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“Our academic journals radiate bad writing—I store my journals on the shelf farthest from my desk to avoid the fallout.” This is Paul Silvia’s take on the modus operandi of far too many academic writers.
What is “bad writing”?
It’s writing that …
- uses impenetrable English;
- revels in ambiguity;
- requires backtracking just to follow the point;
- ensures a slight readership by the specialization of its vocabulary;
- deploys arcane symbolism that intimidates readers;
- can be recommended as a soporific, even to specialists in the same field.
That’s my list.
Paul Silvia believes there are three reasons for bad writing among academic authors:
1. They want to sound smart.
2. They never learned how to write well.
3. They don’t spend enough time writing.
My list would be longer and more focused:
1. They don’t know good writing from bad writing. If all they read are journal articles and academic monographs, then they’re on a steady diet of poor writing. The best writing is nourished by close reading of the best of writers, both inside and outside one’s discipline.
2. They don’t believe that good writing matters. “Academic writing gets published without concern for stylistic quality, so why bother?” There are two reasons to bother. First, the academic writer should pursue excellence, rather than what is commonplace. Second, the best writing attracts more readers. The ratio of readers to authors of journal essays is appalling. Monographs are pricey because the expected readership is low. But the best writers within a discipline, because they reward their readers with more than originality of content, are read by more people, and they are read more faithfully by people who like their writing.
3. They believe that good writing will reduce their publication prospects. More academic authors are looking for opportunities to publish in the broader market. Their prospects are dim if they can’t write with style. Those who are content to write as academics for academics should understand that quality of writing that does not compromise quality of scholarship has a better chance of publication. And for those who write for interdisciplinary journals, the need is even greater, since non-specialists will need more help in their reading and more reasons to keep on reading.
4. They confuse good writing with casual writing, or popularizing. Writing with style means one thing when writing for peers, and something else when writing to inform or persuade Joe Six-Pack. A good writer understands this and adjusts her style accordingly.
5. They don’t realize that good writing can be learned. I have three suggestions for those who wish to improve their writing style.
First, read others who write with style. Observe their practices. Notice how they employ metaphors and similes. Look for sharp and arresting turns of phrase. Study transitions from paragraph to paragraph and from section to section. Look for patterns that explain their capacity to sustain interest. Think of this as a component in the research you do for your writing projects.
Second, spend time in carefully-selected books that point the way to improved style. Books of this kind should practice what they preach. Here are a few that I recommend:
Third, write more—with deliberate attention to style. Be patient with the process. Don’t expect too much too soon. Write a little everyday.
6. They’re impatient in their writing. Writing well, with style, takes more time and effort. Many writers simply don’t want to spend the time. They’re undisciplined writers who fancy themselves sufficiently productive simply because they have countless publications to their credit.
7. They think that to be a good writer you have to be a perfectionist. Not true. What you have to be is patient, persistent, and prioritized. Only the writer with meager styling skills believes that perfectionism is required. But a practiced writer, who habitually attends to matters of style, comes to write more naturally and comfortably. I venture to say that the best stylists have the easiest time of it and have the most fun doing it.
More good reading about bad writing:
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