Writing Well, Writing Academically

by johnmccreery

Advice from a hack who makes his living as a wordsmith.

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4 Comments to “Writing Well, Writing Academically”

  1. Well worth reading. I agree with you that much academic writing is turgid and offputting for no good communicative reason. This is why I teach my students to think about the rhetoric of writing in terms of accomplishing purposes, including creating a relationship with readers who do not have to read their work. (This is a revolutionary idea to many of them, since they are used to writing to only the captive audience of their teachers.)

    Along those lines, I think it’s worth thinking of writing in Goffman’s sense as a performance of self to an imagined audience. Much of the folderol of academese is designed to accomplish the persona of credible expert to a severely judging audience. This is learned in grad school as apprentice scholars bring their work to their masters for criticism. Once acquired it’s a very difficult habit of mind to unlearn when one is out on one’s own, especially since publication gatekeepers mostly have the same habits acquired in the same way.

  2. Much of the folderol of academese is designed to accomplish the persona of credible expert to a severely judging audience.

    Indeed. In line with what you say about writing in terms of accomplishing purposes, I note that the folderol is not the point. Citations accomplish two purposes, to enter a conversation with a demonstration that you know what other people have said, and to stroke those who will instantly turn to your references to see whether you have cited them. Since these are people who are likely to be refereeing your paper or job application, it’s a good idea to keep them happy. Reciprocity is a good thing, especially when it adds to reputations on both sides, writer and reader.

    Anyway, the important thing is to include the citations. I have had papers rejected because I didn’t cite someone who should have been cited. I have never had a paper rejected because it didn’t contain a section titled “Literature Review” or was written in an active instead of passive voice.

  3. Becker’s book on writing a term paper, dissertation, or thesis, is a wonderful work–I recommend it to everyone who is trying to write something, and I particularly like the way he addresses the adoption of a persona.

    If I had to make someone obey one rule in writing, however, it would be “death to passive constructions.” I really loathe the way those constructions tend to obscure who is doing what to whom. The habit is particularly bad in academic writing, for all of the reasons that Becker (and his students) identify.

  4. I wonder which non-fiction writers we consider particularly good. When I was writing about writing in the Interpretive Anthropology Group on OAC, I offered the following examples,

    From John McPhee, who both tells a great story and teaches a lot of science but starts, in Annals of the Former World, like this,

    The poles of the earth have wandered. The equator has apparently moved. The contents, perched on their plates, are thought to have been carried so very far and to be going in so many directions that it seems an act of almost pure hubris to assert that some landmark of our world is fixed at 73 degrees 57 minutes and 53 seconds west longitude and 40 degrees 51 minutes and 14 seconds north latitude—a temporary description, at any rate, as if for a boat on the sea.

    Or these lines from the Foreward by Alfred G. Fischer to Privileged Hands: A Remarkable Scientific Life by Geerat Vermeij.

    What would the blind lad get out of this trip? That was the question running through my mind as we drove the university vans across the New Jersey coastal plain from Princeton to Long Beach. We were on the first field trip for my undergraduate course in invertebrate paleontology and planned to collect organisms, particularly molluscs and their shells, for later study……Gary immediately felt his way down to the wet sand at the swash line, the line where the waves wash up on the beach, then back up the tide. On his knees, hands buried in the little ridge of drying seaweed, gum wrappers, and plastic bottles, he set to work.

    Ten minutes later, when the class regrouped, he was still busy. Raising a shell high over his head, he exclaimed, “I can’t believe it! Tell me, is this shell pink?” We assured him that it was indeed, whereupon he added, “What the hell is it doing here? It’s a Tellina and has no business being as far north as New Jersey!”

    How can you not read the book once you have read this! That, my friends, is great interpretive writing, meaning extracted, layered and conveyed without a trace of godlike author telling you what someone thinks.

    Care to share some of your favorite opening paragraphs?

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