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The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing

30 October 2015

From The Atlantic:

“Persistence is one of the great characteristics of a pitbull, and I guess owners take after their dogs,” says Annetta Cheek, the co-founder of the D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Plain Language. Cheek, an anthropologist by training who left academia in the early 1980s to work for the Federal Aviation Commission, is responsible for something few people realize exists: the 2010 Plain Writing Act.In fact, Cheek was among the first government employees to champion the use of clear, concise language. Once she retired in 2007 from the FAA and gained the freedom to lobby, she leveraged her hatred for gobbledygook to create an actual law. Take a look at recent information put out by many government agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—if it lacks needlessly complex sentences or bizarre bureaucratic jargon, it’s largely because of Cheek and her colleagues.

The idea that writing should be clear, concise, and low-jargon isn’t a new one—and it isn’t limited to government agencies, of course. The problem of needlessly complex writing—sometimes referred to as an “opaque writing style”—has been explored in fields ranging from law to science. Yet in academia, unwieldy writing has become something of a protected tradition. Take this example:

The work of the text is to literalize the signifiers of the first encounter, dismantling the ideal as an idol. In this literalization, the idolatrous deception of the first moment becomes readable. The ideal will reveal itself to be an idol. Step by step, the ideal is pursued by a devouring doppelganger, tearing apart all transcendence. This de-idealization follows the path of reification, or, to invoke Augustine, the path of carnalization of the spiritual. Rhetorically, this is effected through literalization. A Sentimental Education does little more than elaborate the progressive literalization of the Annunciation.

That little doozy appears in Barbara Vinken’s Flaubert Postsecular: Modernity Crossed Out, published by Stanford University Press, and was recently posted to a listserv used by clear-language zealots—many of whom are highly qualified academics who are willing to call their colleagues out for being habitual offenders of opaque writing. Yet the battle to make clear and elegant prose the new status quo is far from won.

Last year, Harvard’s Steven Pinker (who’s also written about his grammar peeves for The Atlantic) authored an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education in which he used adjectives like “turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand” to describe academic writing. In an email, Pinker told me that the reaction to his article “has been completely positive, which is not the typical reaction to articles I write, and particularly surprising given my deliberately impolite tone.”

. . . .

A nonacademic might think the campaign against opaque writing is a no-brainer; of course, researchers should want to maximize comprehension of their work. Cynics charge, however, that academics play an elitist game with their words: They want to exclude interlopers. Others say that academics have traditionally been forced to write in an opaque style to be taken seriously by the gatekeepers—academic journal editors, for example. The main reason, though, may not be as sinister or calculated. Pinker, a cognitive scientist, says it boils down to “brain training”: the years of deep study required of academics to become specialists in their chosen fields actually work against them being able to unpack their complicated ideas in a coherent, concrete manner suitable for average folks. Translation: Experts find it really hard to be simple and straightforward when writing about their expertise. He calls this the “curse of knowledge” and says academics aren’t aware they’re doing it or properly trained to identify their blindspots—when they know too much and struggle to ascertain what others don’t know. In other words, sometimes it’s simply more intellectually challenging to write clearly. “It’s easy to be complex, it’s harder to be simple,” Bosley said. “It would make academics better researchers and better writers, though, if they had to translate their thinking into plain language.” It would probably also mean more people, including colleagues, would read their work.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic and thanks to James for the tip.

PG says lawyers sometimes do the same thing in contracts. When he sees opaque language, PG automatically suspects the author is trying to hide something.


32 Comments to “The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing”

  1. Oh, dear.

    I agree with this article’s premise. However, the author lost me at Steven Pinker. Far from an authority on how to speak and write more clearly, he’s actually one of the worst offenders.

    I reviewed his book on the Writing Slices blog a few months ago, calling out his graduate-level vocabulary and convoluted sentences.

    (I hope it’s okay if I include a link, PG.)


  2. I have seen dense and incomprehensible language in older writings on art history. To the point of quoting from sources written in a foreign language without translation.

