Writing for Academia – Some Advice from the Cheaper Seats

Today’s guest-post comes courtesy of professor Michael Morse. At our request, Michael has agreed to provide his insight into how essay writers can approach developing their craft. That’s it for me; take it from here Michael!

Dear comrades, forgive my intrusion into a blog arena that’s not supposed to be for the likes of me. I saw some writing guidelines posted here recently, and wrote a reply; Alex Headley graciously invited me to offer some further thoughts.

Writing for academics is more crucial than ever, and its standards are at once confusing, plainly changing, and up in the air. Although a fairly lousy writer myself, I take good writing very seriously, and so make bold to offer some ideas.

Amidst the general university upheavals of cost cutting and allegedly practical reorientations, academic writing is in a crisis of its own. Social tolerance for academic foibles has withered dramatically, and with it the patience for complex academic prose. The reasons range from virulent anti-intellectualism to the lingering, nasty hangover from postmodern obscurantism. The effect has been general panic and a catastrophic sense of loss of purpose. This troubling and urgent social dilemma implies that only folks planning on, in fact sure to become career academics should develop an academic writing style. Most contemporary academic prose styles are at odds with non-academic usages. Alas, it is not as simple as academia being the sole preserve of jargon and wilful woolliness. Contemporary business English regularly makes the most outrageous scholarly obfuscation look lucid.

The practical consequence is that students must both be aware of the wild discrepancies in style expected in different contexts, and develop strategies for dealing them. Stylistic inflexibility is an especially bad idea today. Students need the general skill of absorbing the traits and expectations of different linguistic environments, dispassionately learning to speak them as if they were foreign languages. Academic-speak can be a surprisingly good place to begin, as different departments have quite discrepant standards. Psychology regularly attempts to prove itself a science by demanding that writers never use the first person singular, writing reports in which I don’t find the results, but “it is observed” that they are found. This addiction to the passive voice is the opposite of what English departments demand. History is somewhere in the middle, discouraging first person but generally frowning on the passive voice. As exasperating as it must be to write three essays in a row with such bitterly different, mutually exclusive style guidelines, the practical experience will prove rewarding in the long run.

Is there no such thing as a good style, then? Depending on the situation, the answer is probably no. But there are still general principles worth learning, even if they need discarding outside the horse-shit rich maelstrom of academia. The problem with style guidelines is that they are usually framed in negative terms. “Avoid needless words” is excellent advice; but how do I know which ones are superfluous? A better way would be to suggest that the editing stage contain at least one pass solely dedicated to word and phrase economy. “At this point in time”? make it “Now,” s’il vous plait! “S’il vous plait”? Make it “please”! Like everything to do with writing, economy is an art, which means it takes practice–and will never result in perfection. Art also means that self-expression in the abstract is never the point. That’s a tough one for most of us to swallow, not least because the common sense aesthetic ideology of self-expression buries its real source: practice. Develop a style that will express your ideas as clearly as possible in the idiom of your audience, and let self-expression take care of itself.

An old adage from the days of sailing ships says “one hand for the ship, one hand for yourself.” In a storm, you climb the mast and use one hand to trim the sail, the other to keep from blowing off the ship. Writing to express yourself eventually means writing to please yourself alone. And of course in that case you can always say “you know what I mean!,” and be right invariably. But may we agree that writing that doesn’t mean anything to anyone but the author doesn’t mean anything at all? Writers of every stripe of bureaucratese, including the dreary academic varieties, know how to pump out paragraph after paragraph of swill-in-prose, tailored to a grotesque imaginary client known to his or her (non-existent) friends as “them.” Writing to the strict, invariably unreasonable guidelines of an objective style is professionally valuable–and, just as invariably, largely uncommunicative and stylistically godawful. If writing is not always an art, it is always a craft. The quintessence of any craft is finding our way to what needs to be said, and saying in a way that makes sense. That means overcoming the temptation to indulge ourselves in our favourite posturings, ignoring the reader. Equally, and for the same reason, it means realizing that the writing craft is human and personal, and can only pretend to be done by an impersonal machine. In short, self-indulgent writing is not truly subjective, any more than bureaucratic jargonese is “objective.” These are opposite paths to the same oversimplified illusion.

The ultimate general guideline is that there is no such thing as writing, only the infinite readjustment of rewriting. Become not just a proof reader of your work, but a severely critical editor. The revision stages are where style is truly developed, in the moments of learning to simplify, condense, clarify, discard, rephrase, sharpen, re-order. Most good writers typically have an early phase of uninhibited inspiration, writing drafts that allow their thoughts to follow their own logic and momentum. Turning such drafts into a finished essay through rewriting is writing. The only “writing guidelines” that do any good are the only ones that can, those we develop ourselves through self-critical practice.

Professor Michael Morse

About dontpanictrent

DON'T PANIC: A Trent Graduate Student Blog

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