In this dryly amusing essay, Steven Pinker tries to figure out “Why Academics Stink at Writing”.
He quickly discards the conventional explanations: that “bad writing is a deliberate choice” designed to “bamboozle”; that “difficult writing is unavoidable because of the abstractness and complexity of [the] subject matter; and, that “the gatekeepers of journals and university presses insist on ponderous language as proof of one’s seriousness”. There’s a smidgen of truth in each but none stands up to proper scrutiny.
For Pinker, the gold standard of expository prose is the classic style:
The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader so she can see for herself. 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. The writer and the reader are equals: The reader can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view. And the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation.
While academic writers generally do want to convey some particular information, this straightforward goal is undermined by a deeper need. “[T]he writer’s chief, if unstated, concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naïveté about his own enterprise.”
The resulting “agonising self-consciousness” leads to many of the irritating tics of academese.
Constant hedging, for example:
Writers use hedges in the vain hope that it will get them off the hook, or at least allow them to plead guilty to a lesser charge, should a critic ever try to prove them wrong. A classic writer, in contrast, counts on the common sense and ordinary charity of his readers, just as in everyday conversation we know when a speaker means in general or all else being equal.
Or using metadiscourse, which Pinker calls “verbiage about verbiage”:
The art of classic prose is to use signposts sparingly, as we do in conversation, and with a minimum of metadiscourse. Instead of the self-referential “This chapter discusses the factors that cause names to rise and fall in popularity,” one can pose a question: “What makes a name rise and fall in popularity?”
Then there’s metaconcepts, concepts about concepts:
A legal scholar writes, “I have serious doubts that trying to amend the Constitution … would work on an actual level. … On the aspirational level, however, a constitutional amendment strategy may be more valuable.” What do the words level and strategy [both metaconcepts] add to a sentence that means, “I doubt that trying to amend the Constitution would actually succeed, but it may be valuable to aspire to it”?
You get the idea. Before leaving you to the essay, two more highlights.
Why is the best academic writing often done by scientists while “the perennial winners of the Bad Writing Contest are professors of English”?
That’s because the ideal of classic prose is congenial to the worldview of the scientist. Contrary to the common misunderstanding in which Einstein proved that everything is relative and Heisenberg proved that observers always affect what they observe, most scientists believe that there are objective truths about the world, and that they can be discovered by a disinterested observer.
By the same token, this guiding image of classic prose could not be farther from the worldview of relativist academic ideologies such as postmodernism, poststructuralism, and literary Marxism, which took over many humanities departments in the 1970s.
Finally, writing clearly and well is tough. We all know about the correspondent who wrote “I would have sent you a shorter letter but didn’t have the time”. Here’s Pinker’s version:
When Calvin explained to Hobbes, “With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog,” he got it backward. Fog comes easily to writers; it’s the clarity that requires practice. The naïve realism and breezy conversation in classic style are deceptive, an artifice constructed through effort and skill.
Because bad writing is so rarely punished (or even frowned upon) within academe, there’s little incentive for academics to “bother with this costly self-improvement”.
A pity but all the more reason to enjoy this exception.
1 So defined by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner in “Clear and Simple as the Truth“.