Academic Writing Doesn’t Suck (You’re Just Doing It Wrong)

It’s highly likely you will graduate [from your PhD program] a worse writer than you started. This is because we spend a lot of time teaching you how to write in a particular ‘academic’ style that, not to put too fine a point on it: sucks. Academic writing, as a genre, is ritualised, peculiar, archaic and does almost as much to hide knowledge as it does to share it. Mastering academic writing is just as much about signalling you are the member of an ‘in-group’ as it is about conveying ideas.

Inger Mewburn, The Thesis Whisperer

This is a widely held view that is worth pushing back against. Of course, there’s a lot of bad academic writing out there, but there’s also a lot of bad writing in journalism, business, and government, not to mention the endless wealth of bad novels you can read at your leisure. There is nothing uniquely bad about academic writing and, at the end of the day, the suggestion that academics are required to write badly in order to conform to genre conventions (and that good writing must therefore be learned by way of other genres) is simply bad writing advice. There is no reason that taking a PhD should make you a worse writer. In fact, it’s an excellent opportunity to improve.

Let’s begin with that so-called “in-group” you seem to resent. They’re your peers and if you don’t like writing for them, you should find another discipline, another group of peers. Disciplines differ both in style and content and you should find one that doesn’t suck. In fact, one of the reasons to do a literature review is to find your readers and get to know them. If you can’t find a solid two dozen people whose writing you like, or can at least respect, what are you doing in this discipline? Much of your time will indeed be spent reading them and writing for them, and telling your students to read them and teaching your students to write like them. (What did you think academia would be?) Why would you teach your students to suck?

Academic writing is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. You’re not supposed to merely “convey ideas”, you’re supposed to expose them (your ideas and their ideas) to criticism. You are writing specifically for people who are qualified to tell you that you’re wrong. Pick people whose opinions you respect, people whose style resonates with yours. If you find people you like to talk to, it doesn’t even suck to be told you’re wrong. That’s when you either learn exactly how right you are (because you’ve got a good counterargument) or are relieved of an error that has been holding you back.

There’s nothing archaic or “peculiar” about writing coherent prose paragraphs that support, elaborate, or defend your knowledge claims, nor about arranging them into essays and papers and dissertations that make larger arguments. (Next, you’ll be telling me that the wheel is “archaic”!) And if you’re using your writing to conceal what you know, you’re doing it wrong. Usually, of course, bad writing will be used to to hide your ignorance, not your knowledge, but it always makes criticism less constructive than it could be. Bad writing, after all, is often simply false writing, dishonest writing, insincere writing — writing something you don’t know for someone you don’t respect. Just don’t do that. It sucks for both of you. Don’t ever explain away the badness you see in your own writing as the result of a supervisor’s or a reviewer’s or an editor’s stuffy demands. Ultimately, you’re punishing your reader, and your reader will not fail to recognize your contempt for what you think they’ve made you do.

No one is going to force you to write badly. In the long run, you won’t even be rewarded for it. But, unfortunately, it is true that they’ll often let you get away with it. The important thing is not to let yourself get away with it — that’s when the whole business really starts to suck. Please don’t let anyone convince you that you have to write badly to succeed as an academic. Don’t let them persuade you that academic writing just sucks and that it’s normal to hate it. Don’t participate in this ritualized self-flagellation. As an academic you’re going to do a lot of specifically academic writing, and a lot of academic reading. Don’t be ashamed of it and learn to love it. Understand why it matters that you do it well. If you want to write popular essays or government memos or blog posts, go and do that. We need good writers of all kinds in all genres in our culture, and in academia we need, yes, academic writers. We need people who are looking for other people to tell them they are wrong.

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