Can the Academic Write? -- Part I

A conversation about style with David Wolf, commissioning editor at The Guardian Long Read.

David, by Jo (2012).

Editors think that scholars are bad writers, and they say so often and rudely. Academics think that journalists are lazy thinkers, and they’re no more polite. Neither is right, I think, but the fields are so twain that nobody really bothers to think about the why or the how or the what next except super-intellectual magazines that nobody reads.

In the hope of addressing some of the issues that rub up at the academic/writerly tectonic ridge, I spoke with an old friend, David Wolf, my first-ever editor, who is now the commissioning editor of The Guardian’s Long Read section. Nobody’s ever pissed me off more on this topic, nor do I care so much about what anybody else has to say.

Part II is here.

What is academic writing?

JL: You’ve used the term “academic writing” with me before, as an insult. Where did you get this term, and what does it mean?

DW: Well, obviously the thought is not original to me! There’s a stereotype — which is wrong on many levels, and I’m not endorsing it — that journalists write good, plain, intelligible, clear sentences which everyone understands, whereas academics write torturous, confusing, hermetic, boring shit that no one would want to read unless they were also an academic. They don’t realize they’re doing this: they’re oblivious to the fact that they are writing in an academic way. This is the stereotype.

JL: This stereotype does match reality sometimes. Often an academic thinks they are clarifying when in fact they’re obfuscating, if the reader doesn’t share the same vocabulary of professional terms.

DW: Yeah, I think vocabulary is an important part of this — I would guess for many academics, their ideal readers will all have a similar intellectual framework, have read the same books, know the same lingo. But that isn’t going to be the case, of course, if you’re writing for a wider audience. Now, there are a lot of different ways — not just assuming readers will understand certain phrases and references — that academic writing can go wrong for a journalistic audience. Obviously there was that big argument about this in the nineties and early ’00s.

JL: What are you thinking of?

DW: When people talk about this subject, they always cite the Bad Writing Contest that Denis Dutton (who set up Arts and Letters Daily) started, and the year they gave it to Judith Butler. Butler was really angry, and she wrote this piece in the New York Times that spawned various responses to her response. There was a book partially edited by Jonathan Culler which collected responses to this debate that had been triggered by the “bad writing” thing. There was also a really good Lingua Franca piece investigating good and bad writing, which looked at it through an Adorno versus Orwell lens: Clarity is good! Clarity is bad! That kind of thing.

JL: I have always found the term bad “writing” very confusing, because I just don’t subscribe to it as a category. In the case of, say, someone writing about the Venerable Bede for Speculum, to a non-academic, that paper would be full of obfuscation and torturous terms and phrases and confusing things, but academic writing is for a specific, pre-existing community of scholars. You have to show that you understand everything that’s happened in the field, adding just a little bit of original modification to the discourse, otherwise there’s no reason that Speculum would publish you.

Photo: Carolina Ödman

Non-academic readers encounter that prose and think that it is self-aggrandizing in its complexity, when it’s actually aiming for ultimate disambiguation of terms: “I’m not saying this, I’m saying that.” You have to deploy technical language to do that. Something else — something psychological — is going on when technical writing gets interpreted as torturous and annoying and undemocratic.

DW: I totally agree with you about the mushiness of this term. People talk about “good” and “bad” writing as if it’s obvious what they are. Like you said, in a journalistic context, extremely formal and exhaustive academic writing can come across as so pretentious and ridiculous when, in fact, there’s a lovely humbleness to it. The academic is saying, “Look! I’ve acknowledged all these people that have thought really hard about this” — they’re actually trying to give them their due, whilst differentiating their own view.

People talk about “good” and “bad” writing as if it’s obvious what they are.

But, I think, one way in which academics writing for journalistic audiences can go wrong is not appreciating that the world which you are writing for is completely different. If you’re an academic and you’re writing an academic paper published in an academic journal, the people who review you — it’s their job to review you. It’s not the job of the readers of The Guardian, say, to read you. They’re either going to read you because they’re interested, or they think it’s really important, or they’ll do it for pleasure or entertainment, but they’re not doing it out of any sense of duty.

I think this point about needing to get inside the mind of the reader applies to journalists as well, because often journalists are like, “Oh, my story about Chile is really, really important.” If you’re passionate enough to write a piece then you’re going to care deeply about the subject, but so much of good writing and editing is working out how to get readers who aren’t already interested to see how interesting the subject matter really is — whether it’s Chile or the Venerable Bede. In its worst form, this results in “dumbing down,” which academics rightly hate, but I certainly don’t think writing about a complex subject to a wider audience necessarily leads to dumbing down.

JL: Absolutely. In academic writing, basically all of a commercial editor’s job has already been done. Your audience is locked in; they already care. That’s interesting! Maybe editors like you feel insulted by the existence of academic writing because it makes you feel unimportant?

