The other day, I came across this tweet (screenshot below):
I started fuming, but that’s neither here nor there, since I fume a lot, on account of being a perimenopausal woman and the world generally being a steaming cauldron of irritating shit. Still, upon closer inspection, I realized this was a very specific kind of fume, the kind I reserve for annoying takes about writing and/or STEM.
I replied to the tweet, then promptly deleted it, because life is too short to be aggressive on Twitter, but just the right duration to be passive-aggressive on a personal blog.
It could be that the author never had in mind STEM technical writing, but was instead interested in popular informative writing, academic writing in the humanities, etc. That may well be, and in that case what I am about to expound upon perhaps doesn’t hold (even though I totally feel it does). Still, the tweet sounded like its author was someone who was tasked with training struggling academic/informative/technical writers how to write better. Given how utterly useless academic-writing coaching is at my institution — no, it’s worse than useless; it has negative usefulness because it overrides some of the students’ best instincts that they develop naturally through reading technical prose — I feel more than a little aggravated that generations of unsuspecting new academic writers somewhere will be taught by someone who thinks they are all simpletons with fourth-grade vocabularies.
You guessed it: The thing that irritated me in the tweet was the reference to plain or simplistic writing. First of all, even when it comes to reading fiction — and I read a ton of it, across several genres — I am absolutely fucking allergic to purple prose. By that I mean overly ornate prose whose job is usually to obfuscate and distract from the absence of an interesting plot and/or character development. There is no such thing as “eloquent” and “elegant” that doesn’t detract from clarity at least a little, plus eloquent may as well be an antonym of succinct. But the worst thing is that a person who thinks that the tenets of writing in the technical genre make such writing “plain” and “simplistic” clearly holds the whole fucking genre in low regard and should not be given the job of teaching other people how to write it.
You have to know, respect, and appreciate a genre before you can write it, let alone teach someone else how to do it. You can’t think that those who write it are idiots. If you can’t stomach the absence of florid prose, then do not read or write academic or technical texts. Those are not the places to get your literary fix, FFS.
The point of academic or technical writing is, first and foremost, to convey ideas. The beauty, elegance, and excitement come from ideas. Not language. IDEAS. The language can help, but it cannot be used to polish a turd the way it’s sometimes (over)used in fiction. The underlying ideas have to be solid. They have to be technically correct, as proven by data; they have to flow logically from prior art and from one another; they have to have a purpose (addressing an open problem that the community agrees is open and needs addressing); they have to do it in a way that is ideally novel and creative, but first and foremost correct.
The language used to convey ideas must not obfuscate the need for the solution, the established tenets of the field, the new ideas and how those flow from prior art, or any of the logical pieces presented in the paper that connect the parts into a coherent whole. Correctness, accuracy, and clarity come before all else. Then we can talk about stylistic elegance, to a degree.
But what is it about writing that makes a paper read well? The same ingredients that make any thriller read well. An engaging opening. High stakes. Logical jumps that connect successive revelations in the puzzle. That heady mix of not knowing what comes next yet having enough information that you feel like you *could* guess what comes next.
Besides, plenty of literary techniques and devices do, in fact, get used in technical writing. Varying sentence length works well in any genre. Technical writing relies heavily on parallels, contrasts, and analogies. Maybe we do not use metaphors outright, but we often use similes. We use antithesis to elucidate contrasts. We use amplification to emphasize the most important findings, and the very structure of the paper, where the key insights repeated in the abstract, intro, and conclusion, serves as a giant amplifier — a veritable resonant cavity for the main takeaway! We use euphemisms to convey our disagreement with the possibly erroneous prior work without outright offending our colleagues. We use foreshadowing in the early parts of the paper to hint at the exciting meat in the Results section. (Me saying “meat” and you understanding I mean “important results” is an example of a metaphor.)
At the risk of being overly dramatic, I will paraphrase James Baldwin’s quote, where he says that black children cannot be taught by the people who despise them.
Fledgling academic and technical writers cannot be taught how to write by the people who despise the relevant genres, who don’t understand or appreciate their tenets, and who consider the genres’ practitioners to be inferior writers producing “plain” and “simplistic” prose.
