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.
I’m now keen to go home and examine my own writing. I’m a scholar who writes. I’ve also written a lot of short stories for – ahem – a popular women’s magazine. I always say that writing with different writing ‘voices’ is thoroughly beneficial. But – does my writing show that?!
Very interesting, thank you. I haven’t read the book but may do now. However, watching how this often plays out within History, I wonder if it is about more than writing and to do with an idea of ‘rigour’ (which may or may not be problematic in itself)?
It’s actually an epistemological argument about whether the knowledge categories we develop are good enough.
Thanks a lot for the review of Michael’s ‘Learn To Write Badly’ book – we really appreciate it.
Always quite weird to find yourself in an ‘unexpected’ liking situation, but we’re glad you did with this book.
dear reader ( well always wanted to say that)… and I paid for the book myself.
I experience rogue impulses to drop out of ‘academic mode’ into a lighter frame: a *serious* fault in a researcher! I can’t bear huge chunks of indigestible ‘academic speak,’ let alone deciphering code words and acronyms, e.g., in interdisciplinary studies. You can have academic rigour without obscurantism.
Your blog’s been useful of late, Pat ~ esp. re. ‘the academic ‘I’.’
My research is in Classics and ancient history, not social sciences, but surely writing should flow, and be comprehensible, regardless of your field?
Thanks for that Pat, quite interesting. Out of interest, do you have any recommendations for books that DON’T dodge the question on how to write well as a social scientist? I’m on the hunt for a good one at the moment.
Howie Becker is the first point of call.
Some great posts here about academic writing, and the use of the personal pronoun ‘I’. Personally, I would love it if academia was more acceptant of different writing styles – but we basically deconstruct a PhD student’s writing style and force them to use abstract nouns and the passive voice as part of their apprenticeship. I work in the medical sciences, where any sign of personal style – not to mind the dreaded ‘I’ is a major faux-pas!
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From the very brief excerpts you posted, the irony is – I found Billig’s writing pretty inintelligible. So, really, a case in how bad academic writing can be, in a book on academic writing. I haven’t read the book, but his writing as shown in the prose you just copied and pasted above doesn’t make me want to read it.
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