academic Writing?

Academic writing is always boring, dry, formulaic, and unnecessarily complex.

It doesn’t have to be, and academics increasingly agree that it shouldn’t be. But just because something is published doesn’t mean you can rely on its being well written. In the academic world, having something truly new to say – or maybe even just something that more or less fills a gap (or even just having a famous name) – can be enough to get published, despite bad writing.

But original ideas communicated well through effective writing are still the goal.

In many cases the writing (the form) must be simple or plain, because the ideas (the content) are by definition new and complex. The ideas themselves are meant to be the source of excitement. The writing is meant to not get in the way by making these ideas less clear or harder to assimilate. Some readers don’t like this, as a matter of taste (it seems dry or formulaic), but in the academy it is inescapable.

If you’re not excited by the ideas in an academic piece, it may be that that subject is not for you, but it may also be that you don’t yet know enough about it to see why it’s so fascinating, or it may be that the author simply didn’t write clearly or directly enough to ‘let you in’ to ideas that do have inherent interest.

Academics perversely make the simple and obvious seem more complicated than it is, and refuse to recognize what everyone else knows (i.e., common sense).

The whole purpose of academia is for some people to spend time working out the really difficult questions, facing the complexity, and bringing to public attention the hardest and most hidden truths. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.

Sometimes, it’s true, the inertia of the academic machine (not to mention the cruel tenure review process) causes common sense to get momentarily lost. But the nature of the endeavor – in which every claim is constantly questioned and judged by one’s peers – is meant to ensure that nonsense doesn’t hold up forever.

If there were no scholars (from undergraduates to the big-name professors) to ask questions and vet the information we use to build bridges, cure diseases, form public policy and define ourselves as a people, where would we be as a society?

Academic writing is a static, unchanging entity, and separate from every other kind of writing.

On the contrary, academic writing often has much in common with many kinds of journalism and other “public” writing, and the lines distinguishing one from another often blur. Moreover, standards of what academic writing ought to look like have changed over time and continue to evolve, constantly taking on influences from trends inside and outside the academy. If you start noticing the publication date of what you read, you’ll start noticing patterns — academic work written in the 1960s is different in style and form from that written in the 1980s, or the 2000s.

We might just note here that the teaching of “academic writing” is itself a relatively new phenomenon. In the not-so-distant past, becoming an insider in the academy was an option for only a few, and the fact that one had to learn the rules of how to look like an insider more or less by osmosis ensured that the ranks remained thin. Clear, effective writing was – and in some circles still is! – considered a little risky, for if just anyone could understand what academics were talking about, what would happen to their prestige?! Fortunately, this is one bit of nonsense that is on its way out.

The aim of an academic paper is to quell controversy, to prove that a certain answer is the best answer so effectively that no one will ever disagree about this issue again (and if a paper doesn’t do this, it has failed).

Though many students are taught in high school to treat argument in writing as a kind of battle-to-the-death, this is more a reflection of teachers’ need to force novice writers to find their independent opinions — so they may effectively assert and defend them in writing — than a reflection of how the academy really works or what’s actually expected of your written arguments in college and beyond.

In reality, academics are usually collegial people who respect each other’s research and conclusions, and whose main aims are to refine and expand our collective knowledge. To that end, we value controversy very highly, as a means to open up new questions and identify the gaps in current knowledge. An argument that sets out to definitively prove some absolute solution will – in most cases! – be seen for what it is, the mistake of a novice who has (presumptuously) overstepped the bounds of what can be proven. Most arguments suggest tentative conclusions, expand on conclusions made by others or quibble with aspects of others’ evidence or reasoning, or – in many cases – simply lay out some new, surprising thought or theory so as to deliberately provoke controversy, rather than resolve it.

As an undergraduate, you should (like any other scholar) aim to develop arguments that honestly reflect your reasoned judgment of the evidence. If the evidence leads you to conclude only that more evidence needs to be gathered (which cannot be gathered now, in the scope of the current project), then you may need to either redirect the focus of your project to address a problem where you can conclude something more substantive, or – if the reasons for being unable to make a conclusion are sufficiently surprising or interesting in themselves – you may simply present those reasons as the “evidence” for an open-ended thesis statement.

Academic writing is full of a bunch of meaningless jargon.

Sometimes, yes, it is. But most of the time the jargon is far from meaningless, though it may not contribute much to the clarity of the writing.

Ideally, jargon is used only when necessary, but there are times when it really is necessary. Jargon should be understood not as made-up words people use to sound smarter than they are (though occasionally it is that). Proper jargon is a form of short-hand. A term of jargon always has a very specialized definition, often for a word that is also used in different ways in other contexts, which is part of what makes it so confusing to outsiders.

Jargon by definition is understood largely by insiders, which is probably why it so often seems downright offensive. But, in highly complex conversations taking place amongst a small group of researchers on a given topic, jargon serves to sum up whole complicated parts of the conversation in one word or phrase. It’s a means of efficiently referencing long, drawn-out thought processes that the whole insider group has already been through.

For example, there’s a concept well-known in many social science and humanities circles under the term “orientalism.” Edward Said wrote an entire book to define what he meant by that term, and since then people who want to apply some part of his ideas in other contexts refer to all those interrelated ideas as “orientalism.” If you’ve never read Edward Said’s work or had the term explained to you, you couldn’t possibly know what it’s about. You can’t guess from looking at the word, and a standard dictionary won’t help you. However, this term, like some others, is so well established by now that a good specialized encyclopedia will have it listed. Even a comprehensive general encyclopedia like Wikipedia will give you an explanation, though you should remember that Wikipedia can only ever be a starting point, to orient you. It can’t give you the nuanced and specific background that you really need to understand how a term like orientalism is being used in a given scholarly work—it can only tell you where to begin to look to understand it.

