Stylish Academic Writing

I remember the semester I was taking a graduate course in communication. We were supposed to read the winning papers from some prize that was given. I decided that the way the winners were determined was by who had the most unreadable, un-understandable, obfuscated paper.

That was my first strong memory of academic writing.

You can see why I might be intrigued by the Wall Street Journal having Helen Sword’s article on stylish academic writing.

Sword discusses typical prose:

Awash in muddy syntax and obscure vocabulary, such sentences recall the bureaucratic blather that George Orwell once likened to the defensive response of a “cuttlefish squirting out ink.”

I think we all have written that kind of rhetoric, while striving for academic style. I know I have.

For example: A paper I wrote back in graduate school for Dr. Jim Berlin came back with the notation that my writing was too simplistic. (I liked 9-word sentences back then, but had adapted to 14-15 words in sentences for graduate school.) I was furious, annoyed, and unsure what to do. So I wrote 90-word sentences. This he gave back with the word “gobbledy-gook” written on it. He didn’t even grade my ideas, just my writing. (At least, that is what I thought he was grading. Others made As in a seemingly effortless manner, which left me incredibly frustrated.)

Sword argues that academics are not considering their audience.

I am not sure that I agree with that.

I think many of us are trying to write the prose that we are reading, without, perhaps, understanding exactly what it is that makes it worth reading. The number of words in sentences and/or the number of words we have to look up, we can figure out, so we begin to write like that.

Sword gives three practices of stylish academic writers:
1. Authoritative, yet conversational, voice (which reminds me of an Advanced Composition unit I taught years ago)
2. Concrete writing, “anchoring abstract ideas in the physical world”
3. Attention to the details of the craft of writing, using “verb-driven, carefully structured and clutter-free” writing

Sword gives examples of stodgy and stylish for each of her practices.

I think it is an interesting article, worth the read.

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