How not to write: 14 tips for aspiring humanities academics

Researchers in the liberal arts seem to have made it their mission to communicate in the most obscure fashion, says Zachary Foster

July 7, 2016
Elly Walton illustration (7 July 2016)
Source: Elly Walton

Good writers are often fooled by the lure of plain English. Most academics in the humanities are not duped so easily, though. They understand the power of jargon, obscurity and incoherence. Those aspiring to follow in their footsteps would do well to consider the following tips and tricks.

Titles. Once upon a time, scholars thought titles should be succinct and descriptive. Now we know better. Instead, introduce your work with an unintelligible phrase such as “Interrupted Modernity”, “Sovereign Emergencies”, “Overthrowing Geography” or “Violent Accumulation”. “Bodies that Speak” and “Empires without Imperialism” also make for great titles, even if bodies cannot speak and empires cannot exist without imperialism. Everyone knows that confusion attracts attention. Obscure quotes also make for great titles, especially if they include grammatical errors or antiquated speech. “Oh motherland I pledge to thee”, “What does not respect borders” and “Fortress Europe in the field” are good examples.

Invented words. Language is subject to your imagination, not the other way around. Change nouns into adjectives and adjectives into nouns. “Hypervisibility”, “interagentivity”, “interanimality”, “precoloniality”, “spaciality” and “subalternity” are all great words. Count the number of words you’ve invented or new concepts you’ve employed. Try doubling it.

Between, beyond and towards. Study the stuff “between empire and identities”. Go beyond the Arab Spring, beyond desire. Work towards a post-Marxist historiography or theory of counter-modernity. Write about the genealogy of something or, better still, towards the genealogy of something. “Toward a genealogy of black female sexuality” – perfect!

Shudder quotes. Language is poisonous, so it is essential to place shudder quotes around as many words as possible – the “West” and “Global South”, the “European” and “non-European” worlds, “traditional” healing practices and “modern” identities. There are no experts, only “experts”. Shudder quotes make it difficult for others to accuse you of philosophical naivety.

Verbs. Use verbs along with their passives in the same sentence as often as possible, as in “I will address the spatial and temporal re-mapping of these two distinct traumatic memories as they shape and are shaped by one another.” Scholars study the assumptions and ideologies that constitute and are constituted by aid. They try to grasp how traumatic events influence and are influenced by norms, identities and interests. This signals you have mastered the passive tense, and that the passive tense has been mastered by you.

The re-prefix. You should repeat and re-repeat verbs as often as possible with a re-prefix. Aim to frame and re-frame, imagine and re-imagine, inscribe and re-inscribe. This signals and re-signals to your readers that you are in command of revisionism.

Agency. Style is important in the humanities, but so is content. Be sure that you find agency among the downtrodden. The people of the Global South did not adopt Western knowledge; they adapted it. They did not replicate European sciences but subverted their racist agendas. Muslim women have not learned feminism from the West; they were feminists long before feminism existed.

Obfuscation. Do not write about history or even historicity, only “historicality”. Colonialism is widely understood by the general public and should therefore be avoided. Instead study “coloniality”, “semicolonialism” or “Eurocolonials”. Physical violence is blasé; real scholars write about “discursive violence”. Instead of modernity or even post-modernity, consider “transmodernities” and “nonmodernities”. Forget memory; study “post-memory”.

Complication. The general rule of thumb is to complicate simple ideas. “Living together”, in the words of one scholar, “oscillates between the tone of practical serenity and tragic pathos, between philosophical wisdom and desperate anguish”. It is both “simple evidence and the promise of the inaccessible”, while it opens the possibility of a “unified self” and “synchronous time”. If only this were more widely known, so much domestic friction could be avoided.

Prepositions. Many verbs can take more than one preposition. Be sure to use as many of them as possible. The politics of protest have not escaped the intricacies of speaking about, for and instead of others. Memory-making occurs in and across multiple spaces. Modernity is emerging in and between Europe and the Arab world.

Trends. Nothing is stable or monolithic. Everything is fluid, fragmented, hybrid, multi-directional and unsusceptible to articulation. There are multiple modernities. Memory is polymorphous. Nothing is spatially fixed or geography-bound. The line between words and things is permeable. Binary oppositions are evil. Decentre everything. Blur boundaries. Jump into an abyss so deep and profound that no one has any idea what you are talking about.

