Tag Archives: academic

Academic writing, the forms common to scholarship.

When Good Writing is Bad

“This is an engaging read, but can you revise it to sound more academic?”

Most of us want to read writing I describe as demonstrating the Five Cs: clear, concise, compelling, correct, and complete. I tell my students and creative writing seminars to resist overwriting. Avoid affected academic prose, with words you’d never use in a passionate, but professional, conversation with colleagues. Stop trying to adhere to high school writing “rules” that generate more fluff and filler than refined thought.

Imagine my disappointment when a journal editor said, “You should being with, ‘In this paper we…’ and then outline your points. Frame it, state it, repeat it.”

Wow. If ever there was bad writing advice, that would be it. Imagine a novel written with that structure:

In this novel we will follow the actions of Jane Eyre, though childhood to marriage. The themes explored include….

If your writing has to be “framed” beyond basic foreshadowing, you write weak prose. Fix it. Punch up the paragraphs and streamline the sentences. We don’t want a world of five-paragraph SAT-ready essays that only impress a handful of English teachers and test scorers.

Academic writing represents the worst writing a reader must endure. Often pretentious and inefficient, we should leave the formulas behind and break free from the tyranny of “rules” that foster creating complicated compositions with little content. Write with passion and flare. Compel your readers to move from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph.

When I tell students to be concise, I explain this does not mean leaving behind a good stylistic twist. A student recently mentioned that I advised parallel construction and repetition, devices other writing instructors warned against. They preferred “variation” of words, so every “said” in an essay became a sighed, yelled, asserted, declared or other action.

“What about Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech?” I asked. “The title phrase appears nine times, with two additional variations. Does that make it bad writing?”

“It breaks the rules,” the student asserted.

I explained that some “extra words” and “repetition” strengthen writing. That’s why we like rhyming poetry and alliteration as readers, especially as children unaware of artificial rules. Give me Dr. Seuss over most modern free-form poetry any day. Learning when to repeat, and why to repeat, takes practice.

One rule should guide writing, including academic writing: Engage the reader. If you fail to engage the reader, nothing else matters. The reader honors you; treat the reader with respect. Drop the annoying academic filler, weak transitions, and empty academese. The “rules” about framing, stating, and summarizing help students reach arbitrary word counts, but they do not encourage good writing.

Academic writing treats readers with condescension and bores them with the routine. Being able to engage in “academic discourse” might earn a student better grades or help a scholar publish research, but it is a lamentable metric by which to measure writing ability.

Yet, I did rewrite the academic paper, because I must. It is now properly dreadful.

The Purdue Online Writing Lab

The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/) is one of the two websites I check when I have a writing related question. The other is the Tameri Guide, of course, since Susan and I tend to add content to Tameri based on our experiences writing and teaching. I am a bit envious of the great content on Purdue OWL, though. It is probably the best academic writing site on the Web.

Recently the OWL began adding slide shows, movies, and podcasts for students and teachers. The MLA and APA citation guides were already invaluable, but I’ve started to accept that students want content in digital form.

The podcasts’ content focuses on rhetorical concepts. Because students struggle with ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos, any additional explanations are helpful. I’m for anything that helps students sort through the complicated textbook definitions of these concepts.

For a few years the OWL has been adding PowerPoint presentations on a range of writing topics. I’m not a fan of PowerPoint; slides are best used to introduce topics. Slides, by their nature, are superficial and should be accompanied by further reading and discussion. Still, the slides help students focus on key topics and concepts they should remember. The long list of available presentations is impressive and I do encourage teachers and students to browse the OWL library.

The OWL movies focus on visual rhetoric, but they too can be useful for writers. Unless we’re discussing audiobooks, most of our words appear on pages or screens. Design affects the perceptions of texts, including how seriously a reader approaches the words. The OWL movies are a good starting point for discussions of visual rhetoric.

For the basics of academic writing, you won’t find many resources equal to the OWL. Again, the website is:

http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/

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