…non-academics regard writing as bullshit when it is abstract and vague and full of jargon. Here, academics are accused of hiding behind prose which is dense, exaggerated, obfuscating, overblown, and full of deepities as our frequent claims to profundity have been termed. We could write more clearly and simply but we use our academic bullshit to continue a vicious cycle which encourages students and new staff to imitate abstruse, professorial styles.Badley, G. F. (2020). Why and How Academics Write. Qualitative Inquiry, 26(3–4), 247–256.
This article doesn’t include a list of instructions that will make you a better writer but it might serve as stimulus, inspiring you to think of writing as more than the reporting of facts. For the most part it’s a nice article for novices who haven’t yet ossified their practice into something “pompous and needlessly complex”, as well as for experienced writers who’ve been doing it for so long that they don’t even think about why and how they write anymore.
I did think that the paper tapers off towards the end, becoming something that reads more like a stream of consciousness than anything coherent, although I think that this may have been the point.
“Academics are often criticized for their poor or rotten writing”.
Writing that is “pompous and needlessly complex”.
How do we make our writing less awful?
Why do we write badly?
- We use academese; writing that is “turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and
impossible to understand” (Pinker, 2014).
- We convince ourselves that our subject matter needs us to use insider-shorthand to convey complex ideas.
- We think that “ponderous prose will get us published”. (Nice phrase).
- We assume that readers know what we’re talking about; this is called the curse of knowledge.
- We use academic bullshit to fill our writing with “deepities”; claims of profoundness that need big words to show just how deep they are.
Our belief that we’re “entering the conversation” is part of the problem; we’re just continuing the cycle of producing more vague, dense, passive, boring writing.
Why do we write at all?
It’s not a good enough reason to say that, as academics, we “have to” write, or because it’s tied to funding. The author provides some examples of other reasons for why academics write. Here are some that I loved:
- To produce order out of chaos.
- To satisfy a desire for revenge.
- To thumb our noses at Death.
- To act out antisocial behaviour.
- To allow for the possibility of hope and redemption.
“…writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act” (Didion, 1976).
“If we try to write as humans for other humans, then we are more likely to make our writing less rotten and more accessible to a wider audience.”
How we academics (should) write
We should consider writing as a daily, human practice.
Producing meaningful text is as dependent on how we write as it is on what we write.
While there are many specific tips we could use to improve writing (e.g. avoid the passive voice, altering the length of sentences, etc.), the simplest might be to commit to writing every day. The aim of this might be to make our practice “routine and mundane.” (Silvia, 2007).
Reading is a prerequisite for writing. One way of joining a community is to start reading what others in that community have written.
Reading can help us to reorient our thoughts. Reading and writing are tied in with thinking. It may not be that we write what we think but rather that what we think becomes clear as we write. “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” (O’Connor).
“People who write a lot outline a lot.” Preparing an outline isn’t a prelude to “real” writing, it’s part of writing, even if the outline is ultimately abandoned.
“A clear sentence is no accident.” (Zinsser, 2006). But, early messiness can help us to make new connections and get a better sense of what we want to say.
Knowing the how of our writing helps us get closer to knowing why we write.
“…watch out for all attempts made by writers to empty their prose of people as agents by substituting ‘things that act like people’…”. Avoid writing about the world while avoiding the people in it.
Writing as “…an adventure in thought” or a “quest”.
Why and how do I write?
First, Why do I write?
“…writing is an act of hope, a sort of communion with fellow men…a tiny beam of light to show some hidden aspect of reality…”
And how do I write?
” I see my writing as knowledge-in-the-making even though I am not as skilled as some in using writing to learn what I know rather than to state what I think I know.”
Note: For me, this last section was a bit odd; I think it’s an attempt to be playful with words (lots of words) that all present a different facet of how the author thinks of his writing. But for me it doesn’t work. Rather than being a clear description of anything it comes across as a word-salad, with so many meanings as to make it meaningless. It’s also quite long. If you can get through it, you may find some nuggets of value. I skipped most of it. The conclusion is no less confusing.