Published: 7. 10. 2014

Why Academics Stink at Writing?

Our colleague Pat Lyons writes about academic writing. It should be more accessible and should not be boring.

Why Academics Writing Sucks?

Academic writing, or "academese", is often criticized for being unnecessarily complicated and difficult to read. This is surprising as Steven Pinker, a Harvard based professor of cognitive sciences, in his text "Why Academics' Writing Stinks" (2014), notes "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?" A number of answers have been proposed:

(1) "The most popular answer outside the academy is the cynical one: Bad writing is a deliberate choice. Scholars in the softer fields spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say."

(2) "The most popular answer inside the academy is the self-serving one: Difficult writing is unavoidable because of the abstractness and complexity of our subject matter."

(3) "A third explanation shifts the blame to entrenched authority ... 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."

(4) "The final explanation of why academics write so badly comes not from literary analysis or cognitive science but from classical economics and Skinnerian psychology: There are few incentives for writing well."

For those of you who write in English, please find attached a document where advice is offered about how to make your academic writing "less worse". If an academic writer gives days, months and years of their life writing articles, chapters and books it makes sense to hope that these texts will be accessible to as wide a community of readers as possible. If you believe in this 'utility' principle then better writing should be an important part of your role as the creator and communicator of research results to all types of readers. Academic writing is not only for academics. It is also for the 'ordinary' tax paying citizens who pays for us to sit in our offices researching and writing; and it is only reasonable that the general public know what their tax contributions pays for. This is only fair. This requires a clear, concise and entertaining writing style: science is interesting, is it not? So why present it in inaccessible and / or boring writing style.

In short, good academic writing is not a desirable goal, but a necessary one. If you agree with this sentiment then the Pinker's text may help you in the process of writing better academic English.

Illustration: sxc.hu.