I’ve just read Michael Billig’s latest book Learn to write badly. How to succeed in the Social Sciences.
I wanted to hate it. I wanted to stay cross about the fact that it seems to be much easier to write a book which criticizes academic writing, than write one which shows us how to write well. I was also ready for the possibility that Billig’s book would simply be a repeat of Helen Sword’s book about ‘style’. I was prepared for a straightforward diatribe against making actions into things and writing everything in the passive voice.
But I didn’t get quite what I expected. Rather than simply focus on the surface features of language, Billig argues that in writing in particular ways – doing pretty conventional social science in fact – we actually do poor research. When we turn actions into lofty abstractions, he suggests, we actually gloss over important ambiguities and difficulties and make it hard for readers to understand what has really happened, how or why.
I learnt a new word while reading Billig’s book too. Nouny. Yes, that’s right. Nouny. Billig says that one of the characteristics of academic prose is that it is very densely packed with nouns. Much denser than most other writing. We academics continually make events, actions, conversations and interactions (for example) into nouns. We think that we are doing this in order to generalize about them. But not so, he says. Rather than making things comprehensible, we actually make them harder to grasp. In a recent interview Billig said
… there are reasons why current academic writing can resemble the language used by administrators, managers and even advertising executives. My favourite example comes from my own university’s official title for the system that we teachers are told to use for recording information about our tutees. The system is grandly called: ‘Co-Tutor Student Relationship Management System’. The five nouns are strung together without the aid of pronouns, let alone verbs. It’s not a precise term: if you asked an outsider to say what sort of system it was and what it was supposedly managing, they would probably get it wrong. Unfortunately, the social sciences today are full of terms like this.
Billig doesn’t stop there. He argues, as in this short column for Prospect magazine, that writing nouny prose is not only imprecise, but also necessary for career building.
Throughout the social sciences, we can find academics parading their big nouns and their noun-stuffed noun-phrases. By giving something an official name, especially a multi-noun name which can be shortened to an acronym, you can present yourself as having discovered something real—something to impress the inspectors from the Research Excellence Framework.
Well there’s more than a grain of truth in that. Lots of leadership scholars for example seem to think that all they have to do is add a new noun or adjective in front of the word leadership, report a bit of data and that counts as a contribution.
In the end I have to say that I quite liked Billig’s book. I don’t agree with all of it – I do think the odd nouny bid of writing is probably necessary. I also think that he does ultimately dodge the question of how to teach social scientists to write well, other than by giving them Richard Sennett and a couple of named others as primers. And I do worry about the way in which the so-called quality media love to jump on the bandwagon of ‘academics can’t write’. It’s just too easy. Too generalised. Too simple.
But nevertheless Billig’s book was a good read, and thought-provoking. I’d certainly recommend it to doctoral and early career researchers as a way to think about the connections between knowledge-production and writing.