Fledgling academic and technical writes should be taught by the people well versed in those genres, who have mastered the art — yes, art — of writing in a way that is informative, first, persuasive, second, and engaging, third. It is no mean feat, and there is nothing simplistic about it.
This blog post has inspired me to go read James Baldwin.
He’s a brilliant thinker and writer.
I want this t-shirt:
“life is too short to be aggressive on Twitter, but just the right duration to be passive-aggressive on a personal blog”
I also laughed out loud at the quote pyrope mentioned. I am sure this has been covered before, but do you have a recommended technique or book to help teach PhD students (and post docs!) how to write better? Reading papers helps but general guidelines would also help.
J, there is plenty on academic writing in Academaze (#sorrynotsorry for the shameless plug :-). The chapter Technical Writing with Junior Scientists covers some of my thoughts on the topic (at least my thoughts before 2016). Here are some of the relevant posts:
This one is newer: https://xykademiqz.com/2020/07/20/a-chaos-goblins-guide-to-writing-reader-qa/
In that last post, near the end, there’s a list of craft resources. I am repeating it here:
A book about technical writing that many seem to like: Joshua Schimel’s Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded. I have it, and I like it, but I am not a die-hard fan, perhaps because by the time I got to it, I felt I already knew most of what is covered therein.
I enjoyed most of Stephen Pinker’s The Sense of Style , while the oldie but goodie Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is a book every writer should have on hand.
If you are into writing and selling short genre fiction, Douglas Smith’s Playing the Short Game: How to Market and Sell Short Fiction is popular, although I found it soul-crushing in its dismissal of everything that’s not a sale at a professional rate, especially at this day and age when short speculative fiction is no longer a viable commercial enterprise.
The book I love with a fiery passion of a thousand suns is Stephen King’s On Writing (I wrote about it here, and the post is part of a rather extensive chapter on writing in Academaze). On Writing is part memoir, part writing manual, and 100% un-put-downable, even on repeated reads.
Thank you!! I have the book 🙂 but haven’t read it since before starting my faculty position (five years ago!). Thanks for the links too, very helpful.
I meant I have your book, but haven’t bought any writing books. Seems about time. I appreciate you repeating the recommendations here — I’ve seen those recommendations before but was too overwhelmed with everyone else to take the dive into seriously improving my students (and own) writing. But it so happens that at this very moment I am proofreading my student’s paper and feeling very motivated to think how to better teach my students to write 🙂
I write very clearly and simply, in general, but in my field there is much weight placed on sexing up the ideas with prose. I do think it’s a skill to learn how to make an idea sound sexy while remaining technically rigorous. In the end the sexified ideas often get funded over the technically correct “boring” ones, so I sort of see his rationale. Anyway.
omdg, I agree, but I think it’s the issue of mastering persuasive writing (especially in in grant proposals). It has more to do with writing effectively for a specific purpose than the elegance of prose. Persuasive writing requires skill; it’s about learning what constitutes an exciting pitch and how to hone it to a sharp point so it effectively conveys importance, significance, and urgency.
Kind of tangentially, academics can learn a lot about clear, persuasive writing from outside academia. Pressfield’s “Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit” is good along with other books from the copywriter and creator genres. All the academic write by numbers posts/threads on LinkedIn and Twitter make me want to vomit.
LOL, so true re “Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit.” When I talk to assistant professors about grants, the first thing I tell them is that a proposal needs to read well from the standpoint of a grumpy reviewer who’s sitting at an Arlington, VA hotel at 2 am the night before an NSF panel and would rather be doing anything else in the world than reading the proposal.
My idea of elegant scientific writing has always been that perfect sweet spot of clarity and brevity, engaging to the specialist but still accessible to non-specialists, and taking up as little space as possible without losing substance.
I’m with you on the purple prose, but my impression is that in some of the humanities, the language is part of the scholarly contribution, not just the ideas. Drives me nuts. Sometimes it seems like it’s a cover for not actually having anything of substance to say, but that’s not very charitable and it’s not my field so who am I to judge.