A reader writes:
Your post is right to point out one source of crappy writing. Many academics are guilty as charged. But you misrepresent the central point Peter Elbow made: the good reason why academic writing often is not clear and straight to the point. As any academic worth his or her salt will tell you, you’ve committed the cardinal sin of quoting out of context in a way that violates the author’s point to make your own.
The circumlocutions of bad academic writing come “from a valuable habit of mind,” Elbow suggests.
It’s the habit of always hearing and considering a different idea or conflicting view while engaged in saying anything. Too many things seem to go on at once in our minds; we live with constant interruptions and mental invasions as we speak. We are trained as academics to look for exceptions, never to accept one idea or point of view or formulation without looking for contradictions or counter examples or opposing ideas. Yet this habit gets so internalized that we often don’t quite realize we are doing it; we just “talk normally” — but this normal is fractured discourse to listeners.
That said, while this “valuable habit of mind” helps explain bad academic writing, it is no excuse. Scholars should learn to write and speak with greater clarity, especially when they are trying to explain the complexity of an issue or assertion. Beyond Elbow’s explanation, two things explain why academics often are such poor writers, especially when compared to books published by presses such as Knopf.
First, academics are not trained to write well at the graduate level, any more than undergraduates are trained well at the undergraduate level. The focus of grad training is, as in the past, on research and analysis. Writing is an afterthought.
Second, people who publish with trade presses, and the better textbook presses, have their work edited line by line, not just for its content but for clarity and elegance of expression. In contrast, academic presses typically are concerned with content and copy-editing. They don’t have the budget for line-by-line editing for clarity and elegance. My own experience working with a small textbook company confirms this, where the owner and head editor ripped my writing apart and helped me put it together, letting my voice come through better than it ever had before. I now co-edit a series for that company, doing the same to other authors. Some of the author’s I’ve worked with have said that they now feel lost at sea when working with academic presses that take a hands off approach. I feel the same way.
I don’t excuse bad academic writing; it is, in the end, the author’s responsibility. And I do think that scholars should focus more attention on clear speaking and writing, with all the discipline and practiced needed to become clear, if not elegant in their communicating. Students and readers would benefit as would the scholars themselves. Clarity of expression is, in my view, closely related to clarity of thinking. But the best writing and thinking happens when people with complimentary skills and insights work together, whether in clarifying ideas or communicating effectively. One is less likely to writing a bad sentence … or quote sentences badly out of context.