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Resources for recovering academic writers

from Blair Fix

Hello, my name is Blair Fix. I’m a recovering academic writer.

Let me explain. I’m convinced that a major part of grad school is learning to decipher academic prose. Let’s face it — academic writing is usually bad. It’s dense. It’s jargon filled. It’s often monotonous. In short, academic writing begs the reader not to read it.

So a big part of grad school is learning how to read prose that was designed not to be read. This takes great effort and a healthy dose of masochism. If you’ve learned how to read academese, I commend you.

Having learned how to read academic prose, the next step in grad school is to learn how to write this way yourself. Writing like fellow academics signals that you’re ready to join the guild. Your lofty ideas belong in the academic pantheon.

I’ll use myself as an example. During my master’s degree, I did lots of academic signalling. Check out my master’s thesis. It’s a dense fog of verbiage that’s almost unreadable.

So you finish grad school. Congratulations! You’ve learned to read and write like an academic. What’s next?

Recovery.

Take a hard look at your writing. Is it designed to be read? Or is it designed to be cited? If it’s the latter, then you need recovery. You need to unlearn the bad habits you acquired in grad school. Rather than write for the guild, you must learn how to write prose that is intelligible to the non-expert.

As a recovering academic writer, I’ve spent the last few years (re)learning how to write well. Below is a list of resources that have helped me. I hope they aid your recovery as well.

Writing guides for recovering academic writers

1. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

This is the classic manual for clear writing. First published in 1920, most of its advice is still sound. The advice that sticks with me most: “Omit needless words“.

Take a close look at any article that you find hard to read. You’ll probably find that many of the words are unnecessary. To recover from academic writing, your first step should be to jettison the filler words that clog your text. Here’s Strunk and White:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

2. Politics and the English Language by George Orwell

This is George Orwell’s famous rant against the prose used by those in power. The quote that sticks with me: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible”.

While Orwell’s rant was directed at politicians (and their apologists), it contains good advice for recovering academic writers. One tip is to ditch pretentious vocabulary. I’m reminded of Orwell’s rant whenever I talk to people in management. Managers don’t use things — they utilize them. And managers don’t speed up a process — they expedite it.

I’m convinced that the purpose of this pretentious language is to signal that you’re part of a club. Managers talk differently than their subordinates as a way to signal superiority.

I think academics writers do the same thing. I used to quickly write down ideas in plain English. Then I would translate them into academese. You see, the plain-written idea didn’t sound important. I needed to signal my academic pedigree by using pretentious language. Thanks in part to Orwell, I’m recovering from this habit.

3. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser

What I like about good writing-advice books is that they demonstrate good writing. Here is Zinsser making his point with clarity and force:

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

Zinsser also does something that many writing-advice books don’t. He shows us how he’s edited a first draft. We get to see the first copy of a paragraph from his book, marked up with all the needless words that Zinsser has removed. Then we get to read the clean final copy.

I also like that Zinsser stresses how difficult good writing is. In fact, Zinsser admits that he doesn’t like writing. He likes rewriting. I feel the same way.

I dread writing the first draft of a new paper. It’s tedious, difficult, and filled with dead ends. But once I’ve finished the rough draft, I enjoy rewriting. When you rewrite, you’re clarifying your thinking.

4. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams

This is one of the most detailed writing-advice books that I’ve read. It’s full of examples and practice questions.

Williams touches on many areas of bad writing. If I had to choose one point, it would be to avoid nominalizations. A ‘nominalization’ is when you convert a verb to a noun. Take the clear sentence: “We investigated the matter”. To make the sentence less clear, just nominalize the verb ‘investigate’. You get: “The agency conducted an investigation into the matter”. Academic prose is littered with nominalizations. Recovering academic writers need to ditch this habit.

Another great part of Williams’ book is that he shows how to structure sentences. No, I don’t mean how to write with correct grammar. I mean how to structure sentences so they are cohesive and accent your point. William’s advice is to begin sentences with information familiar to your readers. You should end sentences with information that readers cannot anticipate.

5. How to Write a Great Research Paper by Simon Peyton Jones

This writing guide is different that the ones above. It’s not a book. It’s a youtube talk:

There are so many things that I like about this talk. Jones stresses that the job of a writer is to pass on ideas. Good writers infect other hosts minds with their idea.

I also like Jones’s formatting advice. First off, ditch the meta summary at the end of your introduction. This is the sentence that says: “The rest of this paper is structure as follows. In Section 1 we … “.

Jones points out a dirty secret: no on ever reads this meta description. So don’t bother writing it. Instead, use forward references. Tell people about your findings, and reference the sections as you go. For instance: “We find that the first step of recovery is to admit that you are a bad academic writer (Section 2)”.

Another great point: put your literature review near the end of the paper. Think about this. Before we write about our research, academic writers bombard readers with what other people have said. This is masochistic. The point of a literature review is to compare your research with others. So why not do this after you’ve told people about you findings? It will make your paper far more readable.

Final Thoughts

They say that addicts don’t recover until they’ve hit rock bottom. The problem with academic writing is that there is no rock bottom. You can spend your whole academic career as a bad writer with no bad consequences. As long as you communicate successfully to your guild, you’ll do fine.

But this is a narrow-sighted way to do science. I think scientists have a mission to spread knowledge. Yes, this means talking to other guild members. But it also means talking to non-experts.

