How Academia Encourages Bad Writing


It’s been nearly ten years since my last official experience with academia – I graduated with a master’s degree in writing in 2007. But in the past couple of months, I’ve been exposed to it unofficially in a couple of ways. The first was through my second youngest sister, who is in the final stages of completing her PhD and asked me to review her thesis for spelling, grammar, punctuation and readability issues. The second was through my youngest sister, who is in the first year of her undergraduate degree and who I am providing weekly motivation and sounding board sessions to. But both made me realise the same thing: academia encourages bad writing.

Here are two examples:

*In my sister’s PhD thesis, she used the word “purposively”. Do a quick google search and plenty of entries will come up in relation to the differences between “purposely” (meaning deliberately) and “purposefully” (meaning with a specific goal). You’ll need to do a longer google search to find entries about “purposively” but there are a few. Essentially, it means the same thing as “purposefully”. So why did she choose to use it?

*My youngest sister is studying early childhood education and completing a raft of much shorter projects. In the most recent, she asked, “How should I write it?” (She was talking about a particular sentence.) I replied, “Just state it. ‘The standards are…’” “It’s not fancy enough,” she complained. “What about ‘showcased’?” “That doesn’t make sense,” I said. “Yeah, but it’s impressive.” According to who? I wondered.

The answer to both questions and both scenarios is because the people who judge their academic efforts – tutors, lecturers, professors – think that’s how scholarly writing should sound. And the people who taught those tutors, lecturers and professors thought that’s how scholarly writing should sound. And the people who taught those tutors, lecturers and professors who taught those tutors, lecturers and professors thought that’s how it should sound. And so it went, all the way back to the beginning of academia.

The problem, of course, is that they were wrong. They were wrong back then and they are wrong now. Academic writing is generally stuffy, vague, boring and full of words that bring to mind Joey in Friends using the thesaurus to write the letter to the adoption agency when Monica and Chandler were trying to adopt.

Joey: Hey, finished my recommendation. Here. (He hands it to Chandler.) And I think you’ll be very, very happy. It’s the longest I ever spent on a computer without looking at porn.
Chandler: (reading) I don’t… uh… understand.
Joey: Some of the words are a little too sophisticated for ya?
Monica: (also reading it) It doesn’t make any sense.
Joey: Of course it does! It’s smart! I used the thesaurus!
Chandler: On every word?
Joey: Yep!
Monica: Alright, what was this sentence originally? (She points to it in the recommendation.)
Joey: Oh, “They are warm, nice, people with big hearts.”
Chandler: And that became “They are humid prepossessing homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps”?
Joey: Yeah, yeah and hey, I really mean it, dude.
Monica: Hey, Joey, I don’t think we can use this.
Joey: Why not?
Monica: Well, because you signed it “Baby Kangaroo Tribbiani”. Hey, why don’t you stop worrying about sounding smart and just be yourself?
Chandler: You know what? You don’t need a thesaurus, just write from your full-sized aortic pump.

A few years ago, I would have said, “Well, at least they’re writing.” But as the quality of writing slips further and further, as more people write without any intention of ever getting better at it, just with the intention of sounding like they know what they’re talking about even when they don’t (journalists who use the wrong words that sound similar, I’m referring to you), I think I have to – we all have to – start pushing back. Yeah, that makes me one of those pedants, one of those people other people hate. I’m beyond caring.

I think it’s especially important in academia where we really rely on people to get things right. They influence not only generation after generation of students but also the things that make our lives better: advances in technology, in science, in mathematics, in arts and humanities. Why shouldn’t we expect them to influence advances in language as well? We certainly shouldn’t expect or allow them to influence a decline in language.

So I’m calling time. No more bad writing from academia. When your writing is bad, I’m going to tell you. You can argue all you like. But wouldn’t your time be better spent writing your academic information clearly using the correct words for the context and simple words in general? The answer is yes. So get on with it. Stay away from the thesaurus. And write what you actually mean.


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