Scholarly Overwriting

I am updating what might be described as an academic website. Reading for research reminds me that too many academic works are “overwritten.” I thought about compiling a list of complaints, but there are too many to catalog and rank. Instead, I’ll highlight some of the most annoying traits of “scholarly writing.”

Clutter. Academic writers love clutter. Maybe there’s an unwritten agreement to add 22 percent fat to all academic texts. Someone should take a red pen (or the delete key) to every useless piece of filler in the texts. Omit “It is often written that…”, its sibling “Throughout the history of our discipline…”, and other worthless nods to nothing. If something is often written, please don’t remind us. We already know it.

Back patting. If you are quoting or citing someone else, let us assume he or she is a “leading expert” or “noted scholar.” We don’t need the clichéd praise throughout journal articles or books. If you are citing people who are not experts, then we’d like to know. Otherwise, most readers assume citations are from credible sources. The worst offense I’ve read: “The noted scholar Dr. X, celebrated for her preeminent works in the field of Y, has published award-wining research on Y.” Really? Did she write something similar about you? It seems every scholar has to praise his or her peers, review their works in glowing terms, and then wait to be repaid in kind.

Academese. Please stop using jargon no one outside your discipline can decipher. Stop it. I’m willing to bet half the people in your discipline can’t agree on what these manufactured terms mean. Academic jargon is less of an issue in the sciences, which rely on words meaning specific things.
(See http://www.tameri.com/write/academese.html)

Condescension. Yes, you are a scholar, but that doesn’t mean you are smarter in general or somehow morally superior to others. Scholars are more ignorant than they realize. Complaining that “the public” (which apparently doesn’t include academics), “most Americans,” or “Westerners” are ill-informed and easily manipulated doesn’t persuade readers. Sure, those agreeing with you will feel wonderful upon discovering they are among the superior few, but it is a cheap rhetorical stunt.

I’m going to stop at four broad complaints for now.

I advised my students to write as they would speak to someone outside their discipline. I discovered the students speak in the same stilted academic style I encounter in scholarly texts, minus the footnotes but with verbal citations of experts. Reading too many overwritten texts, the university students mimicked the style because it was perceived to be “intellectual.”

Maybe other “academics” share my revulsion with academic texts? If so, can we start teaching students to write in styles enjoyable to read?

- Scott

2 thoughts on “Scholarly Overwriting

  1. avatarFlummoxed Historian

    Well, now, as a dissertator who has studied and taught writing and revision, I find myself faced with an advisor who believes the best academic prose is overwritten–even though Oxford Press recently forced her to edit her latest book to something readable and to reduce a third of her footnotes. I reminded her of this only to be told, “Well, this is how the game is played.” Any suggestions–besides buying a pistol and using her for target practice?

    1. avatarTameri

      I wish it surprised me that this attitude continues. The notion that academic writing must be dense and unreadable is dated and elitist, at best. How does writing unreadable prose demonstrate intellect? It seems to imply insecurity, more than anything.

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