    • I’ve seen those untranslated quotes even in older *fiction.* I’ve been assuming it means that in the past the only readers were people who had the leisure to be educated enough to speak French and a dead language or two. Glad those days are over! I’ve decided to feel gratified that reading is “democratized” enough that no one does that anymore in the Babelfish age.*

      *Unless the words are Dothraki or Klingon 😉

      • Or they are the naughty bits that are left in the original so that the young, innocent, and un-corrupted won’t be insulted by the base material. (Medical trivia: the first textbook on “sexual deviancy” and sexual problems had the details in Latin.)

      • It used to be, in the long ago, art history majors were required to have at least a reading/writing knowledge of a European language, preferably German. I guess germans wrote a lot of art criticism.

        • I’d heard that (about the Germans); a historian mentioned that for certain specialties you had to learn German to get to the nitty gritty.

          But surely it’s still true that art history majors have to know another language, right? I had a class in high school that was technically art history (or Western Civ), and the things we covered suggested to me that learning a language was non-negotiable. I sometimes wish I’d had the time in college to pursue it further.

          • It’s said that half of all art in Europe is in Italy, and half of all art in Italy is in Florence. And most of the art in Florence is from the Renaissance.

            It’s hard to imagine how anyone could become competent in Renaissance art without having facility in Italian.

            (The top art historian in Florence is Msgr. Timothy Verdon, an American priest whose extensive writings appear in English and Italian.)

          • The more modern art history criticism is usually translated. If you’re doing original research you’d need to have knowledge of the language of the source you’re citing, but if you’re writing a paper in English, a quote from might as well be translated.

            It used to be necessary to have a second language to get into most American colleges. Unfortunately I studied French in high school instead of German.

  3. This might be interesting if it weren’t so boring. Story of Academia.

  4. PG, isn’t the rule for lawyers that if given the choice between a small word and a large word, they’ll always use the larger word? At least that’s one lawyer told me.

    • Several larger words are even better, Mit. 🙂

      • I cannot recall the style, but I read a decision in a SCOTUS case that used a quintuple negative.

        Heard a story from a friend: She finished a bench trial, and the judge announced he would render his decision within a week and post it to the attorneys by e-mail. Came the day my friend got the decision. Read it. Called up the opposing counsel and asked, “Did you win or did I?”

        Rather than go back to the judge for clarification, they settled post-judgment.

      • Often, opposing counsel were not particularly thrilled when I’d suggest that a contract we were negotiating should read clearly enough that a jury would understand it.

        • Can’t hide stuff as well in clear speech. 😉

          And one side or the other (sometimes both!) always has something to hide …

        • @Sean Mead

          I recall writing a quick, one-page, plain language contract for a small-money client. I had it in my briefcase when I ran into the atty for the other party downtown in the courthouse. I pulled it out and showed it to him.

          “This is it?” he said, flipping the page over and back. “This is all of it?”


          “I need more,” he said, “so I can justify my billing.”

          I stared at him for some time. Finally I said, “Tell ’em you beat me down from five incomprehensible pages of legalese to this. They’ll pay for that.”

  5. PG posted:

    “PG says lawyers sometimes do the same thing in contracts. When he sees opaque language, PG automatically suspects the author is trying to hide something.”

    Or it could simply be crappy cognitive organization transferred from brain to print. As an editor, I’ve certainly seen a lot of that.

    (Never ascribe to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.)

  6. Pinker, a cognitive scientist, says it boils down to “brain training”: the years of deep study required of academics to become specialists in their chosen fields actually work against them being able to unpack their complicated ideas in a coherent, concrete manner suitable for average folks. Translation: Experts find it really hard to be simple and straightforward when writing about their expertise.

    That does nothing to explain the passage from Vinken quoted in the article. That, I’m afraid, is pure drivel, and perfectly matches Orwell’s famous description:

    MEANINGLESS WORDS. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, ‘The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality’, while another writes, ‘The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness’, the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way.

