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Eric Charles, Ph.D.
Eric Charles Ph.D

Why Academic Writing Sucks

Building on Pinker's Perspective on why academic writing is terrible

I'm not a huge fan of Stephen Pinker's psychology, but he is a solid writer, and I respect his perspective on many subjects. So when he wrote a Chronicle article on "Why Academics Stink at Writing" I took notice. The article starts by considering, and rejecting several suggestions for why academic writing is so bad:

  • Bad writing is there deliberately, to stop normal people from realizing scholars are talking about nothing.
  • Bad writing cannot be avoided, because the topics of discussion are so complex.
  • Bad writing is virtually required by reviewers and editors, who will not accept papers written in more straightforward manners.

These things happen, but apply to a very small percentage of published work, Pinker claims. Instead, Pinker suggests that academic writing is bad because it tries to mix writing styles, and authors become muddled about the audience and its desires. As he puts it:

Most academic writing, in contrast, is a blend of two styles. The first is practical style, in which the writer’s goal is to satisfy a reader’s need for a particular kind of information, and the form of the communication falls into a fixed template, such as the five-paragraph student essay or the standardized structure of a scientific article. The second is a style that Thomas and Turner call self-conscious, relativistic, ironic, or postmodern, in which "the writer’s chief, if unstated, concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naïveté about his own enterprise."

With this perspective in mind, Pinker argues that much bad writing in academia is the result of "agonizing self-consciousness". This leads to too much meta-discussion, and leads academics to lose the balance between their role as communicators of knowledge vs. their role as members of a profession with its own internal norms and mores. There are many good criticisms of common phrases used by academics, which weaken their writing, and bad habits, such as the misuse of scare quotes. He goes on to talk about how certain cognitive processes (chunking, functional fixity, and the curse of knowledge) make it hard for authors to realize what will make sense to their readers. And he ends with a discussion about how few obvious incentives there are for academics to write well. For the most part I nodded in agreement, and thought about making some minor tweaks to a few papers that are in the pipeline. However, there were two points that made me uneasy.

First, Pinker criticizes "apologizing", such as when authors say that the topics they are about to write on are "extremely complex." I can see how this can be inappropriate in some circumstances, but I think the audience needs to be considered. Many of the things I write about are not subjects that others think about much, and when others do think about those subjects, they tend to think things are very simple. In that context, when I use the language Pinker is criticizing, it is because I am informing the reader that their initial views might be mistaken. For example, the types of psychological questions you can ask using a rat, in a box with a level and a few lights, are quite complex. Many psychology students and even many psychology professors (nevertheless members of the general public) do not believe that assertion, until they have learned quite a bit about the amazing studies that people have done.

Second, Pinker criticizes authors who "hedge" their statements, rather than relying on the reader to be charitable. This criticism baffled me. Certainly it is possible to over-hedge, but Pinker lives in a world full of non-charitable readers. I cannot understand his position except as a weird statement of elitism: He is too influential to be taken down by minor nit-picking, so he assumes all academics have the luxury of ignoring it as well. In my world, there is a big difference between making a claim such as "Perception is accurate" and saying "For the most part, perception is accurate." Depending on the context, a paper could easily get rejected for the hedged sentence, or get rejected for the non-hedged sentence. --- In fairness, Pinker acknowledges that some hedging may be necessary, but argues that skilled writers use it cautiously, rather than as a "tick." Alas, I'm not sure that hedge is sufficient to convey the reality; most academic authors face extremely ungenerous gatekeepers.

It is also interesting to note how often Pinker cannot resist the urge to be clever, inserting semi-jokes, at the expense of clarity. I do that too, but I am not sure I would do it so much in a piece specifically about clear writing. It makes his article half-way between something amazingly clear, like Elements of Style, and joking self-aware rule lists, with entries such as "Preposition are not things to end a sentence with."

Overall, however, very good, and recommended reading.

About the Author
Eric Charles, Ph.D.

Eric Charles, Ph.D., runs the research lab at CTRL, the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning, at American University.

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