Academic writing styles sometimes impress more than they enlighten. Professors assign much that is gratuitously opaque. Some students conclude that the way to be considered smart is to master the professional jargon. Yet, bright people with good ideas need to write clearly if they want discerning readers. For some graduates, a doctorate is the “terminal degree” indeed: few read or publish their manuscripts.
When they enter a university, students often write more clearly and forcefully than do many professors.
I asked several persons, some students and some faculty, to describe their campus in a paragraph addressed to a friend. They responded anonymously. One student wrote:
[Our campus] is great. I’ve lived in the dorm now for two years, and its fun. You really meet alot of people. I look forward to moving off campus next year. But I think my social life will decline. That could be good or bad.
I have not edited any quotations except to remove the names of institutions. — LC
A faculty member wrote:
[Our university] is a good place to teach and work. [Our town] is a good place to live. There is a forward looking administration. The Arts get support. Students are good kids for the most part and fun to teach. Faculty still interested in teaching and in the students for the most part. The general aim is to educate students for life as well as for career development. There is emphasis on the importance of a broad liberal arts background in general and good oral and written communication skills in particular. There is encouragement to faculty to attain terminal academic degrees. Professional experience is accepted in lieu of academic work where it is appropriate. In addition to an excellent undergraduate program there are good masters programs in such area as Communicative Disorders, Natural Resources and Communication.
True, the student uses shorter sentences (av. of 7 words to the teacher’s average of 12 per sentence) and narrows the scope just to social issues, while the teacher discusses programs, issues, etc. But would the student be wise to follow the professor’s model? I think not.
Of the professor’s 12 verbs, 10 (83%) are forms of to be, the least assertive verb in English. With the professor’s one active verb, “The Arts get support,” the professor still hides the agent(s)–who gives the support?–and buries the real action in the adjacent noun support.
Compare: “People here support the arts.”
Four times the professor tones down action and masks agency by using There is/are:
Instead of: “There is a forward looking administration.”
Try: “Administrators here look ahead.”
Instead of: “ There is emphasis on the importance of a broad liberal arts background in general and good oral and written communication skills in particular.”
Try: “We emphasize liberal arts. We especially want everyone to write and speak well.”
To cut through the professor’s limp style, I have not just pruned the forms of to be. I have used verbs to state action, “There is emphasis on” becomes “We emphasize.” The professor buries action in the adjectives oral and written.” I unpack the action with verbs: “want everyone to write and speak well.”
Although the student who wrote the first paragraph has much to learn, if the student imitates the professor, the student might not use some skills already acquired. For example, the student used 5 strong verbs (lived, meet, am looking, think, will decline)–62% to the professor’s mere 8%, and the student used only 3 forms of finite be (is great, it’s fun, could be good or bad)–38% to the professor’s 83%.
Presumably students write most like their professors when they know that professors will scrutinize their writing closely, as in theses and dissertations. The professor claims that his campus emphasizes “good oral and written communication skills in particular” and cites as evidence “good master’s programs.” Yet can anyone imagine a more deadly way to spend an evening than reading a stack of master’s theses? Weak verbs abound with a vengeance.
I recently analyzed just the first pages of several theses which I chose randomly from a campus collection. Note how much more like the professor than like the freshman the following writer begins. Nouns imbed most of the action:
Lake Owen is a clean, deep, kettle lake in southwestern Bayfield County. Recreation activity at the lake is high from boating, swimming and fishing by cottage owners and resort visitors, as well as campers from a Forest Service campground during the summer months. In winter, the lake hosts snowmobiling, ice fishing and cross country skiing. Nearby Mt. Telemark Lodge attracts additional people to the area.
Compare a version with stronger verbs:
Clean, deep Lake Owen, a kettle lake in southwestern Bayfield County, attracts many people. They boat, swim, fish, ski, snowmobile, camp, and sometimes even buy cottages. Some board at nearby Mt. Telemark Lodge.
In the next sample, note how the writer fails to specify the villain directly:
The gray squirrel has been subjected to an array of land use changes since the first settlers came to America. In some cases, clearing of forested land for agriculture led to the replacement of gray squirrels by fox squirrels.
