Over at the new, independent Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan has been hosting an interesting thread on why academic writing is frequently abysmal. As someone who tries hard to make even my academic writing clear and accessible and who tries to instill that value in my students, I’ve followed the thread with interest.
For starters, I don’t think the problem is that no one encourages future academics to write well. In my own case, for example, I was fortunate to study with Alex George at Stanford as an undergrad and with Kenneth Waltz at Berkeley during graduate school, and both repeatedly stressed the importance of writing well.
Waltz didn’t do a lot of line-editing of grad student papers or dissertations, but he certainly let me know when he thought my writing was obscure, verbose, disorganized or just plain confused. He also spoke openly about the importance of writing in his graduate courses, encouraged students to read books such as Fowler’s “Modern English Usage,” and was scornful of the trendy neologisms that infest academic writing like so many weevils.
I also don’t think the problem is due to poor editing at journals or university presses. I’ve published in over a dozen academic journals, with a prominent university press, and with two different commercial publishers, as well in a number of journals of opinion. Almost all of the editors or copy editors with whom I’ve worked were helpful and attentive, and some were superlative. Indeed, I can think of only one case in nearly 30 years in which a manuscript of mine was truly butchered by an editor (it was actually done by an intern), and fortunately the magazine let me repair the damage before the article appeared.
So why is academic writing so bad?
One reason academic writing is sometimes difficult is that the subjects are complicated and difficult to explain with ordinary language. I sympathize with philosophers grappling with deep questions about morality, time, epistemology and the like, as these subjects are inherently slippery and it is easy to lose the reader in a fog of words.
A second reason is the failure of many scholars to appreciate the difference between the logic of discovery and the logic of presentation.
Specifically, the process by which a scholar figures out the answer to a particular question is rarely if ever the best way to explain that answer to a reader.
The problem is that this narrative form is rarely the best way to make a convincing case. Once you know what your argument is, really effective writing involves sitting down and thinking hard about the best way to present that argument to the reader. The most important part of that process is figuring out the overall structure of the argument — what points need to be developed first, and then what follows naturally or logically from them, and so on. An ideal piece of social science writing should have a built-in sense of logical or structural inevitability so the reader moves along the argument and supporting evidence as effortlessly as possible.
Which leads me to the real reasons why academic writing is often bad. The first problem is that many academics tend to confuse incomprehensibility with profundity. If they write long and ponderous sentences and throw in lots of jargon, they assume readers will be dazzled by their erudition and more likely to accept whatever it is they are saying uncritically.
Moreover, jargon is a way for professional academics to remind ordinary people that they are part of a guild with specialized knowledge that outsiders lack, and younger scholars often fear that if they don’t sound like a professional scholar, then readers won’t believe what they are saying no matter how solid their arguments and evidence are.
The second problem is the fear of being wrong. If your prose is clear and your arguments are easy to follow, then readers can figure out what you are saying and they can hold you to account. If you are making forecasts, then you will look bad if your predictions are clearly stated and then fail. If your argument has obvious testable implications, others can run the tests and see how well your claims stand up.
In the endless war against academic obscurantism, I tell my own students to read Strunk and White’s classic “The Elements of Style” and to heed their emphasis on concision. Most of us tend to overwrite (especially by using too many adverbs), and shorter is almost always better. Or as Strunk and White put it:
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Stephen M. Walt is a professor of international relations at Harvard University.