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academic prose

Opinions differ when it comes to the question asked in the title. For some, a text has to cite other authors to make it academic. For others, it needs to be factual – that is without personal statements. For still others, a text has to sound complicated and full of jargon. We might find yet other views. None of them are completely wrong, but each only highlights one aspect of a bigger picture.

A text becomes academic, when it fulfills (a minimum of) the following conditions:

  • The text connects to other texts and contributes new insights to a discussion. The contribution may be intended for a special disciplinary community or a wider audience of scholars. In any case, the addressed community decides whether the text contributes to a discussion and, therefore, forms part of an academic conversation.

  • To contribute, authors need to draw on the insights of other scholars by referring to them in paraphrases, quotes, and citations. The authors should evaluate knowledge to see where and how they can contribute new insights (finding the niche, as John Swales puts it). When they publish a text, other authors may critically reevaluate the research to provide new insights themselves.

  • The text presents the knowledge and insights in a factual way, leaving out personal opinions and views. Authors justify their questions, theses, and arguments; they define concepts and explain methods. Their readers should be able to understand and replicate the research.

  • The authors use language that is as clear and simple as possible. Using complicated sentences and jargon for its own sake goes against the goal of academic texts: to communicate insights (see the various style guides and manuals). Scholars can still use technical terms and elaborate concepts, but they should use them consciously and precisely. This aspect refers again to the second point above: other scholars should be able to understand and evaluate a text. If they cannot understand an argument because of imprecise or cluttered language, it is the authors’ fault, not the readers’.

If a text fulfills these conditions, an academic conversation can continue. Depending on the academic community, one or another of these aspects (or further ones) become more important.

If your texts fulfill these conditions, you should be on the safe side. Depending on the context and its academic requirements, you must adapt. As with everything else when writing, make conscious decisions that you can justify – whether they diverge from demands and conventions or stick to them.

PS: Do the famous texts by scholars such as Foucault, Bourdieu, Butler, Luhmann, and others represent texts in the above sense? I’m not so sure that that is appropriate in every case, although they contribute new insights.

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“The bad writing, which I am writing about, has not been produced by too little education.
Quite the contrary, you have to study long and hard to write this badly. That is the problem.” (Billig, p. 11)

Why do so many scholars in the social sciences write so badly? Why don’t they care more about their prose and make it more reader-friendly? In his book, with the ironic title Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences (2013, Cambridge University Press), Michael Billig addresses these questions. As he emphasizes in the beginning, he doesn’t just want to rant about the current state of social scientific writing. On the contrary, he wants to analyze in detail how social scientists write. In contrast to what Helen Sword does in Stylish Academic Writing (2012), Billig mainly works with examples that he doesn’t suggest be imitated. He is interested in the rhetorical habits that make academic prose unnecessarily complicated and vague.

The reason why social scientists write the way they do, Billig argues, lies in the circumstances in which modern scholars work. Scholars have to publish a lot, ideally in the most prestigious journals in their areas. While scholars in the past wrote because of a “higher calling” or their dedication “to the pursuit of truth”, today they are “hacks who write for a living” (p. 12). Due to the pressure to publish continuously, even if they haven’t got much to say, and many other obligations, scholars don’t have much time to work on their prose. Consequently, its quality decreases. Stressed by institutional pressures to publish, promotions, tenure, reputation, grants, impact factors, and the journals (with rejection rates up to ninety percent), most scholars just swim along the current.

After discussing the current state of academia, Billig analyzes different texts. He doesn’t look for worst-case examples, as one might imagine. He draws, to a large extent, from texts from social scientists that analyze language, rhetoric, discourses, and the learning of academic genres. Billig shows how linguists, sociologists, and other scholars uncover rhetorical strategies such as using noun phrases, passive sentences, jargon, and nominalizations, while using these strategies in their texts themselves.

Billig argues that ‘passivization’, ‘nominalization’, and similar rhetorical strategies make prose more complicated and abstract than it needs to be. As a consequence, the prose gets less informative and thereby becomes more vague instead of precise (as scholars would argue). Using such rhetorical strategies, scholars often ban the active voice as well as people as the subjects of their sentences. As Billig shows, scholarly prose becomes depopulated, even if scholars claim to theoretically reintroduce subjects or human beings (he analyzes a text by sociologist Ulrich Beck). As a result, scholars tend to reify their concepts while losing sight of people doing the things that these concepts describe (ironically, ‘reification’ is such a concept).

So, what does Billig suggest that social scientists do about the state of their prose? He doesn’t argue that scholars should avoid abstract words, noun phrases, or passive sentences. He does argue, however, that scholarly prose is out of balance. He calls for more moderation and a balanced use of the different rhetorical strategies. Scholars should bring back the real subjects that do something in active verbs. They won’t lose precision and information. Billig argues that the opposite will happen. Their prose will become more informative, lively, and therefore also clearer. I would also like to add that readers might once again enjoy studying their texts.

Next week, I’ll change the topic completely and will write about my experiences as a participant of National Novel Writing Month in November.

