Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Why Do So Many Academics Write Badly?

A group of doctors paid me to edit a report a few years back. Their work — not a medical study, but a document aimed at making a political point — horrified me. When I ran it through readability stats, it earned a grade 14 rating.

I was naïve enough to tell them this. And here was the problem: They were as delighted, as if I'd reported a clear lung x-ray or outstanding HDL (good cholesterol). It fit with their self-perception as intelligent, well-educated people. They were less pleased when I told them it needed to be edited to a grade 9 level. Fortunately, they eventually let me do what I'd been paid for.

But this kind of disconnect — between the education people have achieved and the behaviour they exhibit — isn't limited to medical doctors. It also affects many (not all) academics.

Here's why:

1) A 2014 issue of the New Yorker contained an engrossing article headlined "Big Score" by Elizabeth Kobert. In giving an overview of the tortured history of the SAT exams, Kolbert writes, "a study by an instructor at M.I.T. has shown that success on the SAT essay is closely correlated with length: the more words pile up, the higher the score. When, at Advantage Testing, [Debbie] Stier is shown essays that have received top marks, she is horrified. They are, she writes, 'terrible.'"

How is it that terrible essays help determine who gets into Ivy League universities, who gets into State ones and who is stuck in community colleges? Do you think it's possible that anyone who's been through this rating system might be forced to conclude that long, convoluted sentences (stuffed with long, convoluted words) are a clear sign of intelligence and something that should be emulated?

2) Anyone who becomes supremely knowledgeable in a specific area, inevitably picks up the language related to it (mostly jargon) and becomes familiar with the key principles. In fact, they usually become so familiar with it that they think their knowledge is normal, even expected. Thus, they lose both the will and often, the ability, to explain it in plain English. If you doubt this, check out Prof. Michael Billig's ironically titled essay, "Learn to Write Badly."

3) Most academics read the work of other academics — if not exclusively then certainly more than other kinds of writing. And, in most academic journals, the long, complex sentences, the passive voice, the jargon and the litter of acronyms and initialisms are not only normal, they’re expected. Here's what many people fail to appreciate: We all write as we read. Devour enough academic prose and you will see it as normal and begin to write that way yourself.

4) Academics judge each other particularly harshly. I've had an ongoing contract with an academic group in Vancouver, where I live, for the last few years and while the people inside the group are lovely and the director, who writes extraordinarily well, is both thoughtful and kind, outside the group I witness all kinds of nastiness and backbiting that is far worse than anything I've ever seen in the corporate world. If you are writing for academic publication the most profound emotion you will likely feel is fear. Fear of being exposed. Fear of getting something wrong. Fear of saying something others will see as stupid. (Here are five ways of dealing with fear of writing.)

5) In a recent issue of the Atlantic, headlined "Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators," writer Megan McArdle argues that most writers (and I'd insert the word "academics," too) start life with a natural ability to read quickly.

This allows them to operate on "cruise control" she says, convincing themselves that any work — writing, history, math — should come easily. (And if it doesn't, they believe they should avoid it.) "Every word you write [then] becomes a test of just how much ability you have, every article a referendum on how good a writer you are."

I found McArdle's argument mightily convincing — perhaps because I was an A student who struggled with writer's block for many years. I particularly appreciated the way she cited Carol Dweck's important work on the difference between "fixed mind-sets" — people who believe talents are inherited at birth — and "growth mind-sets" — people who believe that, with work, anyone can improve.

Now, here's my main point. Doctors and academics aren't the only people who often write badly. Many corporate communicators and garden-variety writers do, too, for the same reasons I outlined above. Review the five-point list again and see where you might be able to turn yourself into a better writer.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Monday April 13th 2015, 1:10 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Steven Pinker recently commented on the genesis of academic writing, which covers probably a couple of your points:

"[W]hen you enter graduate school you enter into a tiny clique, a sub-sub-sub-set of your discipline. Your estimate of the breadth of the knowledge of the people you are writing for gets radically miscalibrated. Highly idiosyncratic ideas are discussed if they are common knowledge, and you lose the sense of how tiny a club you have joined. And you’re in terror of being judged naive and unprepared, and so you signal in your writing that you’re a member of this esoteric club." [ http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/12/steven-pinker-interview/384092/2/]

Of course, this presumes that the writer has made a conscious effort to learn to write in an academic way, and could perhaps learn to write more clearly, given the right incentive. I can't say I'm convinced of that.
Monday April 13th 2015, 5:10 AM
Comment by: Victor G. (Vancouver Canada)
One of the first principles that are taught in writing classes & in elementary school is to assume that your audience knows nothing about the topic about which you're writing. However, many writers pay no attention to it or promptly forget about it.
Monday April 13th 2015, 9:33 AM
Comment by: Lesley G. (Lowestoft United Kingdom)
I really enjoy your articles! I read a lot of literary criticism and theory. The critical essays I find most valuable, and inspiring, are those where the writer has not complicated the message with the need to project his/her own academic excellence. Sometimes I wade through a long wordy argument to find that not very much has been stated, and other times a beautifully written simple text will send me back into the literary work eager to find something new to enjoy or challenge. Communicating ideas works best, surely, when the both the writer and the reader connect on a level of understanding.
Monday April 13th 2015, 10:33 AM
Comment by: John N.
One of the most important lessons of my career was within the first few months after graduating with a shiny degree in mathematics. I was hired by a Fortune 500 firm to do "mathematical things" with one of my first assignments being a statistical study. My report was a very detailed and learned essay on all the applicable statistical theory I could dredge up. I was very proud of this opportunity to display my grasp of the subject.

