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Hobbes's avatar

Why is so much academic writing terrible?

Asked by Hobbes (7368points) November 5th, 2008

I’m attempting to read an academic paper on the way sexism and racism were intertwined at the time of slavery. At least, that’s what I think it’s about. The paper has a lot of potential to be very interesting, but it’s ruined by obscure terminology, superfluous words and poor sentence construction.

Here’s an example sentence to illustrate my point: “What needs to be discerned through these ideological complexities is that the cult of true womanhood resolves contradictions in the sets of social relations in which women were located.” A potentially interesting topic drowned in poor writing.

So, my question is this: when most Academics spend a great portion of their time writing, why are so many of them so bad at it?

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26 Answers

meemorize's avatar

I don’t think it’s bad writing per se. It’s more the style they are meant to be writing in. I am certainly no academic but did do a paper on academic writing as part of my degree and the sentence you used as an example there sounds very familiar to me in its style.
I personally hate academic writing and usually, even when academic writing is required, make a mockery of it by writing overly casual. So far I have not been marked down for it.

I just think that a good text should be a pleasure to read. Academics think of it differently I think, for them it is more about the inclusion of all possible facts and possibilities within one sentence.. actually… i don’t know what they’re thinking aye…

MindErrantry's avatar

I don’t think poor academic writing should be able to hide behind the excuse of ‘that’s how they expect it to be’ (in academia), simply because there exists so much well-written, clear, cogent writing from highly respected members in the academic base. I do not mean to say that the more… ‘difficult’ style is not accepted by academia, because it is; most people are willing (unfortunately) to deal with hard-to-read papers to get at the ideas contained within. But this creates the unfortunate situation that people who have poor writing/communication skills never feel the pressure to improve them, nor is there a need to enliven their writing. Really, if they were to do so, I think everyone would be more than happy to accept the change as it’s already a relief to pick up an article and find it well-written. I’d replace the word ‘meant’ in meemorize’s first sentence to ‘allowed’, actually.

The other main issue I’m seeing here is that concision is prized in the academic world. On a personal level, I always try to keep my papers interesting and flowing in a narrative style. However, because of this I’m terribly wordy; one paper a semester will actually be within the page limit’s upper end (at least on the first draft). So, if you’re trying to squeeze in all these thoughts into the shortest space possible (important for the professional academic, less important for those undergrads trying to reach the word count!), you’ll produce this unfortunately dense style.

But that’s not always an issue; many people are able to take the space they need, and really, many of them just are poor writers. Interestingly, I find more British papers to be well-written than American ones; I don’t think standards of writing are taught as well in my home country, or they may simply be more tolerant of stuffy prose (ironically enough, given that the Brits practically invented ivory-tower academia). meemorize’s comment about not being marked down for causal writing in an academic context is an interesting one, too, in this context, because it really does show that academia does not demand the formal stuff; we’d all be just as willing to read clear, even (dare I say it) entertaining articles—so long as the arguments remained solid underneath, which is, of course, the key. And yes, bad prose can in fact obscure those! There are a lot of bad writers out there who become respected in academia, unfortunately…

I realize that this post is probably in the category of awful, incoherent writing, so I’m sorry; it’s been a late week after the election, and the brain isn’t actually running so well right now

augustlan's avatar

I’ve actually gotten points taken off (just once, in high school) for writing an essay in a conversational style. I think it had something to do with not respecting the seriousness of the subject matter. I’ve always felt that I was robbed! Some people think serious or technical = dry and informative only. Such a boring way to write and even more boring to read!

