Briefly Noted: Why Scholars Tend to Be Awful Writers

Hmmff. In a recent blog post, “On Writing Well,” Stephen M. Walt (Professor of International Affairs, Harvard University) tackles the question of why academic writing is often quite poor.[1] Walt believes there are some real reasons why academic writing suffers, but this is not because either “no one encourages future academics to write well” or “because of poor editing at journals or university presses.” He offers a couple of surface level reasons followed by two deeper reasons academic writing is “frequently abysmal.”

One reason academic writing is difficult to read is “because the subjects being addressed are complicated and difficult and hard to explain with ordinary language.” Academic discussions on philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, or epistemology, for instance, can be very technical. Walt notes, however, that this is no excuse because writer should still set forth his prose as lucidly as possible.

Another reason is that many scholars fail to “appreciate the difference between the logic of discovery and the logic of presentation.” By this Walt means academic writers should not explain their argument in writing in the same order or manner in which they built their argument while researching. Good writing, Walt argues, requires the researcher-writer to craft an argument with clear, logical connections. The point of writing for an audience is to help the audience to understand the argument and be persuaded by it.

A third, and deeper, reason that academics set forth such turgid and torturous prose “is that many academics (and especially younger ones) tend to confuse incomprehensibility with profundity.” That is, scholars often use confusing prose and slather their essays with technical jargon in an effort to sound intelligent. Yet as Walt indicates, a convincing argument does not require stuffy, specialized prose even if the academic might be writing about a specialized topic.

A final, and similarly deep, reason is “fear of being wrong.” If one writes clearly, one’s work is easier to understand and therefore easier to critique. In order to avoid this some academics may write in an intentionally obscure manner. As Walt claims, “bad writing thus becomes a form of academic camouflage designed to shield the author from criticism.” I second Walt’s point, and quote historian of philosophy Bryan Magee, who once put it this way: “The desire to communicate and be understood as widely as possible often comes directly into conflict with the desire to impress. This gives many people an incentive not to be clear, because what they have to say does not amount to much, and so the more clearly it is expressed the more obvious that fact will be.”

Whatever the reasons for bad writing, Walt proposes some solutions. He encourages his own students to read books about writing. He recommends the classic by Strunk and White, Elements of Style, particularly for its emphasis on concision. “Most of us tend to overwrite . . . and shorter is almost always better.” He also recommends Anthony Weston’s A Rulebook for Arguments for sharpening one’s argumentation skills. Second, Walt encourages students to “emulate writers they admire.” Of course, this piece of advice requires students to read a good bit and therefore know that they actually do admire certain writers. Those who read (and read well) write better than those who do not.

Walt’s article is spot on, and I’ll offer two thoughts in response. (I’ve thought about this topic a bit, especially in light of the felt need to make my own writing style less awful.) First, Walt is correct that scholars often are poor writers. Of the “Great Book” authors, Herodotus, Hegel, and Kant come to mind. In fact Hegel’s prose is such an obfuscation that Caird described it in this manner: “the height of audacity in serving up pure nonsense, in stringing together senseless and extravagant mazes of words, such as had previously been known only in madhouses, was finally reached in Hegel, and became the instrument of the most bare-faced general mystification that has ever taken place, with a result which will appear fabulous to posterity, and will remain as a monument to…stupidity.”  I shudder as I remember early in my career trying to explain Hegel to my wretched flock of imprisoned undergrads, as we slogged hopelessly through his Phenomenology of Spirit.

Second, Walt’s four suggestions strike me as reasonable explanations for poor academic writing. Scholars often address difficult ideas, follow the logic of discovery rather than the logic of presentation, try to sound profound, and seek to shield themselves from criticism by writing in an intentionally obscure manner. In addition to Walt’s suggestions, several others present themselves immediately to my mind. Some scholars are never told that good writing takes hard work and many layers of revision. In addition, some scholars are never offered the services of a writing center or the tutelage of a skilled professor of rhetoric. Finally, some scholars are not fascinated by words and have little interest in crafting excellent sentences. In a word, they don’t really care about language.

Third, Walt recommends Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and Anthony Weston’s A Rulebook for Arguments. In addition to those books, I recommend two more. First, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Zinsser’s book is, ahem, very well written and serves as a fine introductory text to the task of writing. Second, Joseph Williams’ Style. Williams’ book is the field standard for aspiring academic writers.

Three cheers for Stephen M. Walt, who reminds us that our writing is often quite poor and that we should work hard to make it better.


[1] Stephen M. Walt, “On Writing Well,” http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/02/15/on_writing_well; Feb. 15, 2013.