Defending ‘Academic’ Writing

What is wrong with ‘academic’ writing?

Academics Stink at Writing – Steven Pinker

Why Is Academic Writing So Unpleasant to Read?>

Why Is Academic Writing So Academic?

Believe it or not, academics actually know how to write, but some of this ‘jargon’ is for brevity. How should a scientist describe the concept of heritability without words like ‘phenotype’ ‘chromosomal’ and ‘autosomal’? Of course, he could dumb it down by omitting those words and replacing them with their definitions, but that would make the writing longer and be unnecessary to his intended audience who already know what that those words mean. The writer assumes the reader has sufficient knowledge of the necessary terminology, as explained by Cass R. Sunstein in In Defense of Academic Jargon:

Plain language has its virtues, and some academic jargon is pointlessly obscure, but when specialists are speaking to other specialists, it’s perfectly fine to use specialized language. These passages could be translated into ordinary language only at a high cost, resulting in a loss of precision, excessive length and unnecessary definitions. For the intended audience, phrases such as “concavity of the utility function,” “the binary signal case” and “leximin rule” are familiar, not arcane.

Most jargon is amenable to a Google or Wikipedia search. It will take some extra effort on the reader’s part, but this is a small price to pay if the intent is understanding a new or difficult concept.

Verbosity, unlike jargon, can be avoided and may be problematic in excess. But I think it’s part of the ‘reading experience’. Readers have a expectation that certain texts will be long, and writers meet those expectations through circumlocutions. Also if you enjoy what you’re writing about, you’ll probably be inclined to use more words than necessary out of enthusiasm.

This passage from anomalyuk:

Nobody in the system has the aim of destroying society. That is an incidental byproduct of the competition for power. When a particular leftist trend gets to the stage where the destruction of the governing institutions becomes imminent, some conservative will actually be allowed to stop it. After all, the individuals in the permanent establishment are choosing the holy policy in order to retain their power; if it comes to a choice between accepting a less holy policy or seeing the institution in which their power resides fall apart, there is less to lose by compromising on purity.

…could be compressed to:

Nobody in the system wants to destroy society. That is an incidental byproduct of the competition for power. When destruction is near, someone will be allowed to intercede. This is because stability, which their (the establishment) power resides on, supersedes ideological purity that may be destabilizing.

An example is George W. Bush ratifying the 2008 bank bailouts, which seemed to go against the Republican echoes of ‘free market’ purity, but was ultimately a necessity and a success. But the civilization or ideology may stand for something not worth preserving, but that is another issue.

But back to the topic of academic writing, if you want easy-to-read stuff, read sales letters, which by deliberately sacrificing richness of language are designed to be accessible to as many people as possible in order to maximize…sales. Or read Tony Robbins or Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad books. The inability to understand academic prose is more of a deficiency of the reader’s comprehension or patience than a deficiency of the writer to communicate.

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