Why Is Academic Writing So Bad? A Brief Response to Stephen Walt

On his Foreign Policy blog, Stephen Walt picks up on a Daily Dish thread and asks, “Why is academic writing so bad?” He suggests a few reasons but concludes that, for the most part, scholars write poorly on purpose. In his view, bad writing is “a form of academic camouflage designed to shield the author from criticism.”

Is this really such a mystery, though? Writing well is hard to do, and it depends in no small part on talent. Like all talents, the ability to write well is probably distributed normally across the population. Most people are mediocre at it, some are really bad, and some are really good. Scholars just happen to work in a profession where writing is the preferred form of communication. Map that normal distribution onto a profession that churns out a ton of writing, and you’ll get the result we see.

Walt’s argument implies that most scholars could write well but choose not to. I find that hard to believe. I think the kind of dense, jargony writing Walt sees as camouflage is actually easier for most people to produce than the concise writing he rightly prefers. Skill and good editing are what get you from the former to the latter. Skill varies widely, and anyone who’s ever written for an academic journal or press knows that peer reviewers and editors usually give you zero help with your prose.

What’s more interesting, I think, is why academia doesn’t select for writing skill, given how much writing scholars are expected to do. You don’t see a lot of terrible writing in top newspapers and magazines because editors don’t want to hire and retain journalists who make their jobs that much harder. Orchestras don’t hire musicians who have great ideas about melody and harmony but can’t play.

Of course, it’s possible that academia would reward excellent writing if it got the chance, but the best writers are simply choosing to take their skills elsewhere. I suspect this self-sorting process does play a role. Writing for a living doesn’t make very many people rich, but neither does scholarship, and writers have a lot more room to be playful in their work outside academia.

Still, as a social scientist, I have to think that incentives within the profession have some effect, too. When reading each others’ work, scholars (ahem) tend to skim. Readers of quantitative papers often jump to the charts and tables summarizing the results and only selectively scan the other bits. The intended audiences for most academic writing are colleagues who speak the same jargon. Peer reviewers care a lot more about the novelty of one’s findings than the quality of the language used to convey them. In this environment, scholars can’t expect to be rewarded for time spent making marginal improvements to their prose, and they behave accordingly. As Trey Causey put it on Twitter this morning, “Everyone admires work that’s important and well-written. No one cares about unimportant but well-written work.”

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21 Comments

  1. The real culprit here? Page minimums. Many papers I have written could have been half as long as they were had there not been a required number of pages.

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  2. Interesting thoughts.

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  3. Oral Hazard

     /  February 16, 2013

    You are what you eat, and monkey see, monkey do. When you write a scholarly piece, chances are you’re exclusively consuming, immersing yourself in, really, a diet of drecky academic style. So you tend to unconsciously synthesize the stylistic, as well as substantive, content of the ideas you blend into your own work. Couple that with the fact that most people aren’t stylistic trendsetters themselves, and voila! Dreck begets dreck.

    Eat an eclectic balanced diet of well-written pieces you admire stylistically when you write. Keeps you out of the regurgitative rut.

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  4. Agrees, but some academics DO tend to use jargon, to obfuscate the lack of empirical research or sound arguments. Kevin Clements, of Peace research…one such example. But I personally find, being an IR – Econ researcher, all this Peace research people quite jargony, and wishy washy.

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  5. Desert Gate has it right, at least for the quantitative articles (which, as we know, Walt is not overly fond of). If the main point of the article is a graph or table—and it usually is—then we should be following the norm of the natural sciences (see Science or Nature) and provide just enough prose to make the quantitative results understandable to an expert in the field and if that can be done in ten or fewer pages, so much the better. Then periodically summarize these results in longer articles accessible to a wider public: again, see Science or Nature.

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    • Grant

       /  February 16, 2013

      That was the advice we were given in college, look at the graph and just read the preview. Personally I don’t think that’s the best way of having people check each other’s arguments but some of them are simply horrid.

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  6. I’ve given this topic some thought with respect to Talcott Parsons, who was arguably the most influential American sociologist of 20th century but who was unarguably an awful writer. In his particular case, the awful writing was in some intrinsic way linked to the mad systems-building mindset – which also explains why much of Hegel’s prose is awful. The counterpoint of Hegel’s writing to that of the ultimate anti-systemic thinker, Nietzsche, is striking. And perhaps telling. Consider the difference, likewise, between Marx’s wonderful writing in his non-systematizing stuff (18th Brumaire, the Manifesto) and the mainly lugubrious prose of Kapital. Another variable to consider

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  7. Many in the academy are not especially bright – they are, rather, highly educated. It’s in their best interest to fudge the difference between intelligence and education. Hurling jargon at the wall is one way to do so.

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  8. I think your argument about standard distributions fail since academics are arguably much better writers than the general population. I also think you exaggerate the degree to which academia doesn’t select for good writing. It certainly does on a broad scale. Awful writers in a sense of not being able to put together sustained, logical, arguments get filtered out very quickly.

