Pinker on how academic writing sucks, but maybe not why

Steven Pinker completely avoids stereotypical academic behavior.

Steven Pinker thanks you for coming to office hours, where something sexy could probably happen.

Now that we’ve all done our reading for today, I think we can agree that Pinker’s “Why Academics Stink at Writing” might be better titled “How Academics Stink at Writing.” The bulk of his essay documents the quirks and vices endemic to the genre; only in the last 500 words or so does he focus on the psychology behind them. The why of bad academic writing lives less in Pinker’s analyses than in the boldface headings he uses to taxonomize them: hedging, apologizing, “shudder quotes” (Pinker’s name for scare quotes,) et cetera. The insecurities these gerunds orbit help explain why a sentence trying to explain that people read statements marked true and false came out like this:

Participants read assertions whose veracity was either affirmed or denied by the subsequent presentation of an assessment word.

To oversimplify his argument, Pinker believes academics write badly because they’re scared.

So the sixty-dollar question might be why the act of writing for publication frightens academics into cant. It makes sense that research scientists and other people who work primarily outside the medium of language—animal behaviorists, for example—would freak out when they have to present ideas in prose. But Pinker claims that literary scholars are among the worst writers of all, and I believe him.

If we accept that people who write about writing are the worst offenders in academic prose, the fear hypothesis becomes more nuanced. It’s not that academics get scared because they are forced to convey their discoveries in writing, a medium with which they are unfamiliar. It’s that they must convey themselves in a medium with which their audience is very familiar. Publishing in the humanities is like playing guitar for an audience of luthiers.

This construction explains why academic writers spend so much time flameproofing—habits such as Pinker’s “metadiscourse” and the aforementioned “hedging.” This surfeit of caution wrecks academic writing according to one of the oldest principles of the craft: the more careful you are to not say anything wrong, the more likely you are to not say anything at all. It’s the contrapositive of the truism that we all sing better when we’re drunk.

The problem, here, is that humanities professors should know that pitfall better than anyone. Students are constantly writing to avoid mistakes. Often, they’re trying to cover their unfamiliarity with primary sources or the very concepts they’re trying to explain. Just as often, though, they’re trying to conform to their professors’ arbitrary rules: the last sentence of the first paragraph has to be a thesis statement, the introduction should tell the reader what the essay is going to argue, the fourth paragraph has to address a counterargument, et cetera.

The guidelines on that list have all been presented to my former students by their professors as rules of academic writing. Kombat! Kids: don’t obey those rules unless you are writing for someone who is grading you on them. Nowhere outside of criticism and academia do people begin their essays with precis of their essays. No one gives a rats ass which early sentence encapsulates your whole argument, and none but a pitiable few demand that it be articulated in a single sentence at all.

Ignore that advice if you are a college professor, though, since everyone you work with probably writes like that. Academia is a genre in which form matters more than content, because virtually everyone who writes in that context is writing because he has to. Students write essays because they have to in order to pass. Professors publish because their employers and career arcs demand it. With some shining exceptions, the bulk of academic writing is produced as a chore.

So I submit a simple answer to Pinker’s question: academics stink at writing because they hate it. They got into literature or primate pheromone response because they like to read or sniff monkeys, not because they like to write. They publish because they like to teach and own houses close to campus. And, perhaps most invidiously, we read academic writing because they tell us to, either directly or by collective pressure from the field.

A more scrupulous blogger would offer a solution to this problem here, but I have to go. A publication I admire very much will soon run an essay I wrote, and I have to edit that essay because it’s on a subject I care about. There’s an idea there that I want to convey, and I have to make it as simple and snappy as I can so people will absorb it. It’s really fun, and I can’t wait for you to read it.

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