Elegant incoherence. Use the word “as” to connect unrelated ideas without having to explain why they are related. Examples include “architecture as relic”, “resistance as negotiation” and an analysis of the tension between “body as sign” and “body as corpus”.

Sites. Everything is a site for discursive production. Performance apparently positions the post-colonial female body as a particularly charged site of cultural contestation in the process of constructing a hybrid subjectivity. The body is a site of rupture and signification. The law is a site of subaltern negotiations with the state.

Interruption. Good scholars know to interrupt themselves mid-sentence for clarification. As one of them has explained, “analysis of diasporic memory – or, more accurately, remembrances – conjures other times and places”. This in turn “helps us recognise the local population as imaginers and producers (and not, at best, merely consumers) of their own modernity – or perhaps better, nonmodernity, as the modernity that unfolded”. This signals to the reader your sense of profound anguish – or rather your mastery of interruption dashes – or, perhaps still better, your mastery of interruption parentheses.

Read next: How (not) to write: nine more tips for academics in the humanities
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Zachary J. Foster is a PhD candidate in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University and a product manager at He would like to make clear that all the examples of unintelligible academese given above are real.

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Print headline: Muddying the waters

Reader's comments (52)

Well done, Zach!
This is so on point, it hurts. Brilliant! Thank you so much for this much-needed laugh.
This is so off point, it hurts, but mostly because of your tone. Check your entry-level understanding of agency; the eurocentrism in that point is REAL.
"Be sure that you find agency among the downtrodden." I'm sure that this is mockable for Mr Foster (soon to be Dr, I'm sure) but for those who would actually like to challenge the accepted canons and Eurocentric assumptions around many higher education curricula, I recommend a look at the "Why is my curriculum white?" campaign founded at UCL.
'Within', not 'around' - but 'around' is a currently favoured preposition, and 'within' isn't.
Why is this graduate student so publicly devaluing the work of his field's superiors? If you don't see the value in some of these concepts, perhaps you need a refresher course, not a public forum to air your grievances. Bad writing exists, but this piece joins a facile, well-worn idea (academics are bad writers! this is news, apparently!) with a fresh shot of a young mansplainer's sense of entitlement.
Not sure you can join an idea, c. Anyone can criticise anyone else's work in academic and cultural life - universities and journals aren't medieval royal courts, or shouldn't be. Best regards.
lol u misspelled spatiality
When I started reading, I thought this article may be advice from a seasoned academic to aspiring writers about the value of clear language. By the time I got to "subalternity" as an invented word and mocking of "toward a genealogy of black female sexuality,” I knew this was not the case. The examples drawn from those writing about coloniality, violence and the "downtrodden" in the Global South (really?) reflect a profound ignorance on the part of the author. The "general rule of thumb" in the humanities is not to use that phrase. Look it up.
I thoroughly agree
That Mr. Foster finds his examples to be "unintelligible academese" says far more about his own incompetence than it does about writing style. His chutzpah, however, is breathtaking.
Lots of pushback. Since the piece ridicules much of the writing in the Humanities, there would be.
In my job I have to read academic papers of all disciplines - theoretical physics, genetics, social sciences. It has always struck me as odd that, despite being the most accessible in terms of content, humanities papers sometimes (not always) seem willfully opaque. The writing is often breathtakingly bad, apparently designed to obscure rather than illuminate simple (sometimes facile) concepts, using jargon and stupendously over-long sentences. The comments on this blog seem to me to be from people who have risen in this culture and are now invested in it. They should welcome, rather than oppose, a fresher perspective. Probably they have another term for such situations in which groups of people with power in a heirarchy reject change. It probably includes the words "structural" and "hegemonic".
The author is a perfect candidate for a cabinet level position in the Trump administration. I'm sure he's a pleasure to have in seminars.
I look forward to Zachary's contribution to the humanities, should he decide to make one.
while this piece is funny and i will name the name of the most incomprehensible and insufferable of them all: judith butler, i find this grad student's mocking attitude rather troubling. especially as i am putting together a course on (mis)representations of race and subaltern voices. yes, black women are working towards something called recognition. whereas mr. foster is working towards taking his petulance and sense of entitlement to his first academic job.