I enjoy reading books and papers that argue for clearer academic prose. Recently, I discussed C. Wright Mills’ contribution to this issue. Today and next week, I would like to present two books that I think make a good case for writing differently than the majority of scholars today. The first book is Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing (2012, Harvard University Press), and the second is Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences (2013, Cambridge University Press). Today, I present Sword’s book.

“Stylish academic writing” might sound like a fancy guide for writing with fashionable words and jargon. At least that’s what I thought when reading the title for the first time. But as the saying goes, never judge a book by its cover. Sword shows how scholars in many different disciplines write and how they judge the writing style of other scholars. She presents her arguments based on results of her extensive research.

First, she asked approximately seventy scholars across different disciplines what they considered to be stylish academic writing. Second, she analyzed texts that were recommended by these scholars. Third, she collected and analyzed one thousand journal articles from different disciplines. And fourth, she analyzed one hundred writing guides.

With her analyses, Sword shows a gap between how scholars write and how the interviewed scholars and collected writing guides portray good academic writing. In section two of the book, Sword presents “The Elements of Stylishness”. She thereby uses examples of “stylish” scholars who have implemented some of these elements. In the end, Sword shows that even though scholars have to know and deal with stylistic conventions, they don’t have to follow them blindly (only medical scholars need to follow rules that closely). Despite being “disciplined”, as an inevitable outcome of their academic socialization, scholars can play with conventions. Or, in the words of Sword: “A convention is not a compulsion; a trend is not a law. The signature research styles of our disciplines influence and define us, but they need not crush and confine us” (p. 22). Sword thereby argues that scholars don’t have to conform to the established conventions. Rather, they should make “intelligent” or “informed choices” (p. 30).

With this book, Sword emphasizes that stylish academic writers should not shy away from communicating their findings well, taking their time for the craft of writing good prose, or being creative. Despite the disciplinary conventions, writers should favor concreteness, make conscious choices, and show courage. It really does take courage to digress from disciplinary conventions. But if this means that ones prose will become more intelligible and the arguments clearer, then that would be a better road to take than to follow conventions just because everybody else might.

Next week, I will discuss Michael Billig’s book and tell you what he thinks about the state of academic writing.

We write to be read and, in the best case, to be cited. That’s why we should care about our prose. In my opinion – and I’m not the only one – scholars should write as clearly and concisely as possible, even if they describe complex facts. Using complicated prose won’t help their readers understand.

The sociologist C. Wright Mills advocated for such an approach to scholarly writing already decades ago. Thanks to Howard S. Becker’s book Writing for Social Scientists (2007/1986), I learned about Mills’ book The Sociological Imagination (1959). In the appendix of his book, Mills writes about “intellectual craftsmanship” in the social sciences, an issue still relevant today.

Mills observed, “a turgid and polysyllabic prose does seem to prevail in the social sciences” (p. 217). In contrast to the state of academic prose, he was certain that his readers also favored “clear and simple language” (p. 217). This mismatch still persists, as Helen Sword shows in her well-researched book Stylish Academic Writing (2012). Mills argues that the “lack of ready intelligibility” does not correlate with the “complexity of subject matter” or the “profundity of thought” (p. 218). So, whether we write about a mundane fact such as two people greeting each other or more complex issues, there’s no reason to use difficult language to describe either of them.

According to Mills, unintelligible prose has to do with a “[d]esire for status” (p. 218). However, there’s a “vicious circle” (p. 219) at work here: scholars’ unintelligibility “is one reason why they do not have the status they desire” (pp. 218-219) – this doesn’t apply to some of the most famous social scientists, though. Mills suggests a simple solution to break out of this circle: get rid of the desire for status, “the academic pose”, and you will produce intelligible prose (p. 219, emphasis in original). One of the problems lies in the socialization process that students go through. Students learn to imitate the academic pose by reading and will eventually reproduce it in their own writing – yet another vicious circle (Becker, p. 41).

So, how does Mills suggests that we deal with this situation? He encourages us to ask three simple questions: “(1) How difficult and complex after all is my subject? (2) When I write, what status am I claiming for myself? (3) For whom am I trying to write?” (Mills, p. 219). By asking these questions, we should be honest to ourselves about what we try to accomplish with our work. Do we strive for social status or a contribution to a field of knowledge? I personally opt for the latter. Trying to write clear prose doesn’t necessarily mean excluding technical terms. Mills emphasizes that their use doesn’t mean difficult prose. Rather, they should be “clear and precise” (p. 219). Our prose should serve its purpose – the communication of insights into a field of knowledge to a specific audience. Depending on our audience, we no doubt have to adapt our prose. For highly specialized scholars, we may use more technical terms and concepts than for a grant committee of non-specialists. But in either case, there is no point in making our prose more difficult than necessary. Reader orientation constitutes one of the main writing competencies, which allows us to make ourselves understood. Thus we should never forget for whom we’re writing and why.

At the end of the text, Mills asks us to be good craftspeople that know how to write simple and clear academic prose. For me, it boils down to the following: don’t try to appear smart by writing difficult texts. Know your audience and write intelligibly.

Next week, I will switch perspective for the first time. I will write about the challenges of being a writing consultant.

Mast 31 | Fabian Leuthold

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