    Vinken is taking technical terms from other disciplines, like idolatrous, doppelganger, transcendence, and using them in a slipshod metaphorical way as part of a stream of lit-crit gobbledygook, as previous generations of critics used romantic, plastic, and the rest of Orwell’s culprits. The language of phony criticism becomes more outlandish over time, as the public learns to recognize the words formerly in vogue as clear signals that a flim-flam is in progress. It’s like the ‘euphemism treadmill’, except the purpose is not to placate the squeamish but to impress the gullible.

    In effect, this kind of pseudo-critical jargon is used not because the experts don’t know how to express their expertise in non-technical language, but because they actually have no expertise at all and are desperate to conceal the fact.

  7. This problem seems to arise in any profession that engages in writing without benefit of an editor. When I worked as a lawyer, I saw it routinely in legal opinions. When I switched to academia, I saw it in research papers as well. Now that I edit academic grants, it has become my job to fix it. There are legions of people who have devoted a great deal of time to writing who still don’t do it well. Academics (at least in STEM) have rarely gotten significant training or practice beyond basic grammar. Despite that, many still do quite respectably. Often they do better than many who profess to have writing expertise, which is likely a reflection of rigorous job-selection criteria. That said, anyone who writes, whether a Supreme Court Justice, rocket scientist, or a best-selling novelist, can benefit from a good editor. Since writers are generally blind to their own weaknesses, that lesson is perhaps the hardest one to teach.

  8. obfuscatus pepopolis et academae son vincit nada. In intermitigation, certain hyperstratus respiratory conflagrations inhibit the oxygenating process, and this causes the atmospheric efluvia of the corpus to migrate not toward the pulmonary aparatus but rather, toward exiting via the anterior analogous feature to the os, but much lower.

    In other words, too many big words cut off breath, and the air migrates not to the lungs, but out of the body in a downward direction.

    And no, that is not Latin. lol. It’s just made up. And it was fun. I urge you to do likewise at every opportunity.

    • I still like this one:

      “I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the first and last ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can still raed it wouthit a porbelm. This is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh?”

      Editors be danged, the reader will figure it out anyway! 😉

      (no, me still uses a few proofreaders!)

      • Yeah, not so much. I mean, I can follow that paragraph, but I have to read slowly (for me) and I can’t skim. There is a very good reason why spelling was standardized from about the 18th century on: it reduces the cognitive burden of the reading process, allowing the reader to focus consciously on the content of the text and not on the process of deciphering it.

  9. hahaha that was funny allen f

    • Heh, the one you really want for wasting big words was a friend of mine. He ‘borrowed’ his mom’s (RN) med book and came up with about a two minute spiel which I heard him use in condescending tones to another guy half again as tall and well over twice his mass (big guy’s nickname was ‘box of rocks’ for his brainpower). I too have a RN I call ‘mom’, but I never bothered with her med books, but you still pick up things — so after the two minutes of medical-ize, I picked up just enough to ask shorty where Rocky could hear, “Did you just tell him he has his head up his a–?”

      Was quite a show watching Rocky trying to run down Shorty — ah, good times with us ex-military types …

  10. Legal documents can get nutty because the wording included has been wrangled, parsed, fought over and cut up for hundreds of years.

    It’s to the point that if you want something to say ‘X’ you have to write it as ‘Y’ because in the past the court has upheld that ‘Y’ means ‘X’.


    • I once sent legal a formula for computing early completion incentives payments for a large construction project. We had negotiated it with the contractor, and I asked legal to include it in the payment schedule.

      They returned three dense paragraphs translating the formula into prose. When I asked why they had done that, they replied that this was time tested-language that would stand up in court.

      I gave the paras to the engineers running the job and asked them to write a formula from the prose. I got three different formulas back.

      After much wrangling, the formula went back in the contract, everyone understood the incentive payments, the contractor finished early, the plant started up, we never went to court, and everyone lived happily ever after.

  11. They write that way because they’ve got nothing to say.

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