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Rachael CayleyWhile it may be true that academics are sometimes prone to dense, jargon-laden prose, this is not for lack of trying, but rather part and parcel of the complexity of conveying both clarity and accuracy of sophisticated ideas. Rachael Cayley applauds a recent piece written by Peter Elbow on why it is legitimately hard to accomplish the essential goal of clarity in academic writing.  Academics should not lose hope in their ability to reach a coherent version for wider audiences and the simple exercise of reading aloud may help overcome many of the issues.

Peter Elbow had a post a few weeks ago on the OUP blog on why academic communication can so easily become incoherent and why that fact isn’t as bad as it sounds. What I love about this post is its wonderful lack of cynicism about academic writing. Elbow, here as elsewhere in his writing, is looking to expand the way we think about writing, not lay blame. So many harsh things get said about academic writing: it’s dense, jargon-laden, oblivious to audience, and so forth. Those generalizations are true at times, but most of that writing isn’t produced by malefactors deliberately trying to obfuscate with specialized vocabulary and serpentine notions. The first thing I want my students to understand is that they write hard-to-understand prose because they are trying to convey highly sophisticated material. The second is that a failure to craft an audience-friendly text out of that sophisticated material is not an indication of an unwillingness to do so.

Whether you are discussing densely layered theories or explaining complex physical processes, chances are you are labouring to meet the often-opposed goals of clarity and accuracy. I think we all know the somewhat magical feeling when those two goals demand the same thing of us in a single sentence. So often we can see a ‘better’ version of a sentence that would be great except that it would also be wrong. Adding in the detail and nuance to make it right then undermines the clarity that we had hoped to achieve. The way forward isn’t always apparent, but it won’t be found by disparaging either pole or by despairing of the entire project of academic writing.

In fact, Elbow does give us a way forward. He asserts that a great deal of our academic writing difficulty comes from our habit of interrupting ourselves to provide extra evidence, forestall possible objections, or even attack potential detractors. And while the effects of this habit can be deleterious for the reader, Elbow is clear on the value of the underlying state of mind that keeps us alert to digression and dissent. Interestingly, he believes speech—despite the real tendency of academic speech to become incoherent—can help us bridge the gap between our often tentative, ambivalent, overqualified prose and the strong coherent version that our reader is looking for. In his words,

If I want strong written words that readers will hear and take seriously, I need coherent, well-shaped prose. For this goal, it turns out that the unruly tongue comes to the rescue. My tongue may breed incoherence when I let it run free, but if I take every written sentence and read it aloud with loving care and keep fiddling with it till it feels right in the mouth and sounds right in the ear, that sentence will be clear and strong.

Overall, Elbow is offering us an encouraging account of why it is legitimately hard to accomplish the essential goal of clarity in our academic writing. In doing so, he is also offering us inspiration to keeping on trying.

This article originally appeared on Rachael’s personal blog Explorations of Style and is reposted with her permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. 

About the author

Rachael Cayley is a Senior Lecturer in the Office of English Language and Writing Support in the School of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto. She teaches academic writing and speaking to graduate students. Before joining the University of Toronto, she worked as an editor at Oxford University Press in Toronto. She has a PhD in philosophy from the New School for Social Research and a BA in political science from the University of British Columbia. Rachael has a blog on academic writing for graduate students, Explorations of Style (www.explorationsofstyle.com). 

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