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June 18, 2007



It's not that bad. But then again I'm an academic. ... And I have to resist the urge to make suggestions to clarify the language (occupational habit). It's an interesting abstract!

The best academic writing is language play, literally. Take that for what it is.

Now, how would Rand and Benjamin fight over it?


I agree, Kiita - but I also think a lot of the worst academic writing is language play. That it may be intelligible to the specialist doesn't change the fact that excluding lay readers has been a major impetus of the last twenty-five years of American literary theory.

I may be naive, but I still hold to the saw that the best writing of any variety usually transmits its meaning in the simplest way it can be, given its subject. Like this post, which I found honest and brave.


I've been writing a lot of press releases recently and this has purged a lot of academic jargon from my writing. Press releases (text that aims draw interest within a few lines), especially for art and architecture theory-based projects, requires one to transpose complex theories into clear, easily understandable sentences. The trick is to find the essentials in the ideas and leave out the rest.


kiita and asad: some of my finer moments as an academic writer have involved clever word/language play to interesting ends. the problem, of course, is when one starts being clever for the sake of being clever: all form, no content.

i think that writing can and should be playful when that sort of playfulness is required of the text at hand. (and i think that a lot of academic writing really ought to be more playful -- ie, not take itself quite so seriously.) but play doesn't have to be complicated, or about complicatedness.

and so -- this links up to what you said, carson -- i really do think that grad students need to try their hand at writing for non-academic-journal sorts of places. write for people who aren't going to belabor the point, but who, rather, just want to see the point.


I think it is a mistake to think of 'academic writing' as substantially or necessarily different from any other kind of writing. It's just writing, about whatever you happen to be interested in or to have been asked to write about. There is no compulsion whatsoever to write in an obfuscatory or unintelligible way. On the contrary, if you do write in such a way you are quite liable to be queried, challenged or asked to change your prose, by editors, readers, reviewers, et al.

If you have some good ideas, and can communicate your intelligence and thoughtfulness (supposing, for the sake of argument, that this is Humanities, not hard science, maths etc, where presumably different kinds of skills and findings are at stake) - good. If you can write elegantly or lyrically, even comically - so much the better. There's no more mystery to it than that, really.

Some academic writers are better than others (though there is no necessary consensus on this; I love Michael Wood, others might not) - just as some cooks, or goalkeepers, or gardeners are better than others. No-one would defend all academic writing, just as no-one would defend all gardening or cookery. But no-one would attack all gardening or cookery either.

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  • If Ayn Rand and Walter Benjamin got in a cage fight and then made up over foie gras, single malt scotch and indie pop, you'd have the delightful adventures of "That Was Probably Awkward." Plus or minus the single malt and foie gras, depending on the week's finances. But always the indie pop. Sad, stirring indie pop. And a decent happy hour.

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