Academic Writing

Prune that Prose has some interesting perspectives on academic writing.

Do you ever read your prose aloud, either quietly to yourself or at a public reading of your work? Too many academics would answer no to that question. We have a kind of reverse aesthetic if our writing is dense and unwieldy, filled with technical terms and convoluted sentences, we wear its lack of accessibility as a badge of honor.

A friend in mainstream trade publishing, who’d like nothing better than to buy books written by smart people on important topics, cringes when she spies an academic heading toward her at a party. For D and her editorial colleagues, “academic” is shorthand for “lifeless prose, cumbersome to read, filled with unnecessary complication, often disdainful and stridently obscure in style and tone.” If by chance they do wind up wanting to acquire a manuscript by a faculty member, the first thing they say at the editorial meeting is: “But he doesn’t write like an academic!”

Since I don’t write like an academic, I find this heartening. Perhaps I need to work on a popular book on an important topic.

This perspective might also explain the people who say one should not read papers at conferences. If they are written in lifeless prose, I wouldn’t want to hear them either.

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