Friday, October 03, 2014


This post will only really interest people involved with academia. However, I really liked this piece from Steven Pinker based on his new book. For those of us who have suffered trying to read some of the indigestible prose that seeps out of universities, he attempts to explain a mystery, "Why Academics Stink at Writing".

He doesn't indulge in the fashionable view that obscurity is the product of appearing to be profound when you have nothing to say, instead he puts it down to something more simple. Clear writing is difficult.
When Calvin explained to Hobbes, "With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog," he got it backward. Fog comes easily to writers; it’s the clarity that requires practice.
Absolutely! And this brings me to one of my favourite, and usually completely ignored, big speeches. Students need good training in how to write - as well as how to think critically and spot rhetorical devices and dodgy arguments. And good writing means clarity obviously, but also something else - finding a voice, something distinctive, a way of expressing themselves that is their own and expresses what they want to say, not what the institution wishes to hear. And this is the bit that usually gets me into trouble, I think that the training should be a compulsory and accredited part of all degrees. Instead of being an add-on, it should be central. Not many academics agree.

Clear writing involves techniques that can be taught and learnt. How well they are used is something else and depends on the individual, but it is perfectly possible for good students to be let down by bad writing. Help is made available for all students, it is getting much better, but it is usually voluntary and when I see courses in academic writing being offered, I want to run one on how not to write like an academic. The trouble is, and I have been just as much at fault in doing this myself, we tend to give students a formula instead of a framework. The results are dull, endless repetitions of the same essays.

And all this applies to academics too - in spades. Pinker points out some common flaws - all of which can be found in my writing - that should be avoided. It is a guide that I will use. But if the foundations are laid properly at undergraduate level, we should be spared the awful tedium of an essential article in the Journal that Nobody in their Right Mind Should Read.

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