Re: Academic Writing-quite long

Subject: Re: Academic Writing-quite long
From: Pete Kloppenburg <pkloppen -at- CERTICOM -dot- CA>
Date: Thu, 6 Mar 1997 11:03:27 -0500

Daniel Wise writes:
> 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 aspire 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.

Actually, I thought Paul's post was well-reasoned and well-written.
And I think Daniel's reply falls a touch short of being "nice". I'm not
sure why every topic on this list seems to devolve into a mud-slinging
match; surely this doesn't reflect well on our profession.

I think Daniel makes some very good points in his reply, most
especially his example of the doctor's talking at (and past) one another.
To that I would add a further example.

Recently (and if I had the time I'd give you the specifics - if anybody really
wants it I'll track down the source) a journal of literary criticism devoted to
the postmodern published an article by a physicist. In the article the
physicist, who is quite well respected by his peers, wrote at
length on the connections between quantum theory and postmodern
theory, and concluded that the postmodernists had somehow
stumbled onto a literary theory which could be backed up by
physical evidence.

So of course the editors of the journal published it. They were
horrified to learn, after its publication, that the physicist was having
one over on them: he had written a bunch of nonsense, mixing
together terms from the two disciplines indiscriminately and indeed
mischievously. He was making some sort of point, apparently, about
the academic publishing process. No doubt he was also trying to
score a few points in the tedious war between the humanities and
the hard sciences.

So yes, there is very good evidence that academic writing has a lot
to answer for, and that far too much effort goes towards pushing
the right buttons to get published in a journal.

BUT (and of course we all knew this was coming) I would
like to make a point in defense of the academy. And my point
is this:

90% of everything is crap.

This goes for the published work of English PhD's as much as anything
else. This may seem like a pretty funny way to defend the
academy. But in truth, the 10% that's worth something can be
worth quite a bit. The best academic writing forces us to engage its
own text in a way that can be tremendously revealing. If some of worst
papers use jargon and obscure references as a way to snow us
under, some of the best can turn it into a spare and elegant way to
convey some terribly complex ideas. *Working* through a text
can be much more rewarding than simply *reading* it.

As technical writers, we are professionally disposed to hate this
attitude because we, as Daniel says, strive to be:

> Complete
> Concise
> Clear
> Correct
> Comprehensible

But as often as academics fail to achieve the ideal I describe above, we
fail to achieve Daniel's ideal. 90% of what we write is crap. As another
poster to this thread notes, we have a lot of gall to criticize the
academy given our track record. For every paper in an academic journal
that becomes so choked with jargon as to be unintelligible, there is a
computer manual which has been gutted of any real meaning in the
effort to pander to the lowest common denominator.

So let's not bash the academy too hard. Technical writing and
academic writing have different aims and different audiences, and it
would be a shame in my view if literary or rhetorical criticism
began to appear in bulleted lists and small words.

My apologies for the length. Not that long ago I was an academic,
and I fear I was not counted among the 10%

Pete Kloppenburg
Technical Writer
Mississauga, Ontario

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