Linguist and public intellectual Steven Pinker recently published an article, “Why Academics Stink at Writing.” That’s a topic that interests me! Like Pinker, I’ve done a lot of writing, both for technical and general audiences. Unlike Pinker, I have not done research on linguistics, but I’ll do my best to comment based on my own experiences.
Pinker begins as follows:
Together with wearing earth tones, driving Priuses, and having a foreign policy, the most conspicuous trait of the American professoriate may be the prose style called academese. . . . No honest professor can deny that there’s something to the stereotype. . . . But the familiarity of bad academic writing raises a puzzle. Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?
I’ll return at the end to the bit about “having a foreign policy”—this is the sort of laugh line that I think works better in a live speech than in a written article—but first I will discuss the ways in which I agree with Pinker’s claim that academic writing is difficult, and how I disagree with his explanations.
Where I agree
Pinker puts it well when he writes:
Fog comes easily to writers; it’s the clarity that requires practice. The naïve realism and breezy conversation in classic style are deceptive, an artifice constructed through effort and skill.
Writing is non-algorithmic. Just about every sentence I write, I need to reconfigure for the purpose of increasing clarity.
And, yes, I realize that the previous sentence is ugly; that’s actually part of my point, that when we put in the effort to make our sentences clearer, they can get ugly, and the sentences’ ugliness then gets in the way of understanding.
That’s part of what makes writing non-algorithmic: even when we know what we want to say, it can take lots of iterations to get there.
And I agree with Pinker that the lack of good feedback is a problem. Academics, like most other people, don’t get a lot of direct or indirect comments on their writing style, so they don’t learn well what has worked and what has not worked or how to do better.
Where I disagree
OK, so you all know about Sturgeon’s law (see above image).
To put it in the context of Pinker’s article: Why do academics stink at writing? Why does almost everybody stink at writing? Writing is hard.
But the familiarity of bad academic writing raises a puzzle. Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?
And also this:
A third explanation shifts the blame to entrenched authority. People often tell me that academics have no choice but to write badly because the gatekeepers of journals and university presses insist on ponderous language as proof of one’s seriousness. This has not been my experience, and it turns out to be a myth. In Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard University Press, 2012), Helen Sword masochistically analyzed the literary style in a sample of 500 scholarly articles and found that a healthy minority in every field were written with grace and verve.
The above seems completely consistent with the notion that it’s difficult to write well, that academics, just like other people, would like to write well but they don’t really know how.
Partly because the path to writing well is not so clear. If it were clear, we’d all have learned to write well, back in high school.
Also there’s the problem with feedback, as discussed above.
Why is academic writing so bad, and why is this such a surprise to Pinker?
In short, I think most academic writing is bad for the same reason that most writing is bad: because writing is hard. It’s difficult to write clearly, it takes effort and it takes practice, and, on top of all that, many people don’t see the path from bad writing to good writing.
But many people have to write, as part of their job. I don’t mean this cynically, in a “publish or perish” sort of way. I mean that if you do research scholarship, you want to convey this to others, and writing is the most direct way to do this. (Maybe at some point we’ll shift to papers being delivered as Youtube mini-lectures, but we’re not there yet.)
So, to me, the problem is simple. Writing is hard, it’s hard to learn and it’s hard to teach, but lots of people use writing to express their ideas. Academics are expected to write well but they’ve never learned how.
The next question, then, is why is Pinker so surprised? Why does need so many pages to make this point? I’m not sure, but I wonder if he’s forgotten how much work it’s taken him to learn to write fluidly. Writing in a direct voice is easy for him, so it’s natural for him to think that it would be just as easy for other professors to write well, if only they would clear their heads.
For example, Pinker writes:
It’s easy to see why academics fall into self-conscious style. Their goal is not so much communication as self-presentation—an overriding defensiveness against any impression that they may be slacker than their peers in hewing to the norms of the guild. Many of the hallmarks of academese are symptoms of this agonizing self-consciousness . . .
Sure, defensiveness is part of it. But I suspect that lots and lots of professors (and others) would write more directly, if they just got some feedback on how to do it. It’s my impression that we write prose the way we write code, by working from templates, snapping together segments from different places, etc. And this leads to what looks to Pinker like a self-conscious style but looks to me just like awkwardness, the literary equivalent of someone showing up to a formal event wearing ill-fitting clothes from Sears.
That bit about professors “having a foreign policy”
As promised, here’s my reaction to the very first bit of Pinker’s article, where he characterizes professors for “wearing earth tones, driving Priuses, and having a foreign policy.”
The profs I know don’t wear earth tones and don’t drive Priuses so I don’t really have anything to say about that, except that I guess I don’t hang out with the right class of professor—maybe I need to spend more time in Cambridge?—but I do have a comment on the “foreign policy” line.
My reaction is: what’s so funny about professors having views on foreign policy? We live in a democracy, and we all have a right to express our views. I teach in the political science department and many of my colleagues have expertise in foreign policy. But, even for profs who have no particular knowledge in this area, they’re still citizens (if not of the U.S., then of some other country).
Let me put it another way. Why is it so laughable that professors express their views on foreign policy and even try to affect policy? Like it or not, we do have public participation in this country, and I see no good reason why active voice on foreign policy should be restricted to the likes of David Brooks, Michael Moore, and whatever companies and P.R. firms happen to be lobbying in Washington, D.C., right now.
Speaking both as a political scientist and as a citizen, I think political participation should be encouraged, not mocked.
P.S. Pinker points out that I mischaracterized what he wrote. He did describe “having a foreign policy” as one of the four “most conspicuous trait[s] of the American professoriate,” but nowhere did he say there was anything wrong or even funny about having a foreign policy.
I was reading the “having a foreign policy” quote as a mockery because of how it is phrased (I’m in agreement with commenter Daniel Lakeland here) but it’s true that Pinker is not saying anything about this directly.
And of course it’s just a throwaway line in his article; it just bothers me because I object more generally when people disparage or mock political participation. In this case, though, Pinker is alluding to a stereotype rather than expressing a position himself, so to get annoyed at him for the “foreign policy” comment is a bit of blaming of the messenger.