Why do so many academics write badly?

Reading time: About 3 minutes

You’ve probably heard the charge that many academics write badly. You may even have said it yourself! Here’s why…

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 recent issue of the New Yorker contains 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 is not only normal, it’s expected. Here’s what many academics 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 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 them that any work — writing, history, math — should come easily. (And if it doesn’t, they believe they should avoid it, as I diligently avoided math.) “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.” (Thanks to Kris and Eve from Ant & Anise for forwarding this link to me.)

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.

What’s your view of academic writing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me. If you comment on my blog by March 31 you’ll be put in a draw for a copy of the novel Mount Pleasant by Don Gillmor. (If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.)