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Bad Writing and Bad Thinking about Bad Writing and Bad Thinking

In an article for the CHE entitled “Bad Writing and Bad Thinking”, Rachel Toor comments on the incoherence of much student writing. She isn’t talking about the incoherence of non-native speakers or American high school graduates here; this is a class of graduate students who have, she claims, been taught to write badly by the academic system.

There is some truth in Toor’s claim. Many students produce verbose and impenetrable essays because they think that this is what academic writing should be like: “You must use multisyllabic words, complex phrasing, and sentences that go on for days, because that’s how you show you’re smart. If you’re too clear, if your sentences are too simple, your peers won’t take you seriously.” Some of them may even have been taught that this is what academic writing should be like, but I suspect it was not writing tutors who taught them this. We are too busy telling them things like “Have a clear thesis statement,” “Make sure you cite all your sources,” and “Be careful about subject/verb agreement.” My guess is that at this level, students’ obfuscatory writing is partly the result of imitating bad academic writing, and partly of trying to write in an academic style without understanding why academics write the way they do.

Toor’s main problem is not in her diagnosis, though, but in her proposed cure: a large dose of Orwell with a supplement of Strunk and White. The latter is (to continue the medical metaphor) the snake oil of writing quacks. The Elements of Style is a mishmash of truisms (“Omit unnecessary words”) and absurdities (“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs”) and it is amazing that it is still in use. (If you think that is harsh criticism, do a search on “strunk pullum”.)

Orwell is not so easily dismissed. Charlotte’s Web (by the White of Strunk and White) made me cry when I was seven years old, but it doesn’t offer a model for writing in the way that Orwell’s essays do. In particular, “Politics and the English Language”, which is what Toor recommends to her students, is a masterpiece of polemic. Orwell was writing primarily about political writing, and in particular he was attacking the way common features of propaganda served to dull or stifle critical thinking and honest debate. Read in this context, most of his  advice makes sense. This does not necessarily make it good advice for writing in general, though, and it certainly doesn’t make it good advice for writing academic papers. We don’t expect student essays or scholarly books to conform to the rules of poetry or film scripts, so why should we judge them by standards designed for journalism or propaganda?

Two rules from “Politics and the English Language” should be enough to demonstrate the point. “Never use the passive where you can use the active” is a rehash of Strunk’s infamous bad advice, but when applied to political writing, there is some justification for it. Political writers and speakers may use the passive to imply that certain bad things (poverty, war, exploitation) simply happen without anyone actually doing them. It isn’t always or even mostly used like this, of course, but it is worth drawing writers’ attention to its dangers. But academic writing is different. If Professor Kugelschreiber writes “2mg of polyhydrotetracryptonol were added to the solution,” he isn’t wickedly avoiding admitting that it was he who added it; the point is that it doesn’t matter who added it. It could have been dropped into the beaker by fairies and it wouldn’t make any difference. Avoiding the passive on principle is as silly as using it on principle (which is a fault in some academic writing, but not a fault that can be remedied by a blanket ban on passives). Then there is the dictum “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” Again, this is good advice for popular journalists and speech-writers. It might even be good advice for academics who want to reach a wider audience. But can we really object when scientists use scientific words? Should historians refuse to use phrases like “Pax Romana” or “Le Grand Siècle” on the grounds that they are foreign? Should literature professors eschew “iambic tetrameter” in favour of “deDUMdeDUMdeDUMdeDUM”?

Categories: Linked articles, Writing
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