Style points

Few scholarly works can communicate with non-specialists, if they even attempt to. But academics in all fields may need to make their writing more accessible to satisfy demands for impact and interdisciplinarity. Matthew Reisz considers the obfuscatory malaise and how to beat it

July 15, 2010

It is widely agreed, by both insiders and outsiders, that something has gone wrong with much academic writing.

A great deal of it, says Anthony Haynes, the author of Writing Successful Academic Books and visiting professor at both Beijing Normal and Hiroshima universities, is ruined by "a kind of learned inability. No one is born writing sentences laden with adverbs."

John Cornwell, director of the Science and Human Dimension Project based at Jesus College, Cambridge, has worked as a journalist and written a number of best-selling books about the papacy. He is firmly committed to the value of academic rigour and believes that "there are aspects of academic work and publishing that aren't for a wider readership, but still need to be done". Yet he also believes that "much academic writing suffers from rigor mortis".

The publisher Andrew Franklin takes a similar line. He runs Profile Books, which he defines as "a classic trade publisher", in the sense that its list is "aimed at people who want to read our books rather than have to read them". About half are written by academics. Whatever the subject matter, he says, "the writing is always a crucial factor in publishing decisions".

Yet for all the academics who produce excellent crossover texts, there are many more who prove completely incapable. "They write abominably," claims Franklin, "use impenetrable language, pay no attention to the flow of sentences, and don't have the courage to address more general issues. They seem to divorce their professional writing from any reading they might do for pleasure. And there's sometimes a snobbery that people outside the academy don't matter."

Much academic writing would never be read for pleasure and decidedly fits in the have-to rather than want-to category. How many academic books would anyone ever genuinely recommend to a (non-specialist) friend as enthusiastically as a film or a novel? Legitimate concerns about "dumbing down" can sometimes shade into a defence of the right of academics to produce writing that is unreadable and unread.

Part of all this comes down to the question of incentives. Simon Oliver, associate professor of theology and religious studies at the University of Nottingham, notes that "much academic writing is highly specialised and, to the outsider, obscure and lacking in obvious and immediate significance". In the UK, he says, one cannot overlook the effect of the research assessment exercise on the kinds of books that academics now produce.

"Peer review is the cornerstone of this kind of assessment: when we're being assessed by each other, we'll write for each other. This can mean that academic discourse begins to appear parochial. But the kinds of books that might be more readable - textbooks, introductory works, summaries of key debates - have not been valued by the research assessment exercise. There has been a positive disincentive to reach out beyond the academy.

"Having been pushed towards a peer-review or peer-assessment model, the academy is now being pushed very firmly towards assessment by 'research users' or those not immediately involved in the academy. So the research excellence framework will preserve the demands of the RAE and require publications that are reviewed by our peers - which push us towards specialised and technical writing - while also demanding that such research has demonstrable and very rapid impact on non-specialists who are not versed in the technical issues."

There are obvious questions about how this circle can be squared. "Impact" is surely important - it must matter whether academic economics is too impenetrably mathematical for policymakers to understand and whether the rich and subtle sociological research on drug use or family breakdown has any influence on government thinking - despite the ferocious difficulties in measuring it.

Yet the developments Oliver points to certainly mean one thing: academics are going to have to learn to be more accessible. Writing is hardly likely to be favourably assessed by research users, or to have much impact on them, if it bores them rigid or they cannot understand a word of it.

Assessment exercises are not the only reason why writing skills are likely to become more important for almost all academics. As research becomes more interdisciplinary, journal articles get read more by non-specialists. Grant applications and knowledge exchange projects all require academics to reach out and convince wider circles of people. Haynes expects to see a world where more and more academics will need to "develop broader portfolios of writing in which international peer-reviewed journal articles are complemented by other forms of communication". All will require at least basic levels of readability.

This may not sound like a terribly demanding goal, but it is worth remembering how some of the conventions of academic discourse actively militate against readability.

Take referencing, for example. Gavin Fairbairn, professor of ethics and language at Leeds Metropolitan University, co-wrote with David Canter a book called Becoming an Author: Advice for Academics and Other Professionals (2005). One of his bugbears is over-referencing.

