Do academics write badly because they’re rushing?

I saw the science journalist Simon Makin give an excellent talk yesterday on how social and natural scientists can make their writing clearer. He offered some excellent tips to this end, including assuming your reader is exactly as intelligent as you are, but has absolutely none of your knowledge. For this reason, clarity isn’t about being simplistic: aim to clarify without simplifying.

What struck me in the discussion of drafting and redrafting was how likely this is to fall by the wayside when rushing. If you’re working to a deadline, particularly when other deadlines immediately follow them, it’s unlikely you’ll invest the time needed to do this. His description of drafting involved careful tinkering, picking and poking at a text in a way which leads to incremental improvement. As opposed to simply trying to get it out of the door so you can move onto the next demand.

This isn’t simply a matter of time. It also reflects the moral psychology of rushing. When we rush, we close down our engagement with the objects of our attention. Things that might have been deeply meaningful to us instead become obstacles to surmount. We simply can’t care about the clarity of our writing in the same way when we’re rushing.

Categories: Accelerated Academy, Sociological Craft

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5 replies »

  1. I totally agree. I sometimes find that with procrastination comes the adrenalin pressure thrill, yet the rush produces poor writing. I a mature aged undergraduate student, and I have recently submitted a research essay. It was the first time I rushed with an essay, I sat up until 2.30am writing and felt so disappointed. I await the results.

  2. I agree to an extent, but I also think it’s important not to imagine that academics should ideally be writing like journalists, or in imitation of ordinary speech. Especially in sociology the complexity of processes seems to demand a level of qualification that is only possible through multi-clause “long sentences”. At least, I can’t imagine writing what I want to write without them.

    • I take your basic point but don’t understand why it means long sentences are necessary. The very fact some manage without them without lapsing into platitudes surely illustrates it’s possible.

    • So surprised to hear that from an English scholar. I work in Spain where I fight every day against my acquired (national) academic habits: endless sentences everywhere. Especially in sociology it seems practitioners and scholars are in need to convert every sentence into a paragraph.

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