On Why (Most) Academic Writing is so Terrible

writing“Academic research is often driven by real passion, but by the time it turns into scholarly prose, the heat has long since dissipated,” writes The Chronicle of Higher Education columnist, former academic-press editor, and writing professor Rachel Toor in her latest column, “Writing with Soul.” For years I have appreciated Toor’s direct and honest advice. As someone who espouses the principle of “professional tough love,” meaning that I believe it better to give and receive hard truths than offer empty praise, I think Toor’s work generally promotes a sense of straightforward advice that most graduate students and junior faculty would prefer to otherwise ignore. I often hear in her years of experience a voice given to views or intuitions I already have, but have found difficult to express due to the absence of the examples and illustrations from which she draws in her columns. Such is yet again the case in her recent piece.

I have been frustrated with the generally poor quality of academic writing for years — and here I’m referring primarily to theology, my own field, but recognize this is a much broader phenomenon. As Toor points out, oftentimes the motivation for a given article, conference paper, or monograph originates from a place of passion and commitment for a topic, thinker, or cause. However, the finished product turns out to be frequently dry, convoluted, arcane, pretentious, long-winded, jargon-laden, or just poorly written. Toor summarizes what is missing in a word: soul.

Far too much “academic writing” lacks soul, Toor insists. I agree. She explains that in the case when writing lacks soul, it can appear as though the text was written by some machine or generic producer of “academese” nonsense that aims to be “objective” and ultimately occludes the author entirely. Toor explains: “Indeed, one of the problems with much scholarly writing it that we can’t see the men and women—with sweaty hands and occasionally overfull stomachs or caffeine-buzzed nervous systems—who compose it. It seems, often, to come straight from central processors, with formatted bullet points, weak verbs, and multisyllabic Latinate phrases.”

She explains what is meant by writing with soul.

Writing with soul doesn’t have to be personal, confessional, or raw, but it can’t be pretentious or inflated. Most of the great essayists knew that a plain style didn’t hurt. Sit down with Montaigne, Addison and Steele, Hazlitt, Goldsmith, Bacon, and Lamb and you’ll feel like you’re in a tavern or a book-lined private study, chatting with a smart, wise, and often witty friend. Academics learn to dress their ideas in bulletproof, jargon-ridden suits, to parry attacks before they are launched, to make small and careful points rather than allowing themselves to be vulnerable by pitching big and strange ideas in direct and forceful sentences. But that is not the path to making yourself compelling as a writer.

I remember when I was an undergrad simultaneously studying theology and journalism. At one point one of my theology professors gave me what I came to later realize was very bad advice. The concern was that my writing style in theological essays seemed too concise and “journalistically” and that my style in writing for theology should be more elaborate, lengthier and, essentially, filled with more jargon. The implication was that this is what a “theological essay” should look and feel like, this is what is makes a scholarly essay. And that is simply wrong.

It is not some scholarly platonic idea of a “scholarly essay” in which your essay participates or according to which it should be modeled that makes it legitimate. It is your ideas, research, cogency, and ability to intelligently convey those ideas that makes it legitimate. Yet, like my well-meaning professor a decade ago and so many grad students, people continue to think this is the case and that they need to emulate what is essentially bad writing in order to “be taken seriously” or to “sound scholarly.” What makes something scholarly is its original contribution according to good research and a good argument. And, counterintuitively, crappy writing according to some preconceived “academic style” can actually obscure and ultimately undercut that intended goal.

Rachel Toor warmed my heart with the following paragraph.

The moves that academics tend to make in their prose are often antithetical to “soulful” writing. Long, windy, semicolon-flecked sentences with recycled and ready-made phrases can create barriers that establish distance between writer and subject, author and reader. Often when I’m reading academic work not only do I feel like there’s no soul, I feel like it’s not even written by humans. Or for humans.

One reason I love this paragraph so much, as my former students and many of current colleagues know, is that I believe that semi-colons are a gateway drug to terrible writing. There is almost never a reason that one needs to use a semi-colon (the one exception is in a complicated series in which several commas are already in use, but even then one could technically rework it to avoid using semi-colons). Unlike periods, commas, and colons, the semi-colon is almost entirely elective. And, quite unfortunately, like commas and colons (to name but two), the semi-colon is almost always misused or at least imprudently used. When tempted to use a semi-colon, consider writing two tighter independent sentences. Your ideas will be more concisely and clearly expressed, thereby strengthening your argument and presentation.

In these summer months when so many students and scholars are working on this or that project, it might be a good time to take Toor’s comments to heart and reconsider how one appropriates good and bad writing habits. If you’re the type of person who thinks that she or he “needs to sound a certain way” and struggles to replicate an “academic style” of a platonic sort — stop right now. Focus on the content of what you’re saying and say it in the way that comes naturally to you. Work on it so it is technically correct (grammar, punctuation use, vocabulary, etc.), but please do not perpetuate the bad habits of academic-writing mythology.

There is no such thing as “good academic writing.” Good writing is good writing. Period.

If we all do our part to write with soul, maybe academic writing won’t always be so terrible.

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8 Responses to “On Why (Most) Academic Writing is so Terrible”

  1. The best rule I’ve learned for more dynamic writing: count the number of words in your sentences. The length between consecutive sentences should vary. If all your sentences have more than ten words, you’re not writing the way most people talk. Try for every third sentence to have eight words or less.

  2. I think academe is in real trouble. On the one hand, there’s an increasing desire to have a student as consumer/customer, which means they’re often more interested in the piece of paper and a grade at the end than actual learning. On the other hand, the schools’ administrations are increasingly doing away with tenured positions and going with poorly-paid adjuncts with no job security. In the middle is the drive to “publish or perish,” which is the backbone of any academic career. When professors are driving 1-2 hours between classes and barely making ends meet, it’s hard to remember the love you had for your field. (And this doesn’t get into the other side of American society that is deeply anti-intellectual and would love nothing more than to see higher ed burn.)

    I’m not sure what the answer is. I think it’s a deeper problem with our society.

    I’ll grant your point about semicolons, but I’m not giving up my Oxford comma.

  3. Fred Brown Says:

    Someone after my own heart! As a writing instructor at a community college I have for years exhorted my students to make their writing “fishy” — Clear, Organized, and Detailed. (Get it? — COD) Too many times I find my students trying to “sound” scholarly, and in the process they lose their voice and clarity. I explain that writing should be considered conversation in which the writer’s “listener” is absent but still needing the same direct use of language that we employ as speakers (minus the slang, slurring, (and swearing) we sometimes employ in speech).

  4. AMEN! As a writer, I was floored when I took a graduate course in theology this past semester. Such unbelievably bad writing! I was actually so annoyed that I had to consciously adjust my expectations, and turn on the academic translator part of my brain, in order to even get through it.

    it remains to be seen whether my research paper will pass muster. I fear it may have been too direct.

  5. Great article! Through working with a variety of post-secondary students, from first year all the way up to the graduate level, I can definitely attest to the points you make in this post.

  6. Fr. Matt Says:

    The best thing about the semi-colon in high school writing is that when it is used properly, I know the sentence was plagiarized!

  7. “What makes something scholarly is its original contribution according to good research and a good argument. And, counterintuitively, crappy writing according to some preconceived “academic style” can actually obscure and ultimately undercut that intended goal.”

    Well said.

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