The passive is a voice, not a tense.
Most of the criticisms (some of them unnecessarily, insultingly personal) miss the point: Foster used humor to critique, with elegantly keen precision, several major problems with current academic writing. He pretty much says so in the intro. I find it funny that scholars who focus their academic work on subaltern and underserved communities embrace the institutionalized language and academic self-aggrandizement of the often difficult to read works by what I call the dead elite white French guys. Yes, they had some great ideas, but many in the humanities are still trying to emulate them and some of their most unintelligible writing. I recommend reading Umberto Eco's Interpretation and Overinterpretation: And no, there is nothing wrong with creativity and/or with using paradigm specific language. I am all for creative thinking and language and I understand the all academic fields have their own way of speaking (though it seems to me it is often about simply being different as opposed to being an academic necessity), but I also believe as scholars, we should follow sound academic practices, such as operationalizing the terms and concepts we use (context rules!), goes a long way in doing what so many scholars in the humanities, especially in the fields that study race, gender, disabilities, class, etc., claim they want: creating a dialogue and enlightening the masses.
I'd avoid 'operationalizing', q.
A humanities professor once criticised a piece of my work by saying. “This is no good at all and far too clear; you are taking them straight down the path and up to the front door. By the time they have finished reading this they will know as much about the subject as you do."
Spot on, academic writing that should be accessible to all is (frequently) overly complex and obscures the intended meaning.
Yes. academic writing should be clear, but it is not journalism or fiction. By producing academic writing, every academic is keeping the promise to say nothing but the truth (to the best of her knowledge). Yes, that leads to difficult, verbose sentences, but those are sometimes necessary. To criticize writing without engaging at all with the content is academic colonialism at its worst.
Sometimes, perhaps, but less often than is tolerated or endorsed at the moment. Plato could write clearly; so could CLR James. What's our excuse for not striving relentlessly to do the same?
Most of the commenters seem not to have read the piece carefully. He isn't criticizing the idea of "black female sexuality" but rather the way we as academics say we're "working towards," "moving beyond," "looking between," etc. These are devices that mean something to us, maybe, but not much outside of the academy. I don't think he's saying, for example, that the body ISN'T a site for rupture and signification, nor that such an analysis is worthless or meaningless, but rather that we rely too often on conclusions like these when there are more direct and concrete things to say. The author's making a point more about style than content, and it seems like most of the complaints here assume the two to be the same. And for the record, I wholly disagree with his point on agency.
And how do you explain his aversion to inverted commas? Or to neologisms.
@Elle_Dawn: Your remark regarding the phrase "rule of thumb" seems to be based on the theory that it derives from an old English law according to which a man may beat his wife with a stick that is thinner than his thumb. Despite what you may have been told, this theory has been discredited. The phrase is not, as far as we know, historically connected to any unjust practice, unless one considers carpentry to be unjust. "Look it up," as you say. As for your other remarks, and the remarks of many others on this discussion thread, I can only suggest that you cultivate a healthier sense of humor. Sheesh.
@strongnick: Please tell me your professor meant that tongue-in-cheek.... In my nearly 30 years of teaching, I've always told my research students that "taking [their readers] straight down the path and up to the front door" is a mark of the best writing.
Thanks for the tips and vocabulary, Mr. Foster. They will be very useful for my future papers.
@Banyansmom (& @strongnick): I can attest to being given similar feedback when undertaking my humanities studies, and even now when preparing and submitting journal articles. My writing back as a post-grad student was referred to as simple, easy to understand and therefore "journalistic". Apparently clear writing is journalistic when coupled together with an obvious passion for a topic and disinterest in opaque language.
You've ruffled a few feathers here Zachary...please continue.
ciarak comments: "Why is this graduate student so publicly devaluing the work of his field's superiors?" Indeed! How dare he?! What does he think academia is - a place where one can openly criticise anyone? A place where free expression and academic freedom reign supreme? How naive! Best that this insolent peasant learn his place. As usual, the practitioners of post-whateverism turn out to be those most attached to existing hierarchical structures, whenever their paper-thin skin is pricked.
