Monday 18 February 2013

On 'On Writing Well'

Stephen Walt comments on the generally terrible quality of academic writing:
... the poor quality of academic writing is both aesthetically offensive and highly inefficient. Academics should strive to write clearly for the obvious reason that it will allow many others to learn more quickly. Think of it this way: If I spend 20 extra hours editing, re-writing, and polishing a piece of research, and if that extra effort enables 500 people to spend a half-hour less apiece figuring out what I am saying, then I have saved humankind a net 230 hours of effort.
... many academics (and especially younger ones) tend to confuse incomprehensibility with profundity. If they write long and ponderous sentences and throw in lots of jargon, they assume that readers will be dazzled by their erudition and more likely to accept whatever it is they are saying uncritically.

And he quotes Strunk and White:
"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."
I agree with most of this but I think it needs to be said that there's more to 'good writing' than clarity and parsimony. Academic writing should also be interesting and engaging. Clunky, plodding, dull, dry, unimaginative, artless prose can be just as hard to wade through as the meandering, pleonastic, self-important, jargon-stuffed kind. A telephone directory is clear and to-the-point but it isn't good writing.

Making a point in 100 words rather than 500 is certainly to be preferred, all else being equal -- but all else is not equal. It doesn't hurt to explain complex points in a few different ways. Nor are poetic devices or rhetorical or polemical flourishes in the least bit out of place in academic writing so long as they are used to emphasise, complement or punctuate the substance of the argument, rather than replacing or obscuring it.

For good writers clarity, parsimony, compellingness and elegance are not only uncontradictory -- they are concordant.

So, while I completely agree that academic writers should try to avoid wasting their readers' time they should also try to avoid boring their readers to death, if possible.