    Perhaps it is too simplistic to suggest that the criteria for “good writing” is context dependent? Or “subjective”? While there is certainly academic writing that is unnecessarily dense (anecdotally I’ve been told by colleagues that they’ve had papers rejected because they were too easy to read), it also happens to be the case that some academic subjects are complex and conceptually difficult to penetrate. Arguably, journalistic standards of good writing are not an appropriate standard for good academic writing since these kinds of writing serve different purposes.

    I’ve read a fair share of awfully written scientific papers (even by intra-disciplinary standards), but it’s hard to maintain that the that science journalism is better writing than what you find in specialist science journals because the former is more accessible to the average reader.

    Finally, writing in jargon-laden impenetrable prose is a practiced skill; I disagree that perpetrators are trying to write clearly but failing, or find it easier to write confusingly than to write concisely.

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    • Please ignore the ironic grammatical mistake in the second last paragraph; I should have known better than to try to post a comment via smart-phone.

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  9. As a doctoral student in her dissertation phase, I have been avoiding my own writing by reading blog posts about academic writing :) but it’s been insightful. I am in an arts based discipline and I will make one comment about talent vs. skill. People often do display natural talents and proclivities for artforms like writing or drawing but those things are skills which anyone can learn. I particularly enjoyed Raul Pacheco-Vega’s advice on improving academic writing which like many others has included frequent writing. It’s not a talent that you either have or you don’t, it’s a skill you can choose to cultivate and improve or not.

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    • I didn’t mean to suggest that writing was only a matter of talent, but I firmly believe it’s not only a matter of skill, either. Surely everyone can get better with practice, but not everyone is going to be great at it, even if they practice a lot. This is the same pattern we see across all kinds of activities. Take ten thousand kids and give them each ten thousand hours of golf lessons, and you’ll still only get a few who are good enough to go pro. I’ve personally bumped up against these limits at various times in my life as an aspiring athlete, musician, and writer, and I think we do ourselves a disservice if we pretend those limits aren’t there. Yes, by all means, everyone can get better with regular practice, but the learning curve will be flatter and level off lower for some than it will for others.

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  10. As an editor in the science world, I believe it is partly because although few people have more than a rudimentary understanding of grammar and language, most are convinced they know as much as or more than any editor. Even the freelance writers and editors I am sometimes forced to work with are usually terrible. Many people are incorrectly convinced that most edits are subjective. (Just because one does not understand why a change was necessary does not mean it wasn’t–”sex” and “gender” really aren’t interchangeable, and people are not “diagnosed.”) Nothing frustrates me more than having a physician with 0 years of training or employment as an editor delete my carefully placed commas from around a nonessential clause or change “showed” to “demonstrate.” (See the Council of Science Editors’ style guide for the difference.)

    Another reason for poor academic writing is because amateur writers write from their perspective instead of the reader’s. They forget that the reader may not have the same knowledge base and cannot see their thought process unless it is written out. Editors and professional writers know to put the reader first.

    Some science writers and editors also harbor the misguided notion that preserving the author’s voice is important even at the expense of clarity or accuracy. I have worked for medical publishing companies that excoriate editors for purging jargon or changing passive voice to active voice, claiming that these practices dilute the author’s voice. Does the author’s voice have any place in a scientific review of the literature on molecular mutations in lung cancer?

    I have lost hope of finding an employer who can look at an edited manuscript in track changes and understand the rationale for 95% of the revisions. I would settle for one who resists the urge to introduce errors into my writing.

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  11. NJ

     /  December 6, 2013

    Interesting post. You may well be right that writing is simply undervalued.

    I’m a consultant in international development (MA degree). I don’t work in academia or with academics, but I often work with PhDs. What I’m finding is that a lot of them write poorly – not in the sense that their prose is long-winded, jargony, or impenetrable (which it can be), but in the sense that their sentences convoluted, their argumentation shoddy, their grammar is often poor. It is so striking because it is unexpected. The writing can be so awful that it has me wondering at times whether they actually wrote their own dissertations. I guess I draw a correlation between one’s writing ability and thinking process.

    Perhaps because of the (few?) shining stars in the academic firmament who hog the media limelight, one tends to assume that PhDs are erudite and therefore should be top-notch writers. For a while I thought that PhDs who work in consulting were maybe unable to find work in academia (they represent the rejects, in other words). But now I’m not so sure.

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  12. If good writing is not a requirement for graduate studies, why do we need the GRE writing? Let’s throw that out. I believe that graduate students come in as great writers, and graduate school turns them into bad writers.

    Reply
  1. Academic Writing: For Better or Worse | Norman Paterson School of International Affairs
  2. Why Is Academic Writing So Bad? A Brief Response to Stephen Walt | International Literacy Management | Scoop.it
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