academic writing, genre, and clarity

Steven Pinker is clearly on a promotional tour for his new book on the subject of style. He’s been taking a couple recent jabs at academic writing, including this one in The Chronicle, which asks the eternal musical question “Why Academics’ Writing Stinks.” For decades Pinker has enjoyed taken jabs at the humanities such as this one “Scholars in the softer fields spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say,” though here he backs away from this claim… sort of. As such, it is easy to fall to the temptation to jab back at this kind of troll bait. However, I think it is more interesting to try to answer the question Pinker poses.

To do that though we first have to ask the question “why do we think academic writing is poor?” Given the sheer volume of scholarly publication, the most reasonable hypothesis would be some kind of bell curve distribution of excellent, average, and poor writing performance. Of course that all depends on establishing some usable standard. No doubt part of this judgment, a large part, has to do with the use of jargon, and Pinker acknowledges that some use of technical terms is useful. Sometimes academics write for larger audiences, but for the most part they are writing to other experts in their fields. The easiest way I can think to adjust for this is to focus on the discursive practices within one’s own field. Pinker is well-known for his complaints about postmodernism, not only in terms of its jargon but also its philosophical positions. So when he complains about poor writing in the humanities filled with postmodern jargon, it is a somewhat disingenuous complaint (which is not to say that one cannot find examples of jargon-ridden prose in humanities scholarship). However the point here is simply that given such a volume of texts, there are going to be a fairly substantial number of substandard examples but also some good ones. Pinker writes “Helen Sword masochistically analyzed the literary style in a sample of 500 scholarly articles and found that a healthy minority in every field were written with grace and verve.” That would seem to support my hypothesis, even if one doesn’t really know how one establishes a standard for “grace and verve.” Perhaps Sword does a better job of explaining her process. In any case, even if there’s a positive skew distribution to the bell curve with a shining one-percent and a bulge of mediocrity, we still end up with a fairly bell-like shape.

We can’t all be above-average writers.

This raises another point to which Pinker does allude: academics are not selected or rewarded for their writing ability. Yes, one does need to get published and, depending on one’s field, write successful grant applications. However, to the extent that such success is based on writing ability it is certainly relative to the competition. To mangle a cliche, one doesn’t need to outrun the bear of excellent writing.  I’m not sure about Pinker, but I would not ascribe to the claim that there is some general writing ability that one can either have or not have. Instead, following many of my colleagues, I would view academic writing as a highly specialized skill not easily translatable from one discipline to another or even from a disciplinary genre to a broader audience genre. Learning to do the latter is a skill in itself. It is not one that is necessary for academic success (you could argue that we should change that, but you’d need to convince me that there is a broader audience out there for much of this work). In any case, most academics don’t acquire that skill. And, as I’ve said above, they may not be the best writers in their given technical genre. This is Pinker’s point, I think. Once you get over the publication hurdle, there’s little incentive to get better as a writer.

So why do we think academic writing is poor? Because some academic articles are worse than others and there’s not much incentive to do better.

While one one level some of Pinker’s specific “Strunk and White-esque” advice on word choice makes sense, in the bigger picture focusing on these sentence level issues is as misguided here as it is for first-year composition. However, I think he’s quite wrong on elsewhere. For example, he writes:

The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks.

He attributes this view not to himself but to a “classic style” of writing, though I believe the rest of the article indicates his strong support of this style.  Pinker indicates that efforts toward clarity in academic writing are stalled by a second style “that Thomas and Turner call self-conscious, relativistic, ironic, or postmodern, in which ‘the writer’s chief, if unstated, concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naïveté about his own enterprise.'” Mostly he wants to argue that this concern is unwarranted but he does acknowledge that even scientists 

recognize that it’s hard to know the truth, that the world doesn’t just reveal itself to us, that we understand the world through our theories and constructs, which are not pictures but abstract propositions, and that our ways of understanding the world must constantly be scrutinized for hidden biases. It’s just that good writers don’t flaunt that anxiety in every passage they write; they artfully conceal it for clarity’s sake.

Pinker is far more confident that he knows what writing is than I am, and I am skeptical of his confidence. As he indicates in this passage, clarity is achieved through artful concealment. This is essentially the hallmark recognition of deconstruction. It is also a recognition that is incompatible with his description of a classic style of writing that has a motive of “disinterested truth.” The disinterested truth would be that the writer doesn’t know the truth but that s/he conceals that fact through the rhetorical performance of clarity.

So how does conventional academic writing fit into this view? Is academic jargon an effort to obscure the fact that the author doesn’t know the truth or is hedging his/her bets, as Pinker seems to be suggesting here? Or is it a kind of intellectual laziness that reflects little concern about communicating (which is perhaps the most generous explanation Pinker offers). I would say that academic jargon is not just a convenient shorthand for complex ideas. Pinker himself points to the value of “chunking” ideas within academic concepts:

To work around the limitations of short-term memory, the mind can package ideas into bigger and bigger units, which the psychologist George Miller dubbed “chunks.” As we read and learn, we master a vast number of abstractions, and each becomes a mental unit that we can bring to mind in an instant and share with others by uttering its name. An adult mind that is brimming with chunks is a powerful engine of reason, but it comes at a cost: a failure to communicate with other minds that have not mastered the same chunks.

The difficulty is knowing which chunks we share with our audience, but that’s where genre comes in. By developing a facility with the genre shared within a community we expand our ability to think more complexly while also being able to expect our audience will understand what we are talking about. However Pinker’s recognition here also casts doubt on his earlier description of a classic style where “the writer knows the truth before putting it into words.”

In the end Pinker is circumspect on whether or not he ultimately wants to argue that “good” academic writing would adopt the “classic style.” However all of his more specific complaints and pieces of stylistic advice would imply that he believes not only that a classic style is best but that it also is a good description of how writing works. To be generous we could say that the former is debatable (what is the best style for academic writing), but the latter is mistaken.

That’s not how writing works. Beyond the writing skills one typically acquires in elementary school, there are few general writing skills. Writing in an academic discipline is a specific technical skill with a specific genre that is not simply “jargon” but a range of cognitive tools that enable scholars to do the work they do. In this respect they are similar to microscopes, bibliographies, mathematical formulas, spreadsheets, and research methods. This doesn’t mean that some scholars aren’t better writers of their genres than others (of course they are). This doesn’t mean that scholars might not also write for audiences beyond the community that shares their technical genre or that, when they do, they might not do a better job of it (of course they could). This doesn’t mean that disciplines might not do a better job–in graduate school curriculum, in the dissertating process, through editorial review of articles or monographs, or with the mentoring of junior faculty–of helping scholars develop as writers.

I think all those things could happen. I just don’t think that Pinker’s stylistic advice is especially helpful in that regard. It’s really just an analog of the old-fashioned red ink on an undergraduate student’s essay.

One thought on “academic writing, genre, and clarity

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  1. Perhaps it helps to learn that one of the featured academics writing with “grace and verve” is Steven Pinker? “Even Pinker’s chapter titles…are by turn concrete, humorous, allusive, and thought-provoking” (107)!

    Sword’s is not a horrible book, but I bought it when it came out hoping to find a lot more aggregation and analysis than it provides. Instead, it’s a style guide whose advice is pretty standard fare, punctuated by “Spotlights” of writers (like Pinker) whose work she feels meets her standards. Connors and Lunsford rate a spotlight for their “Ma and Pa Kettle” piece on error, but a lot of her choices (at least, those I recognized) are scholars who are writing for general audiences.

    cgb

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