Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Top Four Frustrations About Academic Writing

I'd like to join the blog discussion about academic writing. What frustrates me most as a writer and as a reader:

1. When an author has forgotten who the audience is. It is not so much that technical language should be avoided (or long sentences, or complicated strings of words), but that it should be avoided when writing for certain audiences. So what should be first on our minds when writing is our audience. The language and sentence structure should support that. This doesn't mean that we should over-complicate things though. I must admit that I dislike reading most philosophical writers because I hate to muddle through the language.

2. When an author has misappropriated quotations, misunderstood a person's work, or put words in a person's mouth that are not that person's words or thoughts at all. We should be very concerned about fair use and honest representation of another person's work. It is my personal opinion that we all must be more careful when we write that so-and-so thinks/believes/says something. Does that person really think/believe/say this, or are we as authors creating a position for another person that is not really his or her own, in order to push our own agenda?

3. When an author casts his or her criticism as polemic. If you won't say something face to face to a person, or in a public venue with the person sitting there, you shouldn't say it in writing. Mark Goodacre's advice is seconded here.

4. When I finish reading an article or a book chapter and I have to stop and figure out what it was about or why what I read was important. It is up to the author to tell the reader this very clearly, in the opening and closing of the piece, and often in between. I always ask my students, undergraduate and graduate, to boldface their theses. Why? So that they make sure that they have one!

Other blogs in this discussion:
Mark Goodacre
Loren Rossen
Angela Erisman


Judy Redman said...

I agree wholeheartedly! All of these characteristics in academic writing make me wonder whether it's going to be worth my while struggling through to the end of the article/chapter/book. They also make me think twice about bothering to read anything else by the author in question. There are authors who do useful work but whose books I will not buy because I'm not prepared to pay large amounts of money for something that is unnecessarily difficult to read or seems to spend more time trying to make others look bad than it does in advancing the author's argument. Poor written expression also makes an author more vulnerable to being misrepresented.

Phil S. said...

Amen and Amen, April, although I have to note that confusions about what is being said can be honest. In those cases, one hopes that the person will retract the criticism at he earliest opportunity.


Michael F. Bird said...

This is good and sound advice. Caricature, straw men arguments and flat out unwillingness to actually understand somebody's argument is careless in our profession.

April DeConick said...

Dear Phil,

You are right to point this out. I made an error in Recovering when I said that Stephen Patterson had written an article on Thomas' compositional history, and then discussed his stratification. Stephen called me and kindly told me that he did not consider his stratification to be a compositional theory at all, and that he was uncomfortable talking about Thomas in this way. So in the preface of my companion volume, I wrote this and retracted my words. If I ever get a chance to write a second edition of Recovering, I will correct this there as well.

April DeConick said...

Dear Michael,

This is probably the most frustrating thing I have experienced as an author. It is especially on my mind lately because of Nick Perrin's new book on Thomas. The chapter in which he interacts with my work is littered with misappropriations of quotations, misrepresentations of my position (even when I say the exact opposite in writing in my book), and caricatures that I would never support. It is very disconcerting to me to see such a "bizarre" (to use Nick's own word) characterization of my work.