Friday, July 15, 2016

Well, Naturally

Writing at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Noah Berlatsky explores the awfulness of academic writing, specifically digging into why academics who start out writing poorly never seem to improve?

Berlatsky says that part of the problem is what many people suspect it is -- somewhere along the line someone sold academia (and the rest of us) on the idea that if something is obscure, then it must also be profound. Academic folks therefore don't write in their wackadoodle way to hide that they've nothing to say, but because they've bought the line that if any meathead can understand what they're talking about then they aren't being truly intellectual.

There's probably some truth to that. Every profession or group has its own specialized slang to a greater or lesser degree. And understanding it when no one else does can often give that feeling of insider-ness that many of us love.

But, Berlatsky says, when the desire to veil the simple so as not to be thought simplistic mates with the kind of poor writing skills seemingly everywhere today, then there is a kind of obscurantist symbiosis that locks in the bad style and death-by-polysyllable traits for the duration of a career.

Highly technical writing probably should be a little tough to understand for the non-specialist. After all, if some depth of study has gone into learning the details of a subject then it would be kind of a wash if the study turned out not to be necessary.

On the other hand, the source of the difficulty should be in things like the terms of whatever specialty's being discussed. If I'm reading something on a particularly challenging area of geology, for example, then I ought to be slogging along because I have to pause and look up words. But I should not be slogging along because the writing itself muddles things and the sentences under consideration would remain impenetrable if they concerned how to boil water.

Part of the problem, of course, is that few people have to suffer academic writing at its highest and most abstract level. And many of those that do turn around and become academics themselves, and they're not spilling the beans. Who knows what might happen to them if they exposed their profession's deep secrets?

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