How can you write better?
By Rachel Toor (Eastern Washington)
When I watch creative writers perform, I hear a host of mostly unspoken questions. In their body language, self-presentation, jokes, and post-reading interactions, they seem to be asking: Am I boring? Am I funny? Are my sentences flat and flaccid? Is the pacing right? Am I losing the audience? Am I making people feel something? Am I good enough? Ultimately, what I think they’re asking, behind all the bravado, posing, and posturing is: Am I attractive?
Listening to academics, I pick up a different set of concerns: Am I making a convincing case? Have I mentioned everything everyone else has said about this topic and pointed out the ways that they are (sort of) wrong? Do you see how much I’ve read? Have I dropped enough important names? Does my specialized language prove I deserve to be a member of your club? Am I right? At the end, I hear hope disguised as an attitude that asks: Am I smart?
Patricia Nelson Limerick of the University of Colorado at Boulder said professors are the kids no one wanted to dance with in high school. Brandishing their big old brains like pompoms, academics often pride themselves on not caring about appearances. Instead of trimming food-catching beards and wearing clothes that fit, they embrace the either/or-ness of smart/pretty and their prose often waddles along under that false dichotomy. Scholars tend not to think about writing sentences that will make readers throw panties or send flowers. In my experience, gorgeous writers, even those who sport too-short pants and don’t trim their beards, get a lot of panties and flowers. Really.
Plenty of people have noticed differences between those who write literature and those who study it. Richard Hugo, a poet who drew a paycheck in an English department, took delight in pointing out the academics. In an essay titled “In Defense of Creative Writing Classes,” he wrote: “In much academic writing, clarity runs a poor second to invulnerability.”
He tells a story about an academic colleague who, when asked if he liked a movie he had just seen, said, “I don’t know. I have to go home and think about it.” Accustomed to having to justify and support every thought, back up every assertion, and hedge every idea, academics learn to distrust their guts. They hem and qualify until they don’t know what they think and don’t want to say anything for fear of being wrong. “We creative writers are privileged,” Hugo wrote, “because we can write declarative sentences, and we can write declarative sentences because we are less interested in being irrefutably right than we are in the dignity of language itself.”
Complaining about bad academic prose is like discussing the weather: talk, talk, talk, and no one does anything. In my recovering-editor mode, I finally took the first step and allowed myself to admit that most scholarly manuscripts read as badly as many first-year composition papers. In my work for a publisher, I had perpetrated on the world a whole lot of garbled ideas expressed in jargon and in meaningless, incomprehensible, and never-ending sentences. It was then that I started to feel, as they say, bad about myself. Now as I go about trying to make amends, I end up sounding like Chicken Little, running around and screeching about how the academic sky is falling.
But, if you look up, you may notice the academic sky is crashing in on us. Jobs are about as abundant as ivory-billed woodpeckers and book publishing is in the crapper. Journal subscriptions, long swollen by libraries, are in danger of starting to look as dry as the Los Angeles River.
Plenty of people are sounding alarms. Last fall historians Anthony Grafton and James Grossman argued for big changes in graduate education. Michael Berube, president of the Modern Language Association, is toiling to make things better for contingent faculty. Such voices of reason are shaking things up and we need to listen to them. But we also need to focus on training students to be good at the things that academics are supposed to do: read, write, think clearly and critically, and present new ideas and material so their importance shines through.
In an essay called “Professional Boredom,” William Cronon, president of the American Historical Association, warned that, when taken to an extreme, the values and practices of good history—rigorous, complex, and nuanced argumentation; accuracy; grounding in primary research; awareness of the field—can make the discipline accessible to only a small group. He warns about writing that keeps readers out rather than inviting them in. He chides against using jargon, and gives these examples: “agency,” “contingency,” and “document.” Quaint, right? I wish I remembered the days when I thought those words counted as academic cant. Cronon suggests that his peers tell stories, and he cautions them not to be boring.
It’s not surprising to hear historians, a fusty, unhip group slow to adopt high theory, carp about bad writing, but I nearly fell off my own fusty, unhip chair when I read a piece in The Chronicle about the supercool journal, Public Culture. Eric Klinenberg, the journal’s new editor, believes academic prose should not be about showing off your smarts. He says, “I want the writing to be persuasive and argumentative; I want the claims to be backed up by good evidence; and I want the language to be engaging, so that you want to start and finish every article.” Woot!
Writing frumpy, lumpy prose is the equivalent of showing up on a first date with unwashed hair and dirty clothes, and then talking about yourself in a way that leaves the other person looking at her watch and remembering she has to do laundry. When academic authors set out to seduce the reader, their ideas and research have a chance to make changes in the world.
In Stylish Academic Writing, a new book from Harvard University Press, Helen Sword analyzes 1,000 scholarly articles from an array of disciplines and comes up with some writing tactics used by “stylish” academics. (I confess I bristle against the word “stylish” because it seems a little rhinestone-studded-reading-glasses-on-a decorative-lanyard, but I’ll continue to use it here because she does.)
Like Cronon, Sword believes stylish writers tell compelling stories, avoid jargon, provide the reader with “aesthetic and intellectual pleasure,” and write with “originality, imagination, and creative flair.” She surveys stylish writing and notices extensive use of first-person anecdotes, catchy openings, concrete nouns (as opposed to nominalized abstractions), active verbs (eschewing forms of that bugger, “to be”), lots of examples, good illustrations, references that show broad reading, and a sense of humor.
No formal rules proscribe any of those practices, although many academics have formed a false consensus, believing that if they engage in such flashy, creative-writing-esque behavior they will pay for it by appearing Not Serious and therefore not smart.
And so we get a whole lot of academic essays that seem to be written neither by nor for humans, that lack a sense of narrative, and that use an impersonal voice to brandish fancy concepts. Sometimes, as Sword shows, name-dropping is no more than that. She looks at a bunch of articles that use the word “Foucauldian” and finds many of them have only a tenuous connection to anything Michel Foucault—himself a jiggy stylist—ever wrote. Pretension wins out over clarity, originality, or even meaning.
Sword gives lots of examples of good academic stylists, and she provides an even bigger buffet of the kind of writing all too familiar to most of us—prose that comes across as unintentionally hilarious when read out of context, if you can force yourself to plow through it. She also has a Web site, The Writer’s Diet, where you can paste in a sample of prose, of 100 to 1,000 words long, and the program will diagnose it from fit to flabby, pointing out the robustness of verbs, noun density, long strings of prepositions, needless modifiers, and those Cheez-Its of nutritionally bankrupt words like “that,” “there,” and “this.”
In his book On Writing Well, William Zinsser mentions warmth and humanity as important parts of nonfiction. Blaise Pascal wrote, “When we see a natural style, we are astonished and charmed; for we expected to see an author, and we find a person.”
Sure, as professors we are supposed to be intelligent, and sometimes it feels like we have to keep proving that. Remember, though, it’s not either/or. Attractive writing—brave, personal, narrative, zingy, imaginative, funny—will not make you appear any less smart.
This essay was originally posted in The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 2, 2012.