StellarAirman's avatar

Seems like you’re referring to a paper that a teacher or professor wrote. But from a student’s perspective I know I personally have to often come up with a lot of pointless information and try to use longer words just to meet whatever pointless length restriction the professor has put on the paper. For instance I just had to write a 10 page report for one of my classes that could have easily been written in 5. I didn’t make it 10 pages long because I had that much information, I had to find enough filler information to make it the required 10 pages, which helps no one. It is a less relevant paper because it contains so much pointless information, takes longer to read, longer to grade, and promotes poor writing by using words simply because they are longer not because they are appropriate. I was also taught in English class that to be a good writer you should take what you write and cut it in half, then cut in it half again. Good writing should be clear and concise. But when the teachers put arbitrary minimum page limits on papers you end up with a ton of superfluous words that do nothing to enhance the paper, they just fill up more white space.

fireside's avatar

I think the word requirement in many academic papers is a great point, airman.

“What needs to be discerned through these ideological complexities is that ” seems like it was just added to boost that word count.

This sounds like a social scientist who may have a lot of information in their area of expertise, but when writing about those concepts to meet a certain format, they ignore or haven’t learned basic rules of grammar and coherency to create a 28 word sentence just to fill out the pages.

I also have a problem with someone writing about what needs to be discerned because that is evidence of an argument that has not been fully presented.

girlofscience's avatar

Often times, the papers that we write have concepts that are quite convoluted, and so it is difficult to express the concepts clearly. It’s not that we’re particularly bad writers; it’s just that our concepts are often difficult to describe in a coherent manner.

That’s no excuse though, and certainly we strive for the clearest possible explanations. Sometimes we succeed; others, what we think is clear to us is not to a naive reader.

bob's avatar

As usual, Orwell said it best, in Politics and the English Language. “In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.”

Academics are bad at writing clearly and concisely because they (we) are rewarded for writing abstrusely. That’s how to get a better grade and to obtain the admiration of your peers—even for professionals. Using the jargon of a field signifies that you’re part of the group, just like using slang. On the other hand, writing in academic jargon can be helpful in explaining concepts within a field that is heavy on jargon. But the jargon often obscures the writer’s meaning.

cyndyh's avatar

Jargon is often really precise. If you don’t know the jargon in the given field the writing doesn’t seem clear and if you know the jargon it does. I think there’s a huge difference between using accepted jargon to express a lot in a few pages and making up jargon that’s not needed to attempt to make your point. Sometimes people in the soft sciences suffer from what I’ve heard called “physics envy”. They’d like to sound really precise when their ideas aren’t. I don’t know if that’s what’s happening here or not just from that one sentence.

Whether that sentence means much in the context of that paper depends on the context of that paper. :^> Has the author explained at all what they mean by “the cult of true womanhood”? Does it go on to discuss what these “contradictions” are and how they are “resolved” by this “cult”?

The “what needs to be discerned” portion can be said more clearly, but often the passive voice is still required when writing for academic journals. It always seems a bit awkward because that’s not how most of us speak. The same ideas written in a more casual tone for a magazine would probably read better.

fireside's avatar

Well, i was with you cyndyh, until i found the actual text
This paragraph begins with:

I have chosen an alternative avenue of investigation

Now that I know it came from the Oxford Press, it helps to read it with a British accent.

Hobbes's avatar

@cyndyh – The author defines the terms, but very vaguely. “The cult of true womanhood” refers, I think, to the ideal that women were expected to live up to. That is, the expectation that they should be meek, demure, kindly, and emotional. I’m not sure how this is a “cult”, though. To me, it seems as though the author is imprecisely using the term to give the idea a negative connotation.

Jargon is only part of the problem, though. I understand that the passive voice is often required, but surely a skilled writer can make a piece clear and engaging while still meeting the criteria of academic journals?

@Fireside – you’re right! That makes it much more entertaining.

andrew's avatar

Just when I think that I can give my perception from reading countless postmodern treatises and can whip out ‘abstruse’, bob gives the perfect answer to this—even quoting orwell. So, what he said.

cyndyh's avatar

@fireside: You were with me in what way? And then finding the text changed that how? I’m not sure what you’re trying to say.

I haven’t read the work yet. I promise to read with my best attempt at some British accent, but which one? :^>

@Hobbes: Ok, I see now even with a small amount of context what the author’s talking about. “Cult” is being used in the “obsessive devotion to something” sense of the word. So the author is talking about the folks who have an obsessive devotion to thinking of any woman who doesn’t have a certain set of characteristics or traits as “not a true woman”. The term makes sense in that light, and yeah, I’d say the connotations are negative.

