Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Academic writing is often among the most impenetrable prose ever inked. Now comes to the rescue this column from the Chronicle of Higher Ed offering advice on how to prune that prose to a fare-thee-well:
Academics are not embarrassed by writing that's impenetrable. We're taught to feel like doctors castigated for poor penmanship. Producing turgid prose is part of how we define ourselves as professionals.
. . . .
The contempt that academics have toward [reader-friendly] writing is, in essence, contempt for the ordinary reading public. We assume they're unable to grasp the subtlety of our thought. We think that writing for a broad audience requires "dumbing down" our arguments. But that's wrong. Popular audiences are tougher critics than fellow academics are. You have to be saying something of import or interest; otherwise, people will just ignore you and read something else, or play video games, or watch television.
. . . .
Academic writing derives its authority from certain conventions, some of them bordering on arrogance. When you're a young professor, it can make you feel powerful to sound as if you know so much. And you can get away with that kind of writing because your audience—other academics—will read your work even if it's impenetrable. But eventually, it can get lonely to have so few people to talk to. What you want to say might actually be of interest to an audience wider than those in your specialty.
. . . .
But pruning your ideas and simplifying your language don't have to eliminate the subtlety and significance of your thought. In "Scholars and Sound Bites," Gerald Graff, a professor of English and education, says that we shouldn't "exaggerate the distance between the academic and the popular, especially if doing so excuses bad academic habits of communication." He warns: "Don't kid yourself. If you could not explain it to your parents or your most mediocre student, the chances are you don't understand it yourself."
You can read the full column here.
I am the scholarship dude.