Academese: Pinker’s tips on how to write better, Academically

One thing I wished I was better at was writing. Steven Pinker writes about this in a paper on “Why Academic Writing Stinks.” Apparently, academic writing is some of the worst, and there’s even a contest for “the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles.” On one hand, he says, “Bad writing is a deliberate choice. Scholars in the softer fields spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say.” Still, there are people who are trying their best to no avail. He concludes that the most popular answer is: “Difficult writing is unavoidable because of the abstractness and complexity of our subject matter.” Yet another reason is the fault of the “gatekeepers” of journals and university presses.

One reference, Pinker identifies is, “Clear and Simple as the Truth,” by Thomas and Turner. “Every style of writing can be understood as a model of communication scenario that an author simulates in lieu of the real-time give-and-take of a conversation.” The writer imagines himself related to the reader in some way. “The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader so she can see for herself.”

The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks. The writer and the reader are equals: The reader can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view. And the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation.

Most academic writing, in contrast, is a blend of two styles. The first is practical style, in which the writer’s goal is to satisfy a reader’s need for a particular kind of information, and the form of the communication falls into a fixed template, such as the five-paragraph student essay or the standardized structure of a scientific article. The second is a style that Thomas and Turner call self-conscious, relativistic, ironic, or postmodern, in which “the writer’s chief, if unstated, concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naïveté about his own enterprise.”

Pinker says academic writing is a blend of two styles: First, a practical style to relay information, Second, a “self-conscious, relativistic, ironic, or postmodern, in which the writer’s chief, if unstated, concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naivete about his own enterprise.” Thomas and Turner say:

“When we open a cookbook, we completely put aside—and expect the author to put aside—the kind of question that leads to the heart of certain philosophic and religious traditions. Is it possible to talk about cooking? Do eggs really exist? Is food something about which knowledge is possible? Can anyone else ever tell us anything true about cooking? … Classic style similarly puts aside as inappropriate philosophical questions about its enterprise. If it took those questions up, it could never get around to treating its subject, and its purpose is exclusively to treat its subject.”

Symptoms of Academese:

  1. Metadiscourse – signposts are more for the writer and can suck for the reader.
    1. Instead of the self-referential “This chapter discusses the factors that cause names to rise and fall in popularity,” one can pose a question: “What makes a name rise and fall in popularity?” Or one can co-opt the guiding metaphor behind classic style—vision.
    2. Instead of “The preceding paragraph demonstrated that parents sometimes give a boy’s name to a girl, but never vice versa,” one can write, “As we have seen, parents sometimes give a boy’s name to a girl, but never vice versa.” And since a conversation embraces a writer and reader who are taking in the spectacle together, a classic writer can refer to them with the good old pronoun we.
    3. Instead of “The previous section analyzed the source of word sounds. This section raises the question of word meanings,” he can write, “Now that we have explored the source of word sounds, we arrive at the puzzle of word meanings.”
  2. Professional Narcissism – two words: world of the thing they study and world of profession. “But researchers are apt to lose sight of whom they are writing for, and narcissistically describe the obsessions of their federation rather than what the audience wants to know.”
    1. Boring: “In recent years, an increasing number of psychologists and linguists have turned their attention to the problem of child language acquisition. In this article, recent research on this process will be reviewed.”
    2. Better: “All children acquire the ability to speak a language without explicit lessons. How do they accomplish this feat?”
  3. Apologizing – “Self-conscious writers are also apt to kvetch about how what they’re about to do is so terribly difficult and complicated and controversial.” Assume people know this already.
  4. Shudder quotes – “Quotation marks have a number of legitimate uses, such as reproducing someone else’s words (She said, “Fiddlesticks!”), mentioning a word as a word rather than using it to convey its meaning (The New York Times uses “millenniums,” not “millennia”), and signaling that the writer does not accept the meaning of a word as it is being used by others in this context (They executed their sister to preserve the family’s “honor”). Squeamishness about one’s own choice of words is not among them.”
  5. Hedging – “Writers use hedges in the vain hope that it will get them off the hook, or at least allow them to plead guilty to a lesser charge, should a critic ever try to prove them wrong. A classic writer, in contrast, counts on the common sense and ordinary charity of his readers, just as in everyday conversation we know when a speaker means in general or all else being equal.”
    1. “If someone tells you that Liz wants to move out of Seattle because it’s a rainy city, you don’t interpret him as claiming that it rains there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, just because he didn’t qualify his statement withrelatively rainy or somewhat rainy.”
    2. “If there is a reasonable chance that readers will misinterpret a statistical tendency as an absolute law, a responsible writer will anticipate the oversight and qualify the generalization accordingly. Pronouncements like “Democracies don’t fight wars,” “Men are better than women at geometry problems,” and “Eating broccoli prevents cancer” do not do justice to the reality that those phenomena consist at most of small differences in the means of two overlapping bell curves. Since there are serious consequences to misinterpreting those statements as absolute laws, a responsible writer should insert a qualifier like on average or all things being equal, together with slightly or somewhat.”
    3. “Best of all is to convey the magnitude of the effect and the degree of certainty explicitly, in unhedged statements such as “During the 20th century, democracies were half as likely to go to war with one another as autocracies were.”
  6. Metaconcepts and nominalizations – “A legal scholar writes, “I have serious doubts that trying to amend the Constitution … would work on an actual level. … On the aspirational level, however, a constitutional amendment strategy may be more valuable.” What do the words level and strategy add to a sentence that means, “I doubt that trying to amend the Constitution would actually succeed, but it may be valuable to aspire to it”? Those vacuous terms refer to meta­concepts: concepts about concepts, such asapproach, assumption, concept, condition, context, framework, issue, level, model, perspective, process, prospect, role, strategy, subject, tendency, andvariable.”
    1. “But after a while those abstractions become containers in which they store and handle all their ideas, and before they know it they can no longer call anything by its name. “Reducing prejudice” becomes a “prejudice-­reduction model”; “calling the police” becomes “approaching this subject from a law-enforcement perspective.”
    2. Nominalizations: “Helen Sword calls them “zombie nouns” because they lumber across the scene without a conscious agent directing their motion.”