The problem is rather the snarky and arrogant tone and the lack of proper content, not the fact that he takes on his "superiors".
There's an odd mix of genuine bad language (overuse of the passive, the re- prefix, etc.) and a lot of unfortunate slander of genuine academic work that the author clearly doesn't like. That the author believes he can dismiss "agency" as a whole as "bad language" is utterly breathtaking; one would believe that actually considering the scholarly evidence would be a starting point. Similarly, the point about "obfuscation" is so sloppily made as to be rendered worthless. As a general rule, while I agree that there is a tendency to invent terms to appear intelligent, one should believe that as objects - and fields - of study evolve (see what I did there?), so should language evolve. That's a plain and simple fact.
Fair enough. You seem to be missing several points, though. All words were invented at some point, and they all had a purpose. Coloniality is not the same as colonialism. They have different meanings. Besides, the whole point of academic writing is to convey new ideas. Plain English will not do. "Structuralism" is an ugly term, but very useful too. "Relativity" must have sounded pretty awful back in the day... So we need new words. Some are more elegant than others. Some writers are better than others. As for long, broken sentences, what is wrong with that? We are not children, we need to be challenged intellectually. My final point: you seem to be confusing the annoyance of reading always the same regurgitated idea ("everything's fluid, everyone's got agency") with having a boring writing style. Different things.
First, I'm going to consider this guy's advice on writing once has enough experience of actual writing – assuming, that is, that this drivel can be classified as 'advice on writing' rather than drivel. Second, he could take some of his own advice (his latest article is entitled "Was Jerusalem Part of Palestine?" - hypocrite!). Third, he is either ignorant, stupid, or in bad faith: while there is poor writing in the humanities (as everywhere), it is not confined to particular kinds of approaches (he's clearly targeting 'post-positivist' writing, as though positivists produced Shakespearian prose) and he either does not understand or wilfully ignores that those 'obfuscating' terms are actually *technical* terms, with specific specialist uses. He may not like them, he may disagree with the approaches, but pretending they're simply gibberish displays only his shameful lack of knowledge and/or intellectual honesty. And this guy is a product of *Princeton's* doctoral programme?! Wow. And THE: what are you thinking publishing such twaddle?!
It's unsurprising that a number of commenters have jumped down the author's throat for this piece - it cuts too close to the bone, and many academics are humorless about their profession. There was a time, before they retreated into the ivory tower of poststructuralism and continental critical theory, when humanities academics wrote compelling scholarship that was clear and concise and could be read and understood by anyone with an education. Now they complain about a crisis in the humanities when they've spent the last 40 years writing in the manner lampooned by the author, thus insuring that no one outside their club understands what they've written or wants to pick it up in the first place.
Inverted commas are unintelligible?
Another tip: place your punctuation just inconsistently enough to make your reader question whether you're allowed to add titles (PhD) as superfluously as you create words . Bonus points if your commas or quotation marks are near a made-up word. But also this was really funny, thanks
A lot of negative comments on this, but I thought it was a well-written and helpful piece! My essays will, I'm sure, be improved. Thank you!
Are you serious? You're going to change your writing style in view of this advice? Which one of these are you going to take seriously?
First, I am somewhat obliged to state my credentials, for reasons we can easily fathom: I am a 'master' of anthropology about to dive into the Phd universe in a related field. I am remarkably hesitant for many of the reasons given in this humorous - and healthy - article. While guilty of the stylistic and linguistic ailments the author highlights, is their an alternative to being infected with the same virus I have followed, read and imbibed over the decades ? Reading similar material only in English, and being consistently bombarded with relatively ossified yet unwritten guidelines for academically-respectable lingo, how is my very sub-conscious not heavily influenced when I speak, write and think ? Unless I am a prodigious example of innovative writers or some other rarity, what choice do I have when faced with hardened peer-egos, strict publishing guidelines and other murky inevitabilities in such a parallel universe known only to a fraction of humanity ? Furthermore, is not auto-mockery healthier than mocking others - or should it not at least preceed the latter activity ? The author is willingly embroiled in what he is criticising and, hence, attacking what he is or will soon probably replicate