Copywriters, journalists, mainstream authors, ghostwriters, bloggers

Copywriters, journalists, mainstream authors, ghostwriters, bloggers and advertising creatives have as much right to think of themselves as good writers as academics, poets, or literary novelists.

Sara Sheridan

PG doesn’t think he has heretofore commented about a short quote he has posted.

However, he made an exception for this quote because 99%+ of every book/article/essay/etc. written by an academic he recalls reading was terribly written, in part because of the stultifying traditions of academic writers and publishers.

Having worked with advertising creatives/copywriters a long time ago, he will say they were some of the best writers he has known because they needed to provide seriously motivational text using very few words.

An advertiser was spending millions of dollars to broadly publish the words of a talented copywriter in print, on television, and, sometimes, radio because that copywriter knew how to create a message with words that would persuade millions of people to spend many more millions of dollars on the products the advertiser was selling.

12 thoughts on “Copywriters, journalists, mainstream authors, ghostwriters, bloggers”

  1. FYI, there’s good money in the creative line editor / author coach that helps an academic convert their book to one more palatable for a popular audience. I may have done a few myself.

  2. Well, there are certainly academics who were not only terrific lecturers, but splendid writers as well. But that’s the cream of the crop, not the vast, vast majority.

    When I got to Yale in 1971, I was told — go to classes with Professor X or Professor Y–doesn’t matter what the subject is, just do it. And they were right — there were still at least a dozen or more professors of this type available to the undergraduates. They were excellent exemplars of what used to be possible to achieve as an expert academic in front of students.

    They’ve been gone a long time now, alas. Their books remain, but they have no replacements.

    • We had one of those in the ChemE dept who was at perpetual war with both the spanish and english departments over Technical Writing. He (correctly) insisted there was a need for such a couse *and* it belonged in Engineering. The three way fight meant nobody could do a formal course.

      So he stealth-taught it within the Plant Design and Engineering Economics, by pointing us at a proper textbook and requiring weekly progress reports on an assigned semester-long project. In class he covered economics, controls, and system integration (and writing as required) under the premise that if we were fifth year students headed out the door we should already know how to deal with the componentdd of chemical plants. A hard taskmaster but he taught *useful* stuff.

      Fondly remembered.
      In retrospect. 😉

    • It must be forty years since I read Keep the Aspidistra Flying but I still remember thinking that I’d been wasting my time when I closed the book. I now just wonder whether he was thinking of Dorothy L. Sayers when he wrote this?

      • Nope. His targets (in terms of “he was consciously thinking of”) were very strictly male.

        Which is not to say that Sayers might not have been foreseeable collateral damage.

  3. Whilst I’m sure that Sturgeon’s law applies to academic writing – and maybe the failure rate is higher than the standard 90% – I think that PG’s “99%+” is less than fair. Academics seem to be trained to write badly – or anyway dully – for their day job, and in some fields obscurity seems to be the order of the day (possibly to disguise the lack of any real substance in their discipline?). However, for many of the scientific papers I read – normally maths or astronomy – the criteria I use to judge them differ radically from those for other written works; logical presentation and clarity is pretty much everything (though explained motivation matters for maths).

    I admit that these days I don’t normally read fiction by academics – their typical genre choices lie outside my interest range. However, some of my favourite authors were academics (Tolkien, C S Lewis and Paul Linebarger for example#) and much of the military history I consume is written by academics. The good historians manage to provide a clear – and exciting – narratives without ignoring the problems of their sources or dumbing down their accounts. This goes for current writers like Norman Friedman or old timers like Charles Oman.

    # All dead white males of course, as is the author of my favourite maths text book (Goldstein’s “Classical Mechanics”). Maybe modern academics are really worse?

    • Chad Oliver was a great SF writer (athropological SF in the 50s!) from academia and so was Asimov. Asimov quit academia to write; Oliver quit writing when he made Chancellor.

    • One of the influences (not determinants, academia is too chaotic for determinism!) here is the needs of the tenure-and-promotion system, which presumes that academic progress results in a deterministic answer. Maybe it won’t be a “yes/no,” or other multiple-choice answer, but it will be a clear “truth.” That this is not consistent with the nature of reality — which, even for supposedly simple circumstances is remarkably diverse (ethical precept: do unto others as you would have done unto you; obvious hard instance: the factual circumstance of neurodivergence in either the others or you) — has little influence when tenure and promotion decisions are largely made, or at minimum subject to ratification by, people who have at most generally engaged with the general subject matter and not with the hard specifics of the data. And that’s even more true in the humanities and social sciences, where almost nobody can agree on what the data is, let alone define a warrant or how multiple warrants interact.

      So this leads to a simultaneous effort to overstate conclusions (and overstate the strength of the data and warrants supporting those conclusions) while simultaneously both deflecting/devaluing criticism and (with only very rare exceptions) leaving room for further advances. Which naturally can be made only by this particular academic.

      The context encourages bad writing. The less said about how law does so, the less embarassed PG and I (among others) will be. And, of course, it could be worse: Neither David Brooks nor Ross Douthat is an “academic” nor “academic-style” writer, which doesn’t make their inanity any better as writing — and that’s just two examples I encountered earlier this morning.

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