Defuzzification, Helen Sword

Helen Sword takes a stand against horrible academic prose.

When I tell people I have recently published a book called Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard University Press, 2012), they usually crack a smile. Like military and intelligence or jumbo and shrimp, the words stylish and academic seem unlikely bedfellows. Open any peer-reviewed journal from just about any academic discipline, and you will find sentences like this one:

Unlike the consuming woman’s relationship with the fashion doll and, by extension, the experience of novel reading, identifying with the automaton derives from and creates a thwarted, rather than expanded image of self. [Literary studies]

Or this:

The defuzzification is then quantified using center of gravity and introduced as the Signal-to-Noise (S/N) ratio to Taguchi experiment and thus the optimum deduction parameters can then be received. [Applied sciences]

Or this:

These deconstructive and theorising inputs to the conversation are less about finding out how to better (ie more effectively) succumb to neo-liberal or economic rationalist discourses of effectiveness and completion, and more about critically exploring, for example, how those discourses may be operative and regulatory, what they make possible and impossible, and how they compete with other available discourses about the course and purpose of postgraduate research and supervision. [Higher education]

 

Many adjectives come to mind as one reads these masterpieces of scholarly abstruseness, but “stylish” is unlikely to be one of them.

Why do academics – intelligent people who ought to know better – persist in churning out so much wooden, wordy, determinedly unstylish prose? In a now-classic 1993 New York Times Book Review article called “Dancing with Professors”, Patricia Nelson Limerick speculates that academics write badly not because they want to but because they think they have to:

Professors believe that a dull writing style is an academic survival skill because they think that is what editors want, both editors of academic journals and editors of university presses. What we have here is a chain of misinformation and misunderstanding, where everyone thinks that the other guy is the one who demands, dull, impersonal prose.

 

Like captives who refuse to run away even when the gates have been unlocked, we sit in a stylistic prison of our own making and bemoan the strictness of our guards.

Cultural evolutionists Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd note in their book Not by Genes Alone (2005)that human beings are programmed to learn by imitation, not by reason. Unless we are prodded by curiosity or deprivation to search for new ways of doing things, we copy familiar cultural patterns without stopping to wonder why. Cultures evolve, Richerson and Boyd argue, only when “individuals modify their own behavior by some form of learning, and other people acquire their modified behavior by imitation”. By this logic, the current tautology in which we spin – academics write badly because badly is how academics write – will be derailed only when enough pioneering individuals have published stylish counter-prototypes for others to emulate.

Fortunately, there is already no shortage of inspiring models. In the past few years, I have conducted writing workshops for academics and PhD students at dozens of universities on five continents. I always start by asking participants to name researchers in their own discipline whose writing they admire and to describe the key characteristics of their work. From Sweden to South Africa, from Palmerston North to Princeton, my colleagues’ responses are remarkably consistent: stylish academic writers, they tell me, convey complex ideas in lively, well-crafted prose that engages readers, tells stories, expresses passion, employs concrete examples and avoids gratuitous jargon.

Unfortunately, very few academics follow these inspiring models’ lead. How do I know? In search of “stylish academic writing” to include in my book, I looked at the work of more than 100 writers recommended to me by their peers as the best in the business. These eminently stylish academics, I found, employ some very concrete, specific and transferable techniques to hook and hold their readers, for example:

  • interesting, eye-catching titles and subtitles;
  • first-person anecdotes or asides that humanise the author and give the text an individual flavour;
  • catchy opening paragraphs that recount an interesting story, ask a challenging question or dissect a problem;
  • concrete nouns (as opposed to nominalised abstractions such as “nominalisation” or “abstraction”) and active, energetic verbs (as opposed to forms of be, and bland standbys such as make, find or show);
  • examples, examples, and more examples;
  • visual illustrations beyond the usual Excel-generated pie charts and bar graphs (such as photographs, manuscript facsimiles, drawings, diagrams, reproductions);
  • references to a broad range of academic, literary and historical sources, indicative of wide reading and collegial conversations both within and outside their own fields;
  • scatterings of humour, whether explicit or understated.

 

Next, I conducted a stylistic analysis of 1,000 recent peer-reviewed articles from 10 different disciplines across the sciences, social sciences and humanities. Sadly, only a small percentage of the articles I examined bore any resemblance to the engaging, carefully crafted prose that academics themselves say they prefer to read.

Indeed, little has changed since Limerick wrote her New York Times article nearly two decades ago:

The current social and judicial context for higher education makes this whole issue pressing. In Colorado, as in most states, the legislators are convinced that the university is neglecting students and wasting state resources on pointless research. Under those circumstances, the miserable writing habits of professors pose a direct and concrete danger to higher education. Rather than going to the state legislature, proudly presenting stacks of the faculty’s compelling and engaging publications, you end up hoping that the lawmakers stay out of the library and stay away, especially, from the periodical room, with its piles of academic journals. The habits of academic writers lend powerful support to the impression that research is a waste of the writers’ time and of the public’s money.

 

Replace a few key nouns (eg. “state legislature” becomes “Parliament”), and Limerick might as well be talking about academic publishing in 2012 New Zealand rather than 1993 Colorado. The only difference is that we no longer have to go to the periodicals room of the library to track down examples of cringe-worthy articles. The three sentences quoted at the beginning of this essay all appeared, like the majority of scholarly publications today, online.

Inevitably, many academics have become fed up with writing jargon-ridden articles for a small cadre of pernickety peers. Despite long-standing scholarly prejudices against “journalistic” prose, some have begun to seek new venues and wider audiences for their research. Others have pushed academic conventions from within, producing unapologetically lucid, jargon-free articles aimed at specialist audiences. Ominous forces, however, militate against this encouraging trend. The PBRF – the Performance-based Research Fund on which New Zealand universities now depend for a significant proportion of their government funding – privileges citation rates over local impact and convention over experimentation.

Meanwhile, academics both in New Zealand and overseas are increasingly being pressured to publish primarily in international journals, a situation that adds to the already enormous number of poorly-written, convention-driven research articles circulating in the global marketplace.

In his influential book Scholarship Reconsidered (1990), educator Ernest Boyer notes that “the work of the professor becomes consequential only as it is understood by others”. If academics truly want to publish consequential work – research that will be understood and valued by others – they need to set their sights higher than the lowest common denominator. They need to find the courage to emulate the best academic writers, not the status quo. “Stylish academic writing” will remain an oxymoron only for those who make no effort to engage, impress and inspire their readers.

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