Academics write well enough, actually

The most intimidating sight in the world: the empty page

The complaint is perennial: Why can’t academics write well? I’m not going to tag any particular examples of essays plying these waters; their numbers are so vast that the genre has become as stale and repetitive as it accuses scholars of being. Finding myself waiting for a server migration to complete before I can do real work, however, let me essay a response.

The Presumption: That Academics Can’t Write

The standard form of the complaint fits into one of a few categories:

  • Academic prose is dense. The standard exposition of this complaint involves putting some poor humanities or social-science professor in the stocks and mocking how inscrutable their prose is.
  • Academic writing is boring. Although often confused for the complaint that “academic prose is dense”, boredom and density form distinct branches of this family tree. Dense prose must of necessity be boring, but spritely prose about a topic that readers find dull will produce boring effects as well. Similarly, the leadenness of academic prose may result not from any bad sentence taken individually but from the plodding insistence on adding details, citations, and counterarguments, until the weight of all these straws breaks the reader’s back.
  • Academic writing is structured poorly. This more sophisticated critique begins with the observation that scholarly monographs and articles are not structured to be welcoming to outsiders. Sometimes, renegades from the academy will profess to reveal the secrets of the temple–that academics don’t read the entirety of every book they cite. They will point out that, unlike bestselling nonfiction texts, many scholarly books are designed to be read nonlinearly or in pieces. The failure of academic writing is thus linked to the failure of academic reading.
  • Academic writing concerns itself with trivial topics. I hesitate to mention this, since it is not, strictly, a complaint about writing but a complaint about scholarship. Yet the two sets of complaints are so tightly correlated that I must mention them together, as frequently the argument holds that academic writing is bad because those boffins are wasting their time writing about the history of the s

The Second Axiom: That Academic Writing Is Distinctively Bad

None of these complaints would matter if it were not for the assumption–sometimes unstated, sometimes spotlighted–that academic prose is distinctly bad. The comparison sets are usually drawn from journalism, good-selling texts written by academic (and that does exist), and from high-profile authors of nonfiction unburdened by academic affiliations.

One senses occasionally a desire on the part of the author to turn the red pen that some professor wielded against a sophomore essay back against authority in these complaints. Who doesn’t yearn to undermine the teacher? The number of complaints about the distinct badness of academic prose penned by scholars themselves means that this complaint has deeper foundations than a lust for vengeance.

Most Bad Academic Prose Is Bad For Good Reasons

One cannot defend the indefensible, and so I begin by disclaiming any intent to do so. I admit that most academic prose is bad; long habituation to academic writing has sharpened my ability to distill meaning from bad writing but it has not improved the taste.

Some academic writing is bad for bad reasons, too. Professors have to publish to keep their jobs; graduate students have to publish to get a job; and not a few veterans of the theory wars of the 1980s and 1990s learned that outfitting banalities in the latest jargon could camouflage their intellectual weaknesses. So I will not defend them, either.

Most bad academic prose, however, is bad for good reasons. Among them:

  • Good writing is hard. The argument that academics should produce clearer and more interesting prose rests on the assertion that doing so is relatively low cost. But it’s not. Writing clear English prose is hard. Writing stylish prose is challenging. Assuming that laziness explains why people write poorly is to underrate the difficulty of writing well to begin with.
  • Academic writing is hard. Whether writing a synthesis of the literature, an exposition of a general topic for an undergraduate course, or a research article, academic writing is hard. The easy bits are also the hardest ones to turn into interesting prose: there’s only so many ways that one can explain using linear regression in a null-hypothesis testing framework, for instance. The hardest parts–the novel contribution, the original insight–can turn into excellent prose but only after they have been polished and revised and edited and revised again.
  • Scholars write to share knowledge, not to perfect prose. To achieve the near-perfection of the writing in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald (and his editor; see below) revised portions of the manuscript repeatedly–sometimes, a score or more passes. When one is creating literature, that sort of dedication counts. Few scholars aspire to that sort of perfection in their prose because it’s not necessary. Eventually, holding back a paragraph for yet another round of revision is too costly to bother with: someone else may scoop your results, for instance, but more generally if an argument or finding is good and has been proven then there is no reason to hold it back forever.  Doing so, in fact, can hold back scholarship.
  • Academic writers lack institutional support. Good writing requires good editing, and good editing costs money. Celebrated authors in quality venues–the New Yorker, The Atlantic, and so on–benefit from the labors of skilled editors who can, if required, spin gold from authorial straw. Few universities can subsidize that. In 2018, even few publishing houses can subsidize that. Comparing academics who lack those resources with journalists or other writers who have them will always make academics look the worse.
  • Academic writing is part of a broader conversation. An academic journal article or book is meant to join in a longer conversation. That means that almost every one of them begins in medias res, an interjection into a conversation that may have been ongoing for decades (or, in the case of political theory, millennia). To maximize its value to the conversation, any given publication should want to spend the most time laying out its original contribution and the minimum of time setting the stage. Of course, for lay people, the stage-setting may be the most important part, which might explain why they find any given article to be impenetrable.
  • Academic writing prizes novelty and consequence, not recapitulation. As a corollary to the last point, academic writing might seem bad because it does not bother to recapitulate what everyone agrees upon as significant or to investigate the interesting findings that everyone already knows. Instead, academics publish to advertise their newest intellectual wares, rather than retelling good stories or rehashing what’s already known. To a really staggering extent, the opposite is true of many best-selling, or at least good-selling, nonfiction books stocked in Barnes & Noble, many of which say little new to specialists but can entrance audiences with the research equivalent of greatest-hits covers.