"Much of it is just to make one look well read," he says, "but it makes the argument impossible to follow, since one keeps stumbling over references. And they are often used like calling cards at the end of sentences without any content or evidence they have actually been read, leaving readers with the responsibility to find out."

The simplest solution is to cut out most of them, but then journal editors say the articles are not academic enough. This gives authors an incentive to scatter unnecessary references throughout their texts like confetti. The poor "research users" may feel as if they are wading through treacle and give up in disgust. The only likely impact is irritation.

This, of course, provides just a small illustration of one of the central problems with much academic writing. Writing of every kind - from instruction manuals to love letters - is normally thought of as a form of communication, so good writers are constantly thinking of their audience. But, just as there is no point in being well dressed on a desert island, academic writers who know that only half a dozen people are going to read their journal article have little incentive to make it readable, thereby ensuring that they neither get nor deserve any more readers.

So how can academics communicate more effectively? One of Fairbairn's core beliefs is that "we engage people through narrative. Stories tie things together and make them more memorable." This can apply even in scientific areas. Instead of presenting a formal literature review followed by a dry recital of hypothesis, methodology and results, he suggests that writers should say: "One person did X, another did Y, and that led me to ask the following questions. This is how I went about it and what I found out."

In history, there is a clear public appetite for books, only some of which is being fed by academic historians. Part of the explanation comes down to debates about the legitimacy of strong narrative in scholarly works.

Leslie Howsam, university professor at the University of Windsor in Canada, is an expert on the development of history publishing. Even in the late 19th century, she says, when history was being established as an academic discipline, there was "a tension emerging between popular and professional/academic approaches to history writing. I think that tension is still with us. Publishers of trade books want to meet the needs of the kind of reader who engages with serious popular history - good writing, strong narrative, engaging characters and so forth. The training of academic historians leads us to be suspicious of narrative."

In the 1880s, she continues, the essayist and historian Sir John Robert Seeley argued that "history students would need to 'break the drowsy spell of narrative'. I like this notion that narrative is a sort of drug, because it points up the tension I'm talking about. But crossover historians have managed to find what we might call a 'non-drowsy formula' for conveying the complexity of events and themes in the past."

Emily Cockayne, associate lecturer at The Open University, is the author of Hubbub: Filth, Noise, and Stench in England, 1600-1770. This, as the title suggests, is a highly sensual book that takes readers into a world before the Industrial Revolution, when animals wandered around city streets full of rotting rubbish.

Cockayne worries that much academic history is far too impersonal and bloodless. "I find it a bit dispiriting," she says, "that a well-known, highly respected book about the history of witchcraft contains very few stories about those accused or convicted of witchcraft. There are pages of analysis, interpretation, patterns of trials, outlines of the legal systems, etc, but no real witches.

"(Such a book) needs to be populated by witches, I think, for it to really touch not just the general reader but also students studying history. Real human experiences are sometimes overlooked in historical accounts - even those written by social historians."

As a result, Cockayne believes that "books freed from an academic tightness are often much more absorbing - sometimes these can be local histories written by non-academics, or accessible narratives by the likes of Simon Winchester or Bill Bryson (neither is an academic historian but both outsell most academic historians). These books sell because people can follow their stories and care about their protagonists."

As barriers between the academy and the world outside are broken down, Cockayne suspects that a desire to maintain scholarly distinctiveness may make matters even worse.

"The increasing accessibility of the primary sources via online databases renders the academic less and less the only specialist in history," she says. "My fear is that this will mean they retreat further into theory and analysis (to distinguish themselves from hoi polloi) and further away from source immersion and storytelling. The key, I think, is letting the source tell a tale." The frequent costs of "academic tightness" are lost readers and missed opportunities to participate in wider public debates.

None of this may matter much in highly technical areas. Few people will care whether a paper on the minutiae of amino acids is written in snappy prose. But what about academics who address topics of broad general interest or work in disciplines that are presumably dedicated to changing the world as well as interpreting it? Those who write about climate science, ethics or feminism may not always be aiming at a general non-specialist audience, but if there's no trickle-down effect or impact, what on earth is the point?

