Based on the 23,000 people who viewed and shared it, you liked my post on writing tips and psychology. But those in academia were displeased. A typical comment:
I can only hope that the college students whose papers I have to read do not see this. Academically, this could be titled, “How to Fail a Research Paper”.
How would professors view my tips? They accept tips 6, 8, 9, and 10:
6 Cite numbers effectively. We agree on this.
8 Move key insights up. Academics write deductively, reasoning from causes to effects, which puts the big conclusion at the end. But good scholarly writing also puts the thesis up front.
9 Cite examples. Good academic writing, like all good writing, includes examples.
10 Give us some signposts. Disciplined academic writers explain where they’re going before they get there.
They reject tip 7.
7 Use “I,” “we,” and “you.” That’s just too informal for academic writing.
And they resist the first five tips, which violate academic tradition.
1 Write shorter. Academics must fill spaces (publish or perish; “write a 10-page paper”). Filling space means padding things, so there is a temptation to write long.
2 Shorten your sentences. Academics tend to write longer, more complex sentences to impress readers with their sophistication.
3 Rewrite passive voice. At this point, passive voice is an ingrained habit in academia. Academics see no reason to resist this habit. It’s mandatory in scientific papers since referring to the experimenters is forbidden.
4 Eliminate weasel words. Academics who are uncertain about their conclusions use weasel words like “generally” to leaves themselves an out.
5 Replace jargon with clarity. The academic community consists of small, tightly-knit group subgroups tied together by jargon.
This saddens anyone who hires and trains college graduates who learned to write in this stilted, arcane fashion. In the business world we need to retrain them before they can be useful.
The psychologist Steven Pinker wrote a brilliant analysis called “Why Academic Writing Stinks.” After rejecting three obvious explanations — they’re hiding their insecurity, writing about abstract subject matter, or writing to please gatekeepers in journals — he looks deeper. His basic thesis is that immersed in their own abstract concepts, professors naturally use jargon and complex sentences to communicate. They can’t express that sophisticated thinking in ways that the rest of us can read. As Pinker says:
They are not trying to bamboozle their readers; it’s just the way they think.
With the last gasp of Romanticism, the quelling of its florid uprising against the vapid formalism of one strain of the Enlightenment, the dimming of its yearning for the imagined grandeur of the archaic, and the dashing of its too sanguine hopes for a revitalized, fulfilled humanity, the horror of its more lasting, . . .
I’ve spared you the second half of that sentence, because I object to torture on moral grounds.
I have hope that that university writing may yet turn in the direction of power and clarity. But until that happens, you’ll be able to recognize its stilted formats instantly, regardless of the content, as this video clearly demonstrates. (Warning, do not watch while eating or drinking.)
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Note: the original title of this post was “Can academia be saved from bullshit?” That’s passive voice. I caught it and fixed it, and I apologize.