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Why most academic writing sucks

Feb 16, 2013

Why most academic writing sucks

Kingsley Amis described a certain kind of academic article in Lucky Jim:

…niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems. Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance.

Richard Dawkins claimed that unintelligibility was a way to obscure a lack of ideas:

Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content.

Peter Elbow has a more sympathetic take:

When we academics were in graduate school, we were trained to write badly (no one put it this way of course) because every time we wrote X, our teacher always commented, “But have you considered Y? Don’t you see that Y completely contradicts what you write here.” “Have you considered” is the favorite knee-jerk response of academics to any idea. As a result, we learn as students to clog up our writing with added clauses and phrases to keep them from being attacked. In a sense (a scary sense), our syntactic goal is create sentences that take a form something like this:

X, and yet on the other hand Y, yet nevertheless X in certain respects, while at the same time Y in other respects.

And we make the prose lumpier still by inserting references to all the published scholars — those who said X, those who argued for Y, those who said X is valid in this sense, those who said Y is valid in this other sense.

As a result of all this training we come to internalize these written voices so that they speak to us continually from inside our own heads. So even when we talk and start to say “X,” we interrupt ourselves to say “Y,” but then turn around and say “Nevertheless X in certain respects, yet nevertheless Y in other respects.” We end up with our minds tied in knots.

And writing about art isn’t any better.

(Thx @mattthomas!)

238 notes

  1. davepress reblogged this from austinkleon and added:
    This is too true, and probably yet another reason I’m not going for my Ph.D.
  2. eccoyle reblogged this from austinkleon and added:
    "We end up with our minds tied in knots." - The most accurate description of writing an academic paper that I’ve ever...
  3. michaelmorandom reblogged this from austinkleon
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  11. hungerintheheart reblogged this from austinkleon
  12. self-moving-soul reblogged this from editficmag and added:
    As someone working in academia, I can confirm this is true. I’d like to think history suffers from it a bit less, since...
  13. editficmag reblogged this from austinkleon
  14. zaiga reblogged this from elsi
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  19. communionwaffle reblogged this from davepress
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  21. longtallandcute reblogged this from vixenacappella and added:
    Basically why I finally gave up on University.
  22. lostconversations reblogged this from austinkleon
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