Re: Academic Writing-quite long

Subject: Re: Academic Writing-quite long
From: Daniel Wise <dewise -at- IX -dot- NETCOM -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 5 Mar 1997 23:51:53 -0600


In the techwr-l digest for 3-4 March, Paul Sisler gave us a lengthy apologia
for the dull, dry, boring, pompous writing style adopted by some (many,
most, all?) academics. He ends by urging us to be nice.

OK, Paul, I will be nice. This is my request to you to please translate
what you wrote into plain English so that those of us who do not asipre to
academe may understand your message. I read what you wrote and then reread
it. I still do not understand precisely what your message was.

I believe academics could and should write in plain English. We do it every
day. We present the results of scientific studies, describe the methodology
in the simplest appropriate terms so that other researchers can readily
duplicate it, describe equipment in minute detail, present purpose
statements, detail the scope of our study, and draw conclusions from the
results presented. And we do it in plain English that can be read and
understood by others.

What I read in the journal I mentioned was none of these. I could not read
it without falling asleep. Surely this dense, opaque writing style limits
the utility of the written material. If the objective is to impress
academic colleagues, I question whether this kind of writing does.

If I may bore the stuffing out of a few of you, I will tell a short tale
told at an STC annual conference 30 years ago by Dr. Al Brouse. He had been
engaged by the Cook County (Chicago) medical society to help the doctors of
the city improve their writing skills. He opened the first class by having
each doctor write a one-page description of his/her specialty. Then he
collected the papers, shuffled them, and passed them back with a request for
the recipient of each to tell him what the written page said about the

The result was that the proctologist could not understand the pediatrician
who could not understand the urologist who could not understand the
endocrinologist, etc. They all complained that the writing was so complex
they were unable to follow it.

When Dr. Brouse asked them why they wrote that way he got this answer: Out
of respect for our peers.

If this is the ultimate goal of academic writing, so be it. But what kind
of respect do we get from our peers if they cannot comprehend what we say?
And how much use will the writings be to future generations of researchers
if the readers cannot stay awake long enough to digest what is written.

My own feeling is summed up in the refrain line of an old poem about the
writing of proposals.

Tell me quick
And tell me true
Or else, my love,
To hell with you.

I do not mean this in a rude sense. The gist of the poem was to get to the
point of the proposal without a lot of pompous blather. This is the way I
feel. I want to be able to understand what I read without undue struggle.

Technical writing is supposed to satisfy the five Cs


I would urge academics to follow this lead.

Dan Wise
dewise -at- ix -dot- netcom -dot- com

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