himself, knowingly so. The attention to spelling, style, grammar and so on is considerably irrelevant, as long as the message is clear. Precision in message is what we seek, is it not ? Are we not trying hard to improve life, generally ? Granted, these terms are rather loaded, but if we cannot produce rock-solid results as, for example, the hard sciences do, then how exactly is our presence, funding...etc., justified ? Barring job stability and other highly relevant contemporary realities, what exactly justifies the excessive masochism that drives an adult into such a reality ? Apologies for baring all here, as I might have strayed off the point(s), and tread on some toes, but as a former professor once told me in 2002 (and I paraphrase): 'Cognitive sciences have placed the social sciences in an existential quagmire.' What remains to be understood by me and maybe others is the motivation(s) behind making the effort to write a commentary, apart from a wish to simplify, clarify, aid and construct an effective method in which to improve and benefit oneself and others.
I'm trying to decide which made me laugh more, the article or the comments thread. Well done Zachary.
This is quote from the author's own article. "But we have more explicit evidence that Palestine may have been considered a small region based around Ramla, one that did not include Jerusalem. " Someone in the comments forum suggested the author could serve as a member of Trump's team. I see some support here for that suggestion.
Sure bad writing exists. But these are not examples of bad writing. Some writers are far more opaque in style than others. But calling out inverted commas and neologisms as unintelligible academese is quite idiotic. Do you also have a problem with medical journals using latin names for parts of the body? Why don't you write a piece on that. I'm sure a lot of people will find that funny too.
The medical journals are full of accounts of concrete things, however imperfectly described. In the modern humanities the principle of parsimony is widely disregarded, and gimmick words and punctuation are used to advertise questionable concepts. Layers of unfalsifiable abstraction pile up on one another, detached from particularity or evidence. It's hard to see how one could right clearly about such things, and people don't. 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' is a prose masterpiece. 'The Female Eunuch' was written in admirably lucid English. I don't see why other writing on sex and gender shouldn't be. And no serious person should be impressed by coinages such as 're-membering', or titles of the form 'something short and 'eye-catching' - COLON - a stream of shibboleth-laden prose mud to fill up space.
As several others have mentioned it is hard to know which is more amusing the article itself, which successfully lampoons the dominant trends in the arts & humanities, or many of the po-faced comments made by people who appear to have bristled at every point raised by this 'mere PhD candidate' (mandatory square quotes). It seems like the critiques have hit a little too close to home for some but certainly not close enough that it might motivate self reflection. Nope, instead it's better to focus on the writer's position on the academic hierarchy and to infer that he is a supporter of Eurocentrism, a candidate for Trump's team, and maybe even a Zionist! As far as Zachary being guilty of the sins he highlights: I'm sure he is. It's almost impossible to be involved with academia and not fall into widespread conventions at times. I didn't see anything in the piece to suggest otherwise, he is just highlighting some of the lamentable but remarkably widespread writing practices that serve to obfuscate meaning and uncritically regurgitate popular views/stances. There is a deep irony in those that lay claim to be convention smashing and iconoclastic displaying such a slavish devotion to jargon filled, often intentionally unintelligible writing that owes much to an elite European intellectual history. But unfortuantely it looks like such ironies are lost on those that would most benefit from recognising them.
I wish I'd written that last paragraph, C.
People who write obscurely are either unskilled in writing or up to mischief. Sir Peter Medawar, 'Science and Literature', Pluto’s Republic (1984) (That's Sir Peter Medawar, FRS _FBA_ and Nobel laureate) How have people come to be taken in by The Phenomenon of Man? Just as compulsory primary education created a market catered for by cheap dailies and weeklies, so the spread of secondary and latterly of tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought … [The Phenomenon of Man] is written in an all but totally unintelligible style, and this is construed as prima-facie evidence of profundity. Medawar’s book review of The Phenomenon of Man by Teilhard de Chardin
As a good mediocre academic, I can only regurgitate what another commenter already said --note that I shall do so, un/fortunately and/or un/wisely, (nearly) with/out use of any word-slashing or useful/useless/user-friendly neologism: "I'm trying to decide which made me laugh more, the article or the comments thread. Well done Zachary".

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