DW: I don’t think that’s true. But I would be interested to know what editors of academic journals think about this stuff. My impression is that the concern of those editors is the quality of the ideas and originality, rather than prose.

JL: Academic editors also must be rigorous about the positioning of those original ideas. An academic article absolutely must show where this bit of writing comes in the longer tradition of the field. In popular writing, not so much.

DW: I think good journalism, especially literary journalism, does do some positioning: just in a different way. There’s nothing more annoying to me as an editor than to get a piece or pitch that is written as if no one’s ever written about the topic before. It’s an encouraging sign in a pitch if the writer says, “The New Yorker did this piece, and Harper’s did this piece, but my piece takes a different angle.” If you just barrel in without showing any awareness of the other stuff that’s been written, then it’s probably not going to be good.

JL: But, crucially, that positioning doesn’t have to make it into the final copy of a commercial piece. The commercial writer doesn’t have to acknowledge ideas that are part of the culture. Ideas are not proprietary in the way that they are in scholarship.

DW: That’s true.

How do you edit an academic?

JL: I remember how ferocious you would get sometimes in your comments when you were editing my first few pieces. You would write things like, “Oh my god Jo, stop using this academic phrase.”

DW: I would only say, “Oh my god, stop saying this” to a friend! I wouldn’t do that to someone that I didn’t know. But it’s so much more fun editing people whom you can say that to.

JL: A classic one was “horizons,” in the sense of historical or conceptual horizons. I think it’s from Bakhtin? You would just write in track changes, “This means nothing.” I struggle a lot with having my citations edited out, so that my final copy cannot show that these are not just ideas that have sprung into my head from the ether.

DW: Well I do think that journalistic articles need to acknowledge where ideas have come from if they’re drawing upon specific thinkers. But obviously I can understand why an academic (or non-academic!) might feel uneasy simply saying “According to Bakhtin’s theory of x…,” when they are conscious of the fact that people have interpreted him in ten different ways and you can’t really be definitive. There is only so much hedging and qualifying you can do in an article for a non-specialist publication.

But it’s definitely true that good literary journalism has to import some of the caution of academia, in phrases like, “some scholars have suggested,” that kind of thing. You have to do it in a compressed form for the reasons we have already talked about. Readers aren’t automatically going to be interested, and they don’t want to go through every single interpretation of Bakhtin: thing number one, number two, number three, and so on. You have to do some more synthesizing, and corners are going to be cut. Of course, this can go too far. There is one journalistic extreme, which has none of the respect for academic caution, but that’s not the kind of thing I like!

JL: But this is especially applicable when people write about political topics like the history of, say, gender. Journalists’ extreme corner-cutting leads to corrosive discourse.

Journalists’ extreme corner-cutting leads to corrosive discourse.

DW: If I published a piece by you or anyone about a subject of interest to academics, and most of the academics who read it thought it was really bad, I would be very upset. I would feel like I hadn’t done my job properly, that the piece was a failure. To me, the idea of any good piece is that my mum (who is not an academic, doesn’t know anything about Derrida or Bakhtin or whatever) will enjoy it, some teenage kid wherever will enjoy it, and an academic who knew the subject would at worst think, “That was fine. It didn’t make me want to kill the author.” Hopefully, they will think, “That’s really interesting, I hadn’t thought about that.”

Your Tolkien piece, for example: I would hope that an academic could read it and, even if they’re not like, “Holy shit, I’ve never seen these ideas before,” they’re at least thinking, “Okay, that was a good piece.” It’s so, so, important to me that people who are experts in any of the subjects we are writing about in the Guardian Long Read should at least feel like we took their subject seriously and did justice to it.

JL: I think you are underestimating the vanity of academics and their rage when they see something in the public sphere that touches on their subject: their rage that they haven’t been explicitly cited, or that the writing is dumbing down the field. Academics often interpret popular journalism as a personal affront. They will not attribute the difference to the conventions of publication or the different style required. They will just think, “This is stupid.”

Academics often interpret popular journalism as a personal affront.

DW: Everyone’s like that, really. I know journalists who say, “Oh, that fucking guy has written about Russia. He doesn’t know shit about Russia. He doesn’t even speak Russian.” Journalists are just the same. There is a lot of bad writing in the public sphere about stuff that scholars know about. I think scholars have a right to be annoyed by that.

JL: But most academics do not know that writers don’t choose their own headline. Most people, including academics, will look at the headline and illustrations and pullquotes and be like: trash!

DW: That’s true. But there’s a reason why editors don’t let writers write their own headlines. They write the worst headlines in the world.

Josephine Livingstone is a writer and academic in New York.