Why is academic writing so boring? I am impatient by nature, easily irritated, and afflicted with a short attention span. That I ended up in a job where I have to spend half the day blinking my way through artless, contorted prose is a cruel twist of fate. But the upside is that it gives me plenty of opportunity to reflect on why reading academic writing is so often a chore and so rarely a joy. Of course it is one of our more valuable chores. I tell my students that one reads academic work not for the pleasure of the moment but for what one comes away with. But still, a few moments of pleasure from time to time doesn’t seem a lot to ask.
As far as I know there has been little, if any, literary analysis of academic writing. You can just imagine the punch-ups in the common room if there was. But, by chance, I recently read a short piece of literary theory, and, to use one of the two metaphors academics allow themselves, the scales fell from my eyes. (If you are wondering, the other metaphor is deftly deployed in the following: “In this column I shall view academic writing through the prism of literary theory”.)
The writer in question had been given the thankless task of ploughing through a dozen or so narratives of addiction and redemption. You know the sort of thing – “You can’t imagine how low I had sunk until I found the love of a good woman and/or Jesus, and now I am a model for you all.” These works, so it was alleged, were unbearably tedious, largely because they had not understood the basic rule of decent writing.
And, indeed, it appears there is a basic rule, but, because I am, after all, an academic too, I must introduce it to you by means of a distinction. Now, sit up straight and pay attention. We will get nowhere until we have mastered the distinction between the “plot” and the “story”. Actually, I don’t remember which is which, but bear with me. One of them is the basic sequence of events in chronological order. The other is how they are disclosed to the reader. The secret, apparently, is that good writing captures its reader by means of creating a tension between the plot and the story. The reader is shown enough of the narrative sequence to get an impression of what is going on, and to whet their appetite for more, but much is hidden. Suspense is created, and the reader is hooked until it is resolved. But before resolution a skilful writer will have set up another tension to keep the dynamic moving forward and on we go.
A very simple and effective technique. One, indeed, that could be taught at school. Perhaps it was. I probably wasn’t paying attention, particularly if it was taught by means of a narrative sequence lasting more than about 15 minutes. Still, it makes perfect sense to me, and also explains why academic writing is generally so much easier to put down than it is to pick up again.
At least in my subject, we teach students to go sub-zero on the tension scale: to give the game away right from the start. A detective novel written by a good philosophy student would begin: “In this novel I shall show that the butler did it.” The rest will be just filling in the details.
And here lies the rub. Academic writing needs to be ordered, precise, and to make every move explicit. All the work needs to be done on the page rather than in the reader’s head. By contrast, good literature often relies on the unsaid, or the implied or hinted at, rather than the expressed thought. But as we tell our students: you will only get a mark for it if it is written down, however obvious, and however infantile it seems to spell it out. Such discipline applies all the way through as the pressures of writing for peer-reviewed journals are much the same. To call a paper “thorough” is high praise.
Professional academic style, then, is formed early on, and reinforced thereafter. It is rather hard to escape the conclusion that academic writing is boring because academics wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m going to be marked down, though, for not saying that at the start.
· Professor Jonathan Wolff is head of philosophy at University College London. His column appears monthly