    The Quality of Writing Depends on Its Audience

    These answers cannot satisfy the most dedicated critics of scholarly writing. There is something welcome in the critics’ reluctance to be sated: many of them, after all, object to bad academic writing because they think that there is something of value to the public that bad prose hides from them. If only that value could be unlocked with better writing, the critics assert, then the public could benefit more from it.

Often, academics’ use of jargon serves as a particular target of these critics’ ire. Complaints about jargon decry how academics’ use of jargon denies them a wider audience. Yet not every piece of writing aims for a wide audience, or needs it. Jargon and other shorthands allow specialists to communicate about specialized topics with other specialists. That is as true–if less urgent–for gender-studies professors talking with gender-studies professors, or physicists writing for physicists, as it is for air-traffic controllers talking with pilots.

This is the great disconnect between the critics and ordinary scholars: Not everything in scholarship matters on its own for the broader community. That does not make it irrelevant. Scholars working with other scholars may use specialized tools to discover knowledge of wider interest. Yet that does not imply that the wider public has an urgent need in understanding those schools or in seeing the scaffolding that supports the research.

Often, when the public inquires into a field’s discovery, their attitude resembles that of the Pentagon cliche: just tell me the time, don’t tell me how to build the watch. Certainly that is my approach to many books I read outside of my field. When I read David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here, a fascinating and well-written review of contemporary advances in human DNA research, I was interested to know more about how methodological advances in retrieving ancient DNA enabled the findings–but if I want to know the details of that method, I’m going to have to turn to the real scientific literature. Had Reich included that level of detail in his book, it would have undermined the project’s mission of communicating the important findings to a lay audience. Reich’s book serves as a successful example of science communication because it is well-written, accessible, and general–but that also makes it a terrible piece of  scholarship. That’s okay: it’s not supposed to be scholarship. It’s a communication of scholarship. And those are different missions.

The quality of writing depends on its audience. Allegedly bad academic prose might in fact be high-quality reasoning easily accessible to its intended audience. What lay audiences take to be good writing because it is engaging and provocative may be execrably bad when measured by other standards.

Given the Context, Academic Prose Isn’t Distinctively Bad

Considering the burdens and intentions of academic writing, it’s amazing that is isn’t worse. Nor does it appear distinctively bad. Only those directly involved with a case read bad legal prose; doctors do not write all that often, and if they all took up the pen it’s unlikely they would be as good as Atul Gawande. Most journalists write formulaically–a star like Taffy Brodesser-Akner stands out for her celebrity profiles, but most examples of that type do not deserve such acclaim. And so on.

Indeed, if we consider much academic writing to be more like field notes or cookbooks, it suddenly doesn’t seem that bad after all. My methodology reference books aren’t designed to be read in one sitting.  I suspect my current academic reading, Douglas Irwin’s Clashing Over Commerce, was designed to be used in seminars (it has exactly as many chapters as one would need to assign one per week in a traditional semester) or as a reference for writers, like me, who need to know the history of trade one era at a time. Complaints about the structures of academic books or the reading habits of academics who don’t consume books from start to finish need to acknowledge that many genres of books outside the academy are designed with similar skimming in mind. Cookbooks, for instance, are also meant to be consumed nonlinearly, and nobody argues that they ruin reading habits.

What lies behind so many of these complaints, I suspect, is a longing for a never-was era of professors who were as comfortable conducting cutting-edge research as they were explaining its meaning to general audiences–and who, in turn, could discuss other discipline’s findings with an equal facility as they could their own. My brain insists on imagining this avatar as Lionel Trilling in a brown wool suit with a gently smoking pipe.

But that person never existed, or at least hasn’t since Aristotle, and can’t today. Knowledge production is so specialized an endeavor that its labors have been divided more or less finely according to the extent of its market. As any good Smithian would expect, this leads to vastly increased efficiency; as any good Marxist would expect, it also produces a phenomenal amount of alienation of labor. Both processes, of course, contribute to the flood of prose that critics damn.

Can academics do better? Sure. Individual academics can abandon the passive voice when they write and allow for some flair when they review. Institutions and disciplinary associations can sponsor scholars who want to spend some time translating expert conversations into accessible prose. And the culture of the academy could shift even just a little bit more toward valuing openness.

But our critics could improve as well. At the very least, they could find some new hobby-horses to ride–and maybe ask their legislator to fund in-house editors at universities.