The department head was not impressed and expressed his disgust crudely and unmistakably. I hope that I never wrote a report in the subsequent 40+ years that was not suitable for toilet paper.
Monday April 13th 2015, 10:49 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hmm, I'm not convinced that many students are taught to assume that their audience knows nothing! In fact, I think the post-secondary system usually REWARDS students for assuming that their audience knows a great deal. Like you, Lesley, I am most drawn to critical essays (or books) that are simply written.

John, it's unfortunate that your department head was crude and disgusted. Whenever I'm editing, I make a point of making my comments as kindly as possible. If I'm dealing with someone who's truly recalcitrant I try to act more in sorrow than in anger...

Mike, I think post-secondary students DO make an effort to write in an academic way. The whole system gives them many incentives (marks, praise, publication) to do so.
Monday April 13th 2015, 11:08 AM
Comment by: John N.
Daphne, over the years, I have learned to be very grateful to that individual. Crude and disgusting--yes, but it got through to me in a way that a politely expressed comment probably would not have accomplished. I began to learn to write for my audience.
Monday April 13th 2015, 11:20 PM
Comment by: Robert F. (Dallas, TX)
Within a few seconds of reading your article I was laughing. I gather software requirements from engineers for a living and I am very successful at it. The reason I get paid is because their thinking lacks clarity. Forming ideas into words aside, they are simply too close to the problem to see it clearly -- yes, the old forest for the trees argument.

They get paid for application of their knowledge and not their ability to explain what they do or what problems they have. The first thing I have to do is get them using consistent words and clearly separable concepts. They just don't have to do this in their everyday work. Usually, they know what to do and they keep it all in their heads -- that is their "gift" and why they get paid.

When asked to explain work problems to management they struggle and the managers usually assume it is incomprehensible. They are given the excuse of genius and if they succeed they are rewarded.

So I think you are on the wrong track with the "lack of education" perspective. It takes expertise and time to clarify the complexity of any technical subject and application of technical knowledge is a different skill. I could not do the engineers job, but I can understand their problems well enough to develop solutions for them.
Tuesday April 14th 2015, 3:21 AM
Comment by: Lesley G. (Lowestoft United Kingdom)
I enjoyed your comment Robert f. It's more about different skill sets in the.example you have shared. The trouble with overwriting in the academic sphere is probably more about what is perceived as 'educated'.
Tuesday April 14th 2015, 5:26 PM
Comment by: Verlaine (Australia)
Can accurate writing be simple? Do you write to educate or be understood by
the vulgum pecus?
Tuesday April 14th 2015, 7:06 PM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Yes accurate writing can be simple. And simple accurate writing takes more effort than jargon-filled obfuscation. Convolution is laziness.

My uncle had three doctorates in scientific disciplines and was a full university professor with an international reputation. He always told his students: "If you want to be understood, write understandably." One of his former students sent him a paper years later with a note: "I know you will not agree with my hypothesis, but have I written this understandably?"

My motto for writing is a quotation with a long history:
‘Be clear, be brief, be human’.
Sir Ernest Gowers, Plain Words, 1948.

This comes from his book "The complete Plain Words", first published in 1948. It has never been out of print since then, and a new revised edition came out in 2014.
Wednesday April 15th 2015, 2:12 AM
Comment by: Lesley G. (Lowestoft United Kingdom)
I think that is a book I will order. Thanks, Alice M
Thursday April 16th 2015, 12:50 AM
Comment by: Rajesh S. (Indore India)
Dear Daphne,

Your article has been most enlightening. I am a schoolteacher and also occasionally contribute to academic journals. I have always struggled to be viewed in good esteem by my colleagues in the academic community and in the process, sometimes end up writing in convoluted prose, filled with technical jargon and embellishing them with little-used words. As an Indian, I suppose, one is sometimes conscious of the fact that English was picked up as a second language. We Indians don't always 'think in English' and hence, the challenges of translation from a native language, like Hindi, to English. We experience the world around us in our native language and then struggle to interpret and capture the essence of our experiences in English, which is, to most of the Indians, a 'language of the Mind' rather than the 'language of the Heart'. This dichotomy is exacerbated by the fact that even today, after 68 years of Independence from the British, English is the gateway to worldly success and best educational institutions of India are predominantly English. Even the upper echelons of the Indian Administrative System and Corporate India are largely biased towards English. There is this huge divide between the 'English-haves' and the 'English-have nots'.
Aatish Taseer's New York Times article on this is an eye-opener.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/22/opinion/sunday/how-english-ruined-indian-literature.html?_r=2

Rajesh Santhanam
India
Wednesday April 22nd 2015, 2:35 AM
Comment by: Michael Scott D. (Sydney Australia)
I agree with Alice. It is hard to write simple, clear prose. It is even harder when the message you want to communicate is complex or contains subtleties. But most of all it is hard because when the language is simple the idea stands naked before its audience, and that is scary.
Wednesday April 22nd 2015, 4:01 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Rajesh S.,

I have just read the article you posted about Indian literature - an eye-opener indeed. I did not know that a class of English monolinguals had emerged in India. That is sad.

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