Hopefully, in a reasonably well-written piece of scholarship, jargon terms will be defined somewhere in the text. But this is not true of some terms that are so widely used in so many fields of scholarship that most scholars consider them obvious, like “discourse” or “civil society,” or, increasingly, “orientalism.” If you come across undefined specialized terms like this, the first thing you need to know is not to try to find them in a dictionary. Start with encyclopedias instead, the more specialized the better. Again, Wikipedia might be a good starting point if you have no idea where else even to look. But then go back to how the term is used in the text you’re working on, and think about its specific application in this context. Find an encyclopedia specializing in the field or discipline you’re reading about. You can also look to other related readings and your professor if a given term is obviously important and you can’t figure it out. For better or worse, jargon goes with the territory of academic writing, and you can’t completely avoid it.

Nominalizations

Okay, this isn’t a common accusation leveled at academic writers, but it should be. I learned about this endemic problem as an undergraduate student of the Little Red Schoolhouse at the University of Chicago. Once you’re aware of it, you see it everywhere. Unfortunately, I can attest that as an academic writer, being aware of the problem makes it only a little bit easier to address. Okay, I know you’re asking, what is a nominalization? It’s when a verb is made into a noun. As in, the sentence that should state “the committee members revised the bylaws” is more often written, “the revision of the bylaws was enacted by the committee members.” If you present the latter version of that sentence to an English teacher, that teacher is likely to point to the passive and “empty” verb “was enacted” as a problem. But a more direct way of assessing the problem is to note the nominalization — “revision,” a noun made out of the verb, “to revise.” When you turn a verb into a noun, you are often forced to supply some sort of empty verb, often a passive one, to fill the verb-void. Nominalizing a verb also often results in strings of ugly prepositional phrases, like, “the revision OF the bylaws BY the committee members.” So why on earth would anyone change their nice, fat action verbs into awkward nominalizations that force the whole rest of the sentence into unpleasant contortions of logic? There’s a surprisingly, depressingly, obvious explanation. When a writer knows her subject really, really well, she tends to think in terms of lists of concepts. But a reader who is NOT familiar with the subject will find it much easier to digest in a totally different form: as stories about who did what to whom and why (that is, grammatically, via substantive nouns with action verbs). The writer deeply embedded in her subject is likely to write in strings of concepts (often in the grammatical form of nominalizations) linked by empty verbs like “to be,” “to have,” “to enact,” etc., and prepositional phrases like “the yadda-yadda of the humdinger of the balderdash of the chupa-chups.” In the ideal case, the writer revises from strings of nominalized concepts into “stories” (even if abstract ones) structured into substantive nouns and action verbs. But, speaking as someone who has finished revising her first book under ridiculous time constraints and sleep deprivation (“constraint” and “deprivation” are both nominalizations), sometimes there just isn’t enough bloody time to revise as much as we would like.

(For those academic writers of any level who could use some help with the nominalization problem and more, I can’t recommend highly enough Joseph Williams’ Style: Toward Clarity and Grace.)

Academics have no sense of humor

Well, okay, I do see where this criticism is coming from. Without debating whether academics themselves have more or less humor than the general population, I will admit that academic writing generally contains little in the way of jokes or whimsy, let alone hilarity. The main reason is probably that we all want to be taken seriously by our colleagues and many of us live in fear of not getting tenure or promotion (which rests in part on our publications). A second reason is that our subject matter often doesn’t it particularly lend itself to humor (you try to make Stalinism or nuclear physics funny, why don’t you, and don’t forget to make an original contribution to the field while you do it!). And still another reason is that, again, our main focus is always clarity, since by definition our subject matter is complex and new.

That said, academic whimsy does exist and you occasionally find it in the wild. In Norman Davies’s God’s Playground: A History of Poland, Vol. II, on page 75 (1982 paperback edition) there’s a whole sentence where nearly every word begins with the letter P:

The proliferating profusion of possible political permutations among the pullulating peoples and parties of the Polish provinces in this period palpably prevented the propagation of permanent pacts between potential partners.

LOL. Okay, let me catch my breath. No, really, that was hilarious, was it not? Admit it, you laughed.

In sum:

There are a lot of reasons why academic prose may not be exactly scintillating. It may actually just be badly written, whether because the writer didn’t consider style important, or because the writer never had training in good writing, which most scholars didn’t systematically get until very recently. Or it may just be about a subject you can’t stand, and this aversion makes it harder for you to follow complex prose. The text may depend on a lot of jargon (necessarily or not). It may have been written with a very tiny audience in mind, of which you are not (yet) a member, so there may be assumptions to which you are not (yet) privy (though you can ask your instructor for help). It may, in rare cases, even be badly written on purpose, to “sound smart.” Figuring out, if possible, which of these is the case in a given instance may help you to wade your way through. Regularly consulting dictionaries and encyclopedias to expand your vocabularies is not only necessary, but part of the point — if you understood everything you read in college, you wouldn’t be challenging yourself, and you wouldn’t be learning, now would you? In any case, none of these reasons can serve as a good excuse for you to write badly, insofar as you can avoid it. Aim higher!

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One Response to Why Is Academic Writing So Unpleasant to Read?

  1. Popo says:

    Ew no I didn’t laugh.

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