Compare a version which names the villain as the agent, specified in the grammatical subject of the sentences:
Since people first settled America, they have changed the land which they share with the gray squirrel. Sometimes when people clear forests for agriculture, the fox squirrel replaces the gray squirrel altogether.
Recently a major university approved a dissertation which began:
The purpose of this study was to examine the relationship between psychological health and experienced acceptance or experienced lack of acceptance. The research hypotheses proposed that those persons who experienced acceptance or fit with self, significant other, communal setting, parental figure(s), work setting–or with some combination of these–would experience less potential for psychopathology than those who did not.
Compare a version with clearer agents + actions + goals:
We examined the way that a person’s psychological health relates to whether others accept or reject the person. We guessed that people would have a better chance of being healthy if they accepted themselves, if others accepted them, and if they fit in at work and in the community.
Admittedly, the first version sounds more technical. The writer sounds like someone who has read many other writers in the field. But jargon alone cannot authenticate. Which version would any sane person prefer to spend an evening reading? Which kind of style should we really train ourselves and our students to write?
Textbooks often set even worse models for students. I asked 100 first-year students to bring me a copy of the first page of each of three of their textbooks outside English. One began:
Accounting is a service activity. Its function is to provide quantitative information about economic entities. The information is primarily financial in nature and is intended to be useful in making economic decisions….
A clearer, less vacuous version might begin:
Accountants provide economic statistics which people and institutions use to decide their next moves….
Sometimes the author of a textbook strains at making something simple into something more complex. For example,
Most people are familiar with the words public relations, but few can agree on their meaning. In simplest terms, these words mean “relations with the public,” but that is still confusing because the words are used to describe both a condition and an activity.
When describing the condition, we can say that an organization has good public relations. By this we mean that public attitudes toward, and opinions about, the organization are favorable. Conversely, we can say that an organization has bad public relations. By this we mean that public attitudes toward and opinions about the organization are unfavorable….
Never does this author question whether the public knows enough to make accurate decisions, or whether employees in Public Relations have an obligation to be candid in ways that sometimes could jeopardize the fortunes of the company. I suspect the author intends this prose to be soporific. Likely the writer’s agenda can be served only by a lack of candor. If future employees in Public Relations see Public Relations as strictly an objective activity, a job to be done, perhaps they won’t be hampered with an intruding conscience. If I am right, no amount of revision could improve on the way that the original version serves that agenda.
I sometimes give workshops on clarity to persons in business or in government. In a few minutes I can teach them how to clarify their worst material, but often they look at the revision and exclaim, “I could never get away with that. I have to keep this issue or that description vague so that I can make it easier for us to deal with….”
Professional writers sometimes elevate vagueness to an art form. Masters and Johnson in Human Sexual Response provide my favorite example. They seem to hide even from themselves the reality which they describe:
These physiologically recordable levels of orgasmic intensity never must be presumed arbitrarily to be a full or consistent measure of the subjective pleasure derived from individual orgasmic attainment.
Tedium over long stretches might well discourage some of the more sensitive, better qualified students from training to be therapists.
We cannot fully or consistently measure how much pleasure a person has in orgasm, although we do record precisely how intense the physiological responses are.
X-rated prose is not the only readable alternative.
Those in power often use the official style to mask how they manipulate others. A Department of Public Instruction (DPI) recently reported to one University campus:
It is suggested that there be improvements in budget request needs to insure [sic] adequate funding support. This question was raised by staff and not entirely clarified by the administration during our visitation.
We suggest that your campus improve its budget and adequately fund the programs we request. Your staff raised this issue when we visited, but your administrators did not adequately clarify their response.
The DPI’s own version was vague and guarded, as if the bosses did not want to seem to throw their weight around; but of course, they threw their weight around anyway. The Dean got the point and penned at the bottom before sending this to the campus committee, “It looks like what they want us to do is….”
Is it too much to ask all writers to own their intentions and to tell us precisely and directly what they want?
I evangelize for a clear style. Revision is hard work, but not guesswork. Clarity is worth the writer’s efforts to specify agents, to avoid passives, to express strong action in forceful verbs. Of course, no rubrics can do our thinking for us, but neither can fancy academese substitute for clear thought.