Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On Academic Writing

Academic writing... well some of it is horribly dry and unreadable, filled with jargon which seems to be the author showing how cool they are while not actually saying anything. As as academic who is pitching a manuscript which is neither dry nor jargon-filled, I am sensitive to these issues. I once wrote, about a horrible book I was reading, "the author has confused the use of jargon for research." Recently I received some feedback from an academic press about my manuscript, "the manuscript is interesting [and] written in a lively manner..." I don't think "lively" was a good thing to the author of the letter, although it isn't clear. I think lively is important.

George Orwell explained five (six) rules of effective writing, note rule 5:
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Jargon is a problem, although science is a good thing and has its time and place. If you are trying to explain something to an audience that knows the scientific word, like in a journal article, fine, but if you want to reach a wider audience, think carefully about your word choice.

As the newest APA (6th ed.) style guide stated clearly, "Although scientific writing differs in form from literary writing, it need not lack style or be dull" (p. 66, 5th printing). IT NEED NOT LACK STYLE OR BE DULL. Ok "need not" is a rather formal construction, but NOT BE DULL. I don't think there would be a need to write that unless there was enough scientific writing that was dull. There is even an index entry for "Jargon, avoidance of" (p. 265).

Most people who have experience with publishing ask me if my book is "academic or trade?" Do you know the one about how there are two kinds of people in the world, those who think there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don't? It's like that. This is an oversimplification and doesn't serve anyone well. There are lots of smart books written by academics and non-academics that have a wider audience, and may be published by a trade or academic press. There are smart histories written by non-academics like Bill Bryson (lively style) and Nathaniel Philbrick. There are accessible histories written by professors, like Fordlandia by Greg Grandin at NYU. There are non-PhD part-academics like Clay Shirky, who is a professor at NYU and whose books are read both in classes and more widely by the public. There is Lawrence Lessig, who is a professor but whose many books are widely read.

Then there is also Clifford Geertz, specifically, two of his articles, both well-known, one about Balinese cockfighting and the other about a funeral. Because this is not an academic publication, I can say how both are lively pieces, although sadly the main character in the second one was not very lively, due to death. But his piece on cockfighting has blood flying and penis jokes (since "cock" in English parallels the equivalent word in Balinese and thus all the off-color jokes that go along with that). Penis jokes! The man of cultural anthropology wrote about penis jokes. That is lively, that is good academic writing. Granted it's not good just because it's lively, but academic writing can be good and lively at the same time. And if your writing is lively, it's of interest to more people, and thus you'll reach a wider audience. It's also more enjoyable to read, and who doesn't like that?

Let's try a checklist, which is, I grant, fabricated. Is your writing...

  1. Lively
  2. Straightforward
  3. Deathly

I know which I prefer, as an author and as a reader.