Academic Writing: For Better or Worse

People complain about academic writing all the time. In the past day or two, it is has gotten renewed play with Stephen Walt’s piece.  I find Dan Drezner’s older piece and Jay Ulfelder’s new piece more compelling.  Walt does make a sharp distinction:

A second reason is the failure of many scholars to appreciate the difference between the logic of discovery and the logic of presentation. Specifically, the process by which a scholar figures out the answer to a particular question is rarely if ever the best way to explain that answer to a reader.

He is right that this ought to make a difference.  He is wrong that a logic of discovery is the wrong way to go much of the time.  It depends on who the intended reader might be. When presenting research to the research community, it is almost certainly best to show to the audience how one discovered the findings, so that they can assess the question, the proposed answer, the methodology, the findings and the conclusion.  Note his example:

“First we read the literature, then we derived the following hypotheses, then we collected this data or researched these cases, then we analyzed them and got these results, and the next day we performed our robustness checks, and here’s what we’re going to do next.”

Well, if one is doing, dare I say it, hypothesis testing, this is surely the correct way to present the work.  Different kinds of work require different kinds of presentation.  Presenting a dissertation at a job talk is likely to take this format, because the audience cares as much as or more than the journey than the destination.

And this gets to the points raised by Dan and Jay–that much of our writing is aimed at the scholarly community, so we talk in jargon (since these shortcuts are handy) and we focus more on the stuff inside the paper than how it is presented.  Certainly, we can do better.  I constantly encourage my students to focus when reading not just on the stuff in the piece but how it is delivered, especially when they are in the latter stages of their dissertation and are thinking about book-ness.

I also think that Walt is wrong in his argument that academics are deliberately opaque because they fear being wrong.  This would take too much work, and most academics are focused on the task at hand–getting published to worry about such stuff.  Do reviewers reward crappy writing?  Well, they may not punish it, but I doubt that they reward it either.  As Jay suggested, the academic world is a mix of good and bad writers.  Some folks put effort into learning how to communicate better, and others just try to overwhelm the reviewers via quantity or … really interesting questions and answers that can impress despite the lousy writing.

I do think that being articulate does pay off.  I know many folks who have gotten pretty far with rather limited ideas but with a great capacity for articulating them.

As for me, I married an editor.  Sure, that is cheating, but she taught me much before she stopped editing me (she wanted to do her own writing and also we had that pesky time-suck known as a child).  I have found my writing to be less formal than it used to be.  While I try to keep my blogging style and my article/book style distinct, the former has started to infect the latter.  Or at least, that is what my co-authors claim.

What is probably the fundamental reason why academics do not communicate well?  Perhaps a great writer can explain it: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” (Mark Twain).

Steve Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs

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