Why Academic’s Writing Stinks

In Pinker’s article he says the most popular explanation outside universities for why academics suck at writing is that bad writing is a deliberate choice.  These writers deliberately use overly sophisticated words when talking about relatively simple topics in order to impress their audience.  He then says that the most popular answer within universities was that difficult writing is unavoidable because of the abstractness and complexity of the subject matter.  This gives rise to a sort of shorthand in which writers do not give huge descriptions of familiar topics.  Thus an amateur who was not versed in this shorthand would not be able to understand what the writer was saying.  He goes on to say that journals and university presses tend to encourage overly complicated language as a proof of one’s seriousness.  Pinker disregards these two explanations and offers a different reason for why academics suck at writing.  He claims that a self-conscious style in which academic writers desperately try not to seem uniformed about their subject contributes to bad writing.  Another reason Pinker gives for why academics suck at writing is what he calls the Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something you know.  There are six attributes of this self-conscious style that Pinker points out: metadiscourse, professional narcissism, apologizing, shudder quotes, hedging, and metaconcepts and nominalizations.  In my own writing I am prone to use hedging because I am usually unsure about an assertion.  I also sometimes use metaconcepts and nomilizations because it seems to make my writing sound sophisticated.  I think some of these attributes may be redeemable if they are used in the proper case.  I value clarity and simplicity in other people’s writing style.  It doesn’t matter how sophisticated the writing style is if I cannot understand it.


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