As an undergraduate you’re going to run into poorly written books and articles. This will happen more often than you think, you just won’t realise it.
Students have no way of reporting back on the most fundamental task they do: reading. They have a National Student Survey and Teaching Excellence Framework for lectures, assignments, resources, but nothing for the quality of written prose. Worse still, the academic who never gets feedback on their writing from their main audience, they have no real reason to try and improve it.
A student is led to believe that by some dint of destiny, academic writing must be awkwardly phrased, indirect and impenetrable. That somehow, it is their fault they see confusion where there should be clarity.
I am not saying that bad writing leads to a bad academic. The strength of their ideas and research is not at issue here. But an academic who pens a lot of papers or books is not necessarily an expert communicator. I cook my dinner every night, and I am not a chef.
Why might a lecturer struggle to clearly communicate their thoughts through the keyboard? Many won’t have been trained how to do it. Universities do not require writing training and most won’t seek it out. Most will pick up some skills on the job and these will get them through peer review. The experts who review their work are more interested in the ideas than the prose itself. Academia is ultimately (and rightly) about expanding knowledge, not honing penmanship.
Time is another factor. Good writing takes time, and many academics snowed under with other teaching and administrative requirements. They still must publish, or they will perish.
But please do not shoot off scathing emails to the writer who has wronged you. We are not trying to trick you. As Joshua Rothman has argued, we inherit this strange system, and survival means swimming with the current. A promotion does not depend on impressing a beleaguered undergraduate, but a subset of senior colleagues who are perfectly happy with arcane academese, as long as it is published.
Like Chickenpox: all students are going to encounter bad writing. Some will suffer through turgid texts early in their degree. Others may be taken gravely ill later in later degree life. The best medicine is prophylactic: recognise the symptoms of bad writing early on, and realise if you’re struggling to understand a reading, it is not your fault.
The ideal against which a text’s clarity should be judge is the Classical Style of writing. It’s an old, beautiful way of conveying knowledge. The classical writer knows something the reader does not. This is not because they are cleverer or smarter than the reader, but they happen to have studied the issue for much longer. If the reader had spent the same time studying it, they would know it too.
This style is perfect for the discerning student reader because it assumes equal intelligence between writer and reader (you’re at university, you are smart enough). So expunge the idea that a passage of prose must be superb and you must be stupid because it’s from a senior or well-respected academic. The Bad Writing Contest proved this wrong in 1998.
Classic writing is a window onto the topic the author is discussing, nothing more, nothing less. If the window is smudged or greasy, we don’t blame the person looking out of the window. If comprehension breaks down, the buck stops with the writer.
This stance should give you the confidence to recognise bad writing, study it, and then decide whether to persevere with it. If you do soldier on, try re-writing the offending text into something readable. This has the added benefit of improving your own work.
I’ve done this with my own work below. My crime against clarity is found in the abstract of my first (and only) published paper. I’ve shaved a second clumsy clause off the sentence; this is enough to start with.
Scholars have explored the affirmative and liberatory possibilities of humour.
Poor Word Choice:
Poor word choice indicates uncertainty or laziness. I was both. ‘Affirmative’ is a strange decision, given that it means ‘to confirm something’ and I haven’t told you what it is I am confirming. Even worse is ‘liberatory’ which Dictionary.com tells me is a word if you lived in the 1620s. My text editor flags it with a red squiggle, suggesting I substitute in something from this century.
I was looking for a word that could convey how humour is liberating when it confirms our beliefs that the world is indeed bonkers. I was unable to translate my contemplations into something concrete. So instead, I hedged my writing with two vaguely relevant adjectives. I drew a greasy finger across the window.
It is said that good writers work with dictionary nearby. They should not impose the same burden on their readers. I view every trip to Dictionary.com for a familiar word as a digital chore. If the writer opts for a lesser known definition, they are asking you to work it out.
I once read a literature review where ‘promiscuous’ was used to describe a group of studies. I looked it up. Turns out promiscuous has a second definition: it denotes an indiscriminate or haphazard approach to something. This technically made sense, but the indomitable sexual connotations won the day. The writer directed me to the wrong window entirely: all I could think of was red wine-lipped professors and a bowl full of car keys.
Is the sentence going to the right?
My sentence is what’s called a left branching sentence, which means the subject comes after the verb and object describing it. To comprehend it, you must wait before you can link ‘liberatory’ and ‘affirmative’ to the subject (humour). Good writers use more right branching sentences than left, where verb and object come to the right of the subject. When we write mine as a right-brancher, we don’t have to juggle the unapplied adjectives; they now come after the subject.
‘Humour has been theorised as having both affirming and liberating possibilities by scholars’
Are there needless words?
A time-honoured piece of advice, particularly relevant for students struggling with word counts was immortalised in a style guide by Strunk and White: ‘omit needless words’. If we remove ‘possibilities’ does sentence’s meaning stay the same? It does. ‘Possibilities’ has to go.
‘Humour has been theorised as being both affirming and liberating by scholars’
A devout disciple might even knock off ‘by scholars’.
Lazy language, left branchers and bloated phrasing punt my point into ambiguity. This means that the reader must scythe through the chaff to find my meaning.
Don’t copy us
Final tip. Do not let flowery, florid writing infiltrate your own essays. As academics, we can mark your bad writing down. You can’t do that to us. The best thing you can do is guard against this writing in your own work. Expressing your ideas clearly and simply is a skill that can be learned.
Other good writing sources for students
If you want to be smacked around the head with a weighty tome of technical advice backed by academic evidence, try Stephen Pinker’s The Sense of Style.
Two of my tips came from Writing Tools: Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clarke. It costs a fiver on Amazon.
Online resources includes George Orwell’s short essay on Politics and the English Language and Tim Squirrell’s ‘How to write undergraduate essays super good’. Like me, Tim is a PhD student/teacher, but with a better website and surname.
An excellent book on the classical style is Clear and Simple as the Truth by Thomas and Turner. It’s from 1994 and is so obscure it won’t be checked out of your library. A short review of the book’s take on classical style can be found at http://www.denisdutton.com/clear_and_simple_review.htm