In different disciplines, academics have to tread rather different tightropes. Studies of popular culture have to steer clear of saying, in more sophisticated language, what any star-struck fan might say while also avoiding things that such fans would find totally meaningless. Feminists committed to the notion that "the personal is the political" still need to be wary of the kind of self-revelation that can be used to mock or trivialise their work.

Bad popular biographies of Byron, Napoleon or Mary, Queen of Scots - never mind those of celebrities - often read like fan letters, love letters or lust letters. Yet some academics fall into the opposite trap, devoting years of their life to a subject, presumably for intense personal reasons, and then producing a book in which virtually nothing seems to be at stake. And when a writer gives little evidence of genuine engagement, it is hard for readers to care either. Highly emotional subjects such as war or sexual differences can easily become dull when they are addressed with bloodless dispassion.

Religion can also stir intense passions, with people's lives often transformed by a good sermon or BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day, never mind the Scriptures and the lives of saints. So where does academic theology fit in?

"Theology and religion are potentially extremely dangerous," says Nottingham's Oliver. "Academic theology acts as a check and balance on the kinds of things I say on Sunday morning in church. A lot of theologians look both to the academy and to the Church, leading to a trickle-down between academic theology and religious communities."

This is a process that works both ways. His academic work may provide solid intellectual ballast for his sermons, but delivering sermons keeps his research grounded and honest.

"We are there partly to answer the questions that arise outside the academy," he explains. "You have to look at the wider questions being asked of theologians. We need to engage with the world." In the frequent cases where academic theology is cut off from such commitments and concerned only with "academic rigour", it runs the risk of floating off into high-flown irrelevance.

It is probably in the humanities that there has been most soul-searching about the style, and indeed the point, of much academic writing. Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund distinguished service professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, takes a positive view of how her disciplines have extended their field of vision over the past few decades.

"Since the 1970s," she says, "there has been a healthy reconnection of philosophical writing with the most central issues of the political and moral life. Ethics has broadened its scope to embrace questions of love and friendship, the nature of the emotions, etc, that were simply unknown in the philosophical culture of the 1960s, at least in the Anglo-American tradition."

Yet Nussbaum also believes that philosophers have been far less effective at "translating what they do into language that the public as a whole can understand". She finds this somewhat mysterious because, she says, "virtually any young philosopher can teach the subject in ways that compel excitement and interest in undergraduates. So why don't they write that way?"

Much of the blame, in her view, "must be laid at the door of the public culture: where would scholars be able to publish if they did write for the general public? With the decline of newspapers and general magazines, our public culture has few outlets for humanists, so young people feel they'd be wasting their time if they focused on developing the skill to address a general audience. Basically, you have to be well known to find an outlet for your views ... I can hardly blame my graduate students for not cultivating the skills of public writing."

Others argue that academics themselves must take a much larger share of the blame for the disconnect between their work and wider public debates.

Mary Evans, visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics' Gender Institute, is the author of The Imagination of Evil: Detective Fiction and the Modern World. "I always wanted to write beyond purely academic audiences," she says.

"I more or less escaped the RAE. My generation could write where and how we wanted. There was no suggestion that one place was better than another, including out-of-the-way and new journals. Rankings have cut out the possibility of new journals, because everybody wants to get into the highly ranked ones. I find it horrible to hear younger colleagues saying they want to get an article in journal X or journal Y.

"Being an academic is about communication. It is important to write in such a way that students can actually read the text. I don't believe there are pressures to write in very obscure ways - it is a certain kind of choice. Philosophers and sociologists such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Richard Rorty, Richard Sennett and Charles Taylor are all accessible and completely readable, which gives you an opportunity to disagree - it's not a problem of the disciplines themselves."

Yet today, Evans believes, "a lot of what is written in the humanities is unreadable, utterly specialist, splitting hairs and with no connection to a more general context. It amounts to wordplay rather than ideas in play."

A particular worry is the work of some critical theorists whose ideas may be important but who write so obscurely that "they generate a lot of secondary literature to put it into sane language. That may lead to concerns about dumbing down, but if you can't understand the original, of course you're going to look for people to render it comprehensible. We don't want to be encouraging a handout culture and telling our students to go and read a summary on Google, but it's bound to happen as the material gets overspecialised and incomprehensible," she says.

