bad academic writing – an easy target

Dear Editor,

I thought it might be timely to offer you a top tip for getting a bit of action on your online news magazine site. I’ve noticed you’re not getting as many hits as you might, and I’ve got a sure-fire, easy solution. *drum roll*  Why not publish an article about how academics can’t write?

Babel-ing on in the Ivory tower.

Babel-ing on in the ivory tower

Well, yes, I know it’s been done before, and I know that you’ve done it too, but this subject is a gift that keeps on giving. It seems you just can’t say often enough that academics can’t write.

And it’s so easy to produce an article about crappy academic prose. Hardly any effort at all. Just three simple steps.

Step One: Find some examples of dense academic prose. Where? Well… Because everyone knows that scientists have to use technical language, it’s best to look at subjects like cultural studies, history, philosophy and sociology. You can always find at least one or two papers that are hard for the non-specialist to decipher.

Don’t worry about the fact that there is a lot of other academic writing out there that is much more accessible and straightforward. Don’t worry that lots of academics now write for newspapers and blogs. Don’t worry that some of them even write for you. Just say “ivory tower” ,”real world” and “incomprehensible” a few times and no one will bother about how selective you’ve been in your choice of examples.

And you can always go back to the Bad Writing Contest. Sure, it finished in 1998 and it only ran for five years but no-one’s going to check up or ask how selective that was either. Referring to it really gives the impression that you’ve done your homework.

Step Two: Find at least one – preferably two or three – academics who you can interview about writing. They need to be people that are already writing for the public – and preferably people who don’t yet know how you might use what they’ve got to say. Having more than one interviewee adds to your overall cred because you give the impression that this is a general view.

When you talk to them, your interviewees are bound to say at least a couple of things about other academics who don’t write that well. That’s what you need. You can ignore all of that guff about the wide range of writing that increasing numbers of academics now do. Everyone will recognise what you’re quoting is right because it’s true that some academics don’t write well. You’re just helping the reader make the leap from some to all.

Yes, well of course some academics are really good writers and a lot are getting better as they write for different audiences. Don’t go soft here. That’s not your interest. You are only concerned with the people who write badly. You can selectively use the critical comments from the interviews and ignore the rest because after all, you want a good story, don’t you?

Step Three: Finish with a recommendation that all academics need to get on with learning to write properly. If “they” would just stop “speaking in tongues” and write about things that are easy to understand, then we’d all be happy. If “they” would stop using big words and write at the level of a junior secondary student like you do, we’d all be happy. Well, we would, wouldn’t we?

I think you’ll find, dear Editor, if you follow these three easy steps, you’ll get lots of comments and social media traffic. And particularly from academics who are irritated by your partial explanations of the realities of academic writing today.

No, don’t thank me, you’re welcome.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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5 Responses to bad academic writing – an easy target

  1. Simon Bailey says:

    Ok – now I want to read the piece that set that off!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jane S says:

    Dear Pat: well said! The pearls of the Philosophy and Literature’s Bad Writing Contest are splendid examples of ‘enunciatory modality’ (Dutton). And Ed Lilley’s ‘phenomenologically irreducible dyad of the mother and child’ – gasp! I could yearn to introduce such a gem into my own work.
    Although it’s an infamous cliché, tabloid journos love pillorying intellectuals. But to be clear and readily understood does not require one to write like a secondary school junior. In my own field the denizens of the higher echelons (those derided ivory towers) all speak and write remarkably clearly, without murdering their mother tongues. The real demand is lucidity – and no embedded sub-sub-clauses where we lose sight of the subject in a welter of impenetrable specialist trumped-up terms or fashionable concepts. Clarity is the true hallmark of serious academic quality.

    I hazard a guess your hidden target is deliberate obscurantism, masking poor thinking or specious arguments in a cloak of intelligent-sounding double-Dutch, high-falutin’ phrases which, if analysed, turn out to mean very little, or even nothing?
    OK, it’s easy to parody, but ‘possibly the anxiety-inducing obscurity of such writing’ (Warren Hedges) makes us donate the emperor his new clothes. You see, none of us wish to say we don’t understand – it might make colleagues imagine we lack proper scholarly knowledge of our fields.


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