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.”