A skilled writer can make a piece clear and engaging when the topic is engaging. Often they are required to pack a lot of ideas is just a few pages and to use a passive voice. It can just be a lot to manage depending on many factors. Who’s the audience? What’s already accepted as a given? What’s the journal looking for? Are you trying to just convey the results of research or are you trying to convince or convert?

Keep in mind that if that passage gets the “needs an edit” stamp from you, it doesn’t mean the whole work is poorly written or that this author is a poor writer. That’s one small piece in a much larger body of work.

But, yes, I find myself playing editor in my head when I read some things that are overly wordy.

fireside's avatar

@cyndyh – passive voice

cyndyh's avatar

Ah, ok. I do see what you’re saying. ...but which British accent? :^>

fireside's avatar

the one i’m hearing is more of an educated middle eastern woman with a british trained accent

cyndyh's avatar

Oh, ok. So, if I read it like I’m from Cardiff or maybe Glasgow it’s just not going to be the same, is it? :^>

fireside's avatar

lol, no i think glasgow might make all it the more difficult to get through
though i would probably get a good laugh in

cyndyh's avatar

yep, several. You should try it. :^>

wondersteph's avatar

While it’s good to be wordy, sometimes short and to the point is best. Here’s a tip – don’t use 5 words when 2 or 3 could say the same thing.

I think, for me, my academic writing has become terrible because I feel confined to the grading standards and topics of my professors. Each paper has to be formatted a certain way and with X topic. Talk about stifling creativity. It’s exhausting writing the way someone else dictates. I loveee analyzing lit & figuring out new ways to look at it, but for me, at least, it loses any fun/interesting aspect it would have because of guidelines.

Bri_L's avatar

@FIreside and Hobbes – So they copied it?

MindErrantry's avatar

@wondersteph—I find that kind of interesting, because I’ve generally found my professors willing to let you write about any subject (so long as it’s related to the course!), and most don’t care about formatting. Guess it just depends on the environment! That’s a good guideline, though, about the word number you use—I find I’m typically able to remove a lot of small words that just stack on without adding meaning.

cyndyh's avatar

I think some of you folks are thinking of the term “academic writing” differently than that phrase is usually used. Usually that means writing done in academic journals or texts, not just essays you write in college for a class.

MindErrantry's avatar

My college certainly expects quite a high level of writing (or at least content!), although the point in general could be debated. Even at the undergraduate level, some people present at conferences, get their stuff into journals, etc. So I’d say it qualifies for the more specific definition you’re proposing. However, I’m not quite sure how the specific definition by ‘level’ really affects things, since I’ve seen writing at the undergraduate level which exceeds the quality of prose, if not necessarily research, that I’ve found in more professional articles.

cyndyh's avatar

I think there’s a difference. One is asking why college students are so bad at writing. The other is asking why people (academics) whose profession requires them to write frequently are so bad at it. Both are interesting questions for very different reasons.

Also, undergrads being published in journals is still unusual and it’s even more unusual for this to happen without an advisor’s oversight. So, there’s someone (an academic) who should be reviewing it in any case.

That doesn’t sound like that what some folks above are talking about, though. Some people are talking about writing essays for their profs in a class. The audience is very different in that sort of writing.

Hobbes's avatar

Yes – just to clarify, I was referring to professional academics, not students, though both are often guilty of the same thing.

Jeruba's avatar

Some small part of the answer might be found in the fact that writing talent is not evenly distributed.

Writing skills can be learned and practiced, and just about anyone can make some improvement in his or her writing, but writing does not come naturally and easily to all. Yet academics in all fields are expected to write and expected to publish. Their expertise in their fields may not be equaled by their ability to deliver their findings and analyses in their papers and journal articles.

Some academics do hire editors to help them with this problem.

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