Rachel Falconer, professor of modern and contemporary literature at the University of Sheffield, admits "to feeling a strong malaise about current academic writing. One reason I initiated the Arts-Science Encounters in 2009 was that I was bored with reading or listening to literary criticism that seemed to me to be playing out the same standard party lines. I decided to start listening to the way academics in other fields presented their work and, to my shame and consternation, I found that many scientists are better, more exciting users of English than literary critics.

"In my own university, I listened to Richard Jones describing the implications of 'singularity' from a physics perspective; I heard Tony Ryan talking about inventing a textile that could absorb street pollution; I heard Shaun Quegan arguing that climate change was just a tiny drop in the ocean of environmental problems we should be addressing.

"All these speakers were masters of language - for example, in their command of metaphor and their ability to address an audience as if they were speaking to each individual. And, moreover, they were speaking about things that mattered in the grand scheme of things.

"Can English literature - not to mention arts criticism - hold its own among such eloquent voices as these? It can. I learned this from talking to the very scientists whose work and eloquence so overawed me. There is a value in art and literature and its specialist criticism that holds in one frame both reason and the emotions, history, imaginative speculation and everything that a vigorous scientific method must still formally exclude from its calculations, even while it admits to being inspired and driven by these very unscientific intangibles.

"There is so much that literary criticism could do, in terms of registering the impact of global crises, changes to the constitution of our planet and its species due to advancing technology and environmental degradation. Literature - not to mention film, theatre and the visual arts - is a tool to think with, and the business of literary criticism should be to make sure that that thinking is clearer, sharper, more penetrating than it otherwise might be. And what do we get bogged down with instead? 'Isms' and 'ologies' that are of little interest to people outside the study of literature or art."

The real problem, in Falconer's view, "lies in our internalised understanding of what research in the arts is for. In recent years, I have tried to make sure that something serious is at stake in everything I write - sometimes this means I write an autobiographical episode into a piece of research; sometimes it just means that I expose the values, or the books, that have meant most to me over time. In every case, though, I've asked myself, is this something that really matters to me? If the answer is 'no', I don't write it.

"Quite independently of the directives (set out in assessment exercises), we should be asking ourselves whether our research has public interest and value. What will bring this home is not ticking a box on a form but going out to speak to non-professionals and to specialists in different disciplines, and testing what one has to say among these non-specialist listeners. If the reaction is apathy or bemusement, we're on the wrong track and should rethink. Literature and literary criticism are about life - ordinary and extraordinary. When they cease to be lively, provocative and life-enhancing, they cease to have any defensible function at all."

Sarah Churchwell, senior lecturer in American studies at the University of East Anglia, reports "a significant malaise within academic writing, but also a growing reaction to it".

Some of the key problems come down to language and the attitudes underlying it. "Critical theory is too often pretentious and obfuscatory," she says, "a more sophisticated version of what our undergraduates do. We are just better at it.

"It is strange when people who earnestly espouse social justice can't communicate with anyone without a PhD. The accusation about relevance comes up so often it proves that we haven't made the case. We are not communicating enough the relevance and necessity of what we do. We need to re-establish the value of what we do, which is no longer self-evident.

"We use a highly exclusionary language to speak to each other - which, unsurprisingly, ends up excluding outsiders. You get an enormous amount of disingenuousness when academics pretend that their language is not exclusionary." It ought to ring alarm bells among feminists, for example, when they find themselves "using a language that doesn't communicate with vast numbers of women".

Churchwell is also critical of the way "the charge of dumbing down" is often used. "The measure of the intelligence of an article is not in the length of the words," she suggests, "but in the complexity of the argument.

"I don't have to simplify my thoughts; I have to find words that I can reasonably expect people to understand. We can assume an audience of intelligent readers."

We can leave the last word to Anthony Haynes, who now spends much of his time teaching writing skills to PhD students. Bad habits acquired at this stage, he believes, which many supervisors don't bother to correct, often last throughout academic careers.

Several years ago, he recalls, he complimented a professor of education on the simplicity of his syntax: "His reply was that it was his job to think things through clearly and that, if he did his job properly, it followed that he ought then to be able to write clearly, too." Clumsy writing can often be a sign of clumsy thinking.

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