Pinker writes using examples first, then defining his concept, contrasting it with a classical approach, and showing examples for why the latter is better. He concludes in this section:

For all its directness, classic style remains a pretense, an imposture, a stance. Even scientists, with their commitment to seeing the world as it is, are a bit postmodern. They recognize that it’s hard to know the truth, that the world doesn’t just reveal itself to us, that we understand the world through our theories and constructs, which are not pictures but abstract propositions, and that our ways of understanding the world must constantly be scrutinized for hidden biases. It’s just that good writers don’t flaunt that anxiety in every passage they write; they artfully conceal it for clarity’s sake.

Next, Pinker talks about the “Curse of Knowledge,” or not knowing what it’s like to not know what you know. He says, “psychologists keep discovering related versions of it and giving it new names: egocentrism, hindsight bias, false consensus, illusory transparency, mind-blindness, failure to mentalize, and lack of a theory of mind.” So, define your technical terms and abbreviations.

This transition is called functional fixity. In the textbook experiment, people are given a candle, a book of matches, and a box of thumbtacks, and are asked to attach the candle to the wall so that the wax won’t drip onto the floor. The solution is to dump the thumbtacks out of the box, tack the box to the wall, and stick the candle onto the box. Most people never figure this out because they think of the box as a container for the tacks rather than as a physical object in its own right. The blind spot is called functional fixity because people get fixated on an object’s function and forget its physical makeup.

Now, if you combine functional fixity with chunking, and stir in the curse that hides each one from our awareness, you get an explanation of why specialists use so much idio­syncratic terminology, together with abstractions, metaconcepts, and zombie nouns. They are not trying to bamboozle their readers; it’s just the way they think. The specialists are no longer thinking—and thus no longer writing—about tangible objects, and instead are referring to them by the role those objects play in their daily travails. A psychologist calls the labels true and false “assessment words” because that’s why he put them there—so that the participants in the experiment could assess whether it applied to the preceding sentence. Unfortunately, he left it up to us to figure out what an “assessment word” is.

He concludes:

The final explanation of why academics write so badly comes not from literary analysis or cognitive science but from classical economics and Skinnerian psychology: There are few incentives for writing well.

When Calvin explained to Hobbes, “With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog,” he got it backward. Fog comes easily to writers; it’s the clarity that requires practice. The naïve realism and breezy conversation in classic style are deceptive, an artifice constructed through effort and skill. Exorcising the curse of knowledge is no easier. It requires more than just honing one’s empathy for the generic reader. Since our powers of telepathy are limited, it also requires showing a draft to a sample of real readers and seeing if they can follow it, together with showing it to yourself after enough time has passed that it’s no longer familiar and putting it through another draft (or two or three or four). And there is the toolbox of writerly tricks that have to be acquired one by one: a repertoire of handy idioms and tropes, the deft use of coherence connectors such as nonetheless and moreover, an ability to fix convoluted syntax and confusing garden paths, and much else.

10 tips on how to write less badly, Michael C. Munger

  1. Writing is an exercise
  2. Set goals based on output, not input
  3. Find a voice; don’t just “get published”
  4. Give yourself time
  5. Everyone’s unwritten work is brilliant
  6. Pick a puzzle
  7. Write, then squeeze the other things in
  8. Not all of your thoughts are profound
  9. Your most profound thoughts are often wrong
  10. Edit your work, over and over

Helen Sword says in 100 recent writing guides:

  • 21% recommend against disciplinary jargon of any kind
  • 46% caution that technical language should be used carefully, accurately, and sparingly
  • 33% make no comment
  • She’s yet to find advice in favor of jargon

If you suspect that you suffer from jargonitis, start by measuring the scope of your addiction. Print out a sample of your academic writing and highlight every word that would not be immediately comprehensible to a reader from outside your own discipline. (Alternatively, you can ask such a reader to do the highlighting for you.) Do you use jargon more than once per page, per paragraph, per sentence? Next, ask yourself some hard questions about your motivations.

Do you employ jargon to: Impress other people? Signal your membership in a disciplinary community? Demonstrate your mastery of complex ideas? Enter an academic conversation that is already under way? Play with language and ideas? Create new knowledge? Challenge your readers’ thinking? Communicate succinctly with colleagues?

Retain only those jargon words that clearly serve your priorities and values. For every piece of jargon that you decide to keep, make sure you give your readers a secure handhold: a definition, some background information, a contextualizing word or phrase. By the time you have clarified your usage, you might even find that you can let go of the word itself.

The Art and Science of Finding Your Voice, Theresa MacPhail

  1. Free write
  2. Read more
  3. Write everyday
  4. Talk, don’t write
  5. Share your early drafts
  6. Trust your instincts

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