Academic writing: density as a crutch for quality prose.

To all self-deprecating readers of academic writing, pounding your heads against tables and walls in a vain attempt to absorb the ideas du jour: fret not. Such is the vindication that Rachel Toor issues readers (and condemnation she issues the professoriat) in a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Over the years, I’ve learned that many of us feel that way when we encounter academic prose. Our default is to assume that it’s us, not them—the reader’s problem, not the writer’s. It must be because we haven’t been trained well enough, or we can’t follow complicated thoughts as readily as we would hope. Readers are often quick to doubt themselves in the face of headache-inducing pages.

It’s taken me 25 years to figure out something so basic it’s embarrassing: The difference was often in the prose. At Oxford Press, we never talked about the writing.

There’s probably a couple of things here, both of which Mrs. Toor seems to be driving at. First, publishers of academic work are more concerned with gleaning the writer’s arguments relative to other publishers. Oxford Press, first and foremost, probably wants to publish good ideas. Second, we naturally ascribe some kind of elite status to those in academia (Especially if you are an NPR executive, apparently). As someone past the hump in my own college experience, I can feel the erosion of this misplaced unconditional reverence for the intellectual caliber of my learned tutors. But it’s a bias that exists nonetheless.

So what are the problems with this prose, exactly?

However, the ones with paragraphs that went on forever, their page-long sentences cobbled together with semicolons, told me the authors didn’t give a hoot about my experience as a reader. Giant blocks of quoted material suggested the author was unwilling or unable to think independently. If the first few sentences contained heaps of words that no one ever spoke out loud, I knew I’d need a cup of coffee. Those were the manuscripts I left for later. Sometimes it would be months before I would get to them. Many months.

It’s not that conveying dense information and complex ideas is as easy as writing pulp fiction. But it’s not impossible to present that information the right way. If academics want to truly own the outsized veneration they receive without escaping blame, then they ought to live up to the real challenge of conveying their genius in a way that visually looks organized and appealing, and that is structured in a way that makes for a pleasant, comprehensible read.


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