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The nonsense of style: Academic writing should be scrupulous not stylish

The problem with writing advice

The problem with the likes of Steven Pinker and Helen Sword is that they like their own writing way too much. But I don’t. Like their writing, that is. [1] I want to get some information from them and I want to get examples and counterexamples for the points they make. I want them to get to the point. I am not reading them for enjoyment, that’s what fiction is for. I am reading them to learn what they have to say and I have to wade through a morass of stories, pointless metaphors, geysers of words. They are aiming for eloquence but effluence would be a better term for what their reader gets.

Of course, they get high praise and esteem from their peers, everybody wants to write like Pinker, Gladwell or Sword. And obviously many people buy and read their books. So they must be doing something right. But my claim is that they focus far too much of crafting their sentences and far too little time on crafting their advice.

And what’s worse, they promote an environment where ‘writing well’ with style or panache is seen as a virtue. People are praised for that sort of writing and others are encouraged to emulate them. Sentences like “This was so well written, why can’t more academics write like this” proliferate. But it misidentifies the problem. When academic writing is bad, it is not because of the opacity of prose but rather because of the paucity of scrupulous argumentation.

Defending academic writing

The complaint that academic writing is needlessly dense and abstruse has become a cliche and gets far too little examination. Nobody (except many frustrated readers) is officially complaining that non-fiction writing is needlessly flowery and sprawling across many more pages than necessary. It prides itself on taking the reader on a journey of discovery but it’s actually all smoke and mirrors.

There is only one criterion that we should require of academic writing and that is the same requirement we should have of academic thinking. Scruples. Scrupulous writing will let the reader in on the uncertainty of knowledge, and messiness of the process of how knowledge is created. It will not try to write a press-release while presenting its argument. And it will not waste the reader’s time by taking them on a journey. Starting every single point it wants to make with a story!

Starting with academic reading

Academic writing needs to start with the recognition of what academic reading looks like. The vast majority of academic writing is not read like fiction or popular non-fiction. It is read to get the piece of information one needs or to get a gist of what the overall point is. So, having a clear outline with descriptive titles would be much more important than removing unnecessary adverbs. Having an abstract that summarises the key points made in bullet points helps more than using active verbs. Using vocabulary appropriate to the needs of the audience is much more useful than trying to avoid jargon or acronyms.

The first advice you need to give to an academic writer is not to read a book on stylish writing but rather to read how people in their field are writing. Because those are their potential readers. And in their writing, we see what they are expecting. So anything written in the manner they expect will make reading easier for them. Because there is no academic writing as such, there is only writing within disciplines and communities. And barging into a community and trying to change what it’s doing without invitation is not stylish, it is rude. [2]

Why are people reading and why are people writing? They are reading to discover the argument that the author is putting forward. And they are writing to put debate the arguments of others and to put forth more of their own. Their success in doing so should be our primary criterion. The success of academic writing is not some abstract readability score but the ability of the peers to identify and debate the argument it puts forward. [3]

Practical advice on composition: Shorter sentences

This is where we can give some practical advice. And the advice can be summarised in 3 words: 1. Write 2. shorter 3. sentences. Ignore everything about passives, jargon, conversational writing, whatever else the latest guide puts forward. Focus on keeping your average sentence to about 15 words. Not every sentence has to be that short but if you keep the average somewhere between 15 and 20 words, your writing will be easier to read.

Keeping sentences short is not only good for the reader, it is also good for the writer. Often a long sentence means muddled thought. If I find a sentence I wrote that’s longer than say 30 words, I often also find that the thought behind it is not clear enough. I had an idea in my mind that had too many assumptions and I had not put enough work into parsing out all the connections.

But not always, sometimes a longer sentence is better for both the writer and the reader. Text that is easy to understand is cohesive as well as coherent and too many short clauses will lack cohesion. The reader needs to know which things link together and making that explicit will make the text better.

The good news is that sentence length is easy to check without having to learn opaque grammatical concepts. We know that people most exercised about passives are least likely to actually spot them in the sentence. So why should we expect normal writers to pay attention to parts of speech or fine details of sentence structure. But anybody can paste their text into the free Hemingway Writer and see if they can shorten the sentences highlighted in red.[4] Doing it regularly will also give you a chance to focus on how sentences are put together.

Structure is king: Rich outlines

If you really care about your readers, make sure you make the outline of your writing explicit. Don’t just mark the normal sections like: Introduction or Conclusions. That is helpful for navigation but not understanding. Put headings inside these sections and have them every few paragraphs to summarise what you’re trying to say in those paragraphs. This will aid readers who are not reading your text in sequence to get the gist and also not to miss important points.

You may complain about the youths today not spending enough time on deep reading, but paradoxically, if the structure is marked clearly enough, people are likely to read more of the actual text, as well, because it breaks the work into smaller chunks. Particularly students or novices are often horrified by the walls and walls of undifferentiated texts they are asked to climb. Dividing it into smaller, labelled chunks makes the text more approachable and more likely to be read.

This rich outlining can be done while planning your writing, during writing or during revision. I often don’t start with an outline because I’m not yet clear on exactly what I want to say. But I always create an outline at some point. It helps me discover all the missing and inconsistent bits that are so easy to miss in an extended narrative.

And, finally, if you have an outline, share it with the reader. Put it at the top of the text. It could be a table of contents or just a list of bullets. Better still, put it in the abstract. It is infuriating, reading an abstract that says what the paper tries to show and not what it actually showed. [4]

All you need

And that’s it, clear explicit structure and moderately shorter sentences. No stories, no metaphors, no flourishes. No avoidance of passives or reduction of adverbs. No worries about technical language. Just these two. They will not only make the academic writing easier to read, they will also make it more scrupulous.

Self-criticism

Do I write as I say? Not always and not always perfectly. Some of my sentences do get long and my composition tends to the flowery. For example, the sentence about the importance of shorter sentences is the longest one of this post at 43 words. I thought about breaking it up but I liked its rhythm, so I left it. But my average sentence is 14 words and this makes the overall readability higher.

But that is the lot of anyone who writes about writing. The more strident your strictures, the more likely you are to fall afoul of them.

Notes

[1] For those who do not routinely read books on writing. The title of the post refers to a book by Steven Pinker “The Sense of Style” which is a lot to wade through for not very much useful advice. The other book I complain about is Helen Sword’s “Stylish Academic Writing”, which overall has better and more actionable advice than Pinker. But the problem with Sword is that many of the examples she sets out to change actually don’t need changing that much. And the examples she singles out for praise are questionable.

[2] The advice about how important it is pay attention about the language of the community you’re writing for is best summarised by Larry McEnerney in his talk about Writing beyond the academy.

[3] The importance of thinking about your writing as communicating with interested peers is often made by Thomas Basbøll) on his blog Inframethodology. But it is also the core of the argument of this paper by Cathy Birkenstein defending Judith Butler against the charge of incomprehensibility.

[4] The Hemingway App also tries to identify passives and adverbs. Feel free to entirely ignore its advice. Also, it computes a readability score which is useful. But all it does is count letters in words and words in sentences. It is easy to game just by randomly inserting periods through out the text. ****