John Hawks makes this point poignantly. If you’re an academic writer who is skeptical that you need recovery, think about Hawks’ words:

Your education cost a lot of time for yourself and a lot of money, either for yourself or somebody else. Your work may have been funded by governments, universities, or private foundations. Your education may have been funded by your parents. They have asked you for nothing but good work. But you can repay them with more than this: you can explain why your work is valuable, making it clear to everyone why their money and your time have been well spent.

As a recovering academic writer, my goal is to write so that my parents can understand my research. Since they read this blog, they can let me know when I’m successful.

  1. Econoclast
    October 19, 2019 at 1:30 am

    What an excellent post, thanks. I’m an old man with much time for reading. When I read academic prose in any field I gag and can no longer continue for all the reasons listed here.

    My own experience is that, a decade or so after finishing my 5 years of graduate school I discovered after writing a letter to my parents that it sounded like a journal article, and I was horrified. This major moment of discovery began a long period of recovery, conscious change in my writing, good enough to later make a living as a writer and editor.

    Strunk and White belong in everyone’s writing library. I like the rest of the list here. For dealing with punctuation and grammar, about which some readers obsess, I strongly recommend a delightful book, Lynne Truss’s “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”.

  2. October 19, 2019 at 3:59 am

    Well said.

    But be warned: if you write (and speak) so people can understand you, they might ask you some awkward questions. Can you stand to have an actual discussion or debate about your ideas? Or do you just want people to go “Gosh, that’s impressive, he must be very clever”?

    Oh and don’t take the “rules” too seriously.

  3. Jan Milch
    October 19, 2019 at 10:49 am

    Writing, Typing, and Economics -John Kenneth Galbraith.
    “On Writing, Inspiration, and Simplicity”
    https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1978/03/writing-typing-and-economics/305165/

  4. Robert Locke
    October 19, 2019 at 11:42 am

    It depends on what you studied and when. I got a PhD in history; learning how to write clear, serviceable prose was part of my education, and part of the education I gave my graduate students as a history professor. I’ve spent hours rewriting their papers and book manuscripts in order to get clarity in expression, economy of words, and thought. You are talking about how people in the social sciences screwed up the language and thought; the humanities to the extent that that they been transformed by social science, suffer from that. Read my books, beginning with French Legitimists and the Politics of Moral Order in the Early Third Republic (Princeton UP, 1974), etc. and your find well thought through, researched, and presented work, and no jargon.

  5. October 20, 2019 at 5:19 pm

    I’ve enjoyed all this, but I have a different take on it, as I am not an academic writer, I am an intuitive thinker, tending to see meanings rather than the words in which are expressed. Going through Blair Fix’s headings in order:

    I write concisely because I see so much at a time that I lose sight of its context if I try to spell it all out. The solution I found in the NATO codification of stores was to use what they call a ‘reference pattern’ rather than distinguishing similar items by their producing different answers to a questionaire (an ‘identification pattern’). Thus I try to use words which people already know the meaning of, or if they don’t, they can look up. However, while the resultant dense prose suits we – I can see the whole picture at once – I came to realise people who don’t think visually need time to take in the significance of the words they are seeing, so that seemingly redundant information may be serving a logical function. I’ve learned something similar from a guy speaking about a need for “white space”.

    Orwell is great, but a lot of him came from G K Chesterton, whose Christianity for some reason he detested. Chesterton, a student originally of art, wrote so well he was offered a chair in literature at Glasgow University, but turned it down because he wanted to teach non-academics through the medium of journalism. Reading him now, some people see waffle (my late friend called it “cant”). Others find gems, with the apparently redundant information building an appropriate context for strikingly concise aphorisms of the type Merijn Knibbe wrote of recently as ‘memes’. [Someone – probably his wife! – complied a book of them]. Two examples that I have found particularly significant are the discussion of a picture “Hope” in an appreciation the art of G F Watts (1904), interpreted in a novel of the same year as our having a two-sided brain, which anticipates Jungian personality theory and my own work on databases split between indexes and data. The other is in “Whats Wrong With the World”, i.e. not seeing the difference between men and women, which is very interesting when you think of the birds and the bees, with the males tempting females with fine clothing and housing .(Even if, in acquiring this, the men come to see in this wealth reflections of themselves; c.f. the Greek story of Narcissus). Economists would do well to reflect on the ‘complex’ (two dimensional) meme:

    * “Survival is not just about food: it is primarily about reproduction.

    After the Great War, his becoming a Catholic and continuing his late brother’s Distributist economics did not so much expose GKC to Geoff Davies’ questioning (though there were noteworthy debates with the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and H G Wells). What happened was that he was ridiculed for his Christianity by people ignorant of it, and the academy virtually wrote him off as a serious thinker.

    The ignoring and ignorant misrepresentation of Keynes and other heterodox economists so rampant today, however, are as nothing compared with Capitalist reaction to John Ruskin’s case, “Unto This Last” for the affordability of what we now think of as a Citizen’s Income. He describes it mildly himself. In his thesis on Jevons’s “Mechanical Reasoning”, Harrow Maas ends his summing up with a contemporary quotation:

    “It was generally thought that Ruskin, who by them was considered THE outstanding art critic, had put his reputation jeopardy through his work on political economy. It was referred to as ‘one of the most melancholy spectacles of the year; and the Saturday Review wrote of ‘eruptions of windy hysterics’, ‘absolute nonsense’, ‘utter imbecility’, ‘intolerable twaddle’ and characterised Ruskin himself as ‘a perfect paradigm of blubbering’.”

    Blair Fix’s third heading does not speak to me as a visual thinker. I do rewrite, but as I go, for otherwise the rewrite is liable to end up starting from a different context. I find the fourth and fifth sections (on style and ordering) provide some thought-provoking advice.

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