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orwell on bad writing

Rachel Toor, a creative writing professor, has some interesting thoughts on making academics better writers.  She gets her inspiration from George Orwell. Every academic should read the Orwell essay, “Politics and the English Language.” It has good advice and is also pretty funny. Orwell begins the essay with a rancorous reaction to some unfortunate academic prose:

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.

I’m going to use that last line in my next review.

Toor’s advice is more directly pointed at young academics, who she probably feels are capable of changing the nature of academic writing.  She encourages academics to get rid of needless jargon and to find more direct ways to convey their meaning.

By writing prose that is nearly unintelligible not just to the general public, but also to graduate students and fellow academics in your discipline, you are not doing the work of advancing knowledge. And, honestly, you don’t really sound smart. I understand that there are ideas that are so difficult that their expression must be complex and dense. But I can tell you, after years of rejecting manuscripts submitted to university presses, most people’s ideas aren’t that brilliant.

Call me simple-minded, call me anti-intellectual, but I believe that most poor scholarly writing is a result of bad habits, of learning tricks of the academic trade as a way to try to fit in. And it’s a result of lazy thinking. Most of us know that we may not be writing as well as we could, or should.

Toor and Orwell lay out some simple rules to follow. I can’t argue with them, although I think one of the most important rules of academic writing is left out: remember your audience. Jargon isn’t always bad, especially when you can communicate something more clearly using jargon than you could trying to spell it out in everyday language. As I’ve said before, “Good jargon communicates a clear idea to the right audience. Bad jargon is language that signals ideas that are not very clear or concepts that may imply different things to different people in the same audience.” Sometimes people use jargon in the way that Rachel suggests, to appear smart when their ideas aren’t very sound. Avoid that. But if there’s a word that makes perfect sense to your audience in the context you’re using it, then by all means use jargon.

Written by brayden king

April 23, 2010 at 3:03 pm

Posted in academia, brayden, research

9 Responses

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  1. I like that essay. I don’t agree with everything he says nor do I adhere to his advice. For me, all too often, “the concrete melts into the abstract,” sometimes in a very bad way. But, I think we’ve talked about this before (some post, somewhere): some academic language, -isms and abstractions, is quite efficient. But, yes, he makes some excellent points. (That last sentence: “phrases tacked together,” “prefabricated hen-house” — true, funny and well put.)

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    tf

    April 23, 2010 at 4:02 pm

  2. It’s interesting that you already know that that line about the prefabricated hen-house will relevant with the next text you review!

    I totally agree with you about the neutral use of the word “jargon”. The distinguishing feature of academic writing is not, as some people think, that it is difficult to understand. It is that it presumes a certain amount of knowledge in the reader. As you rightly say, academic writing should not be (outrageously) difficult to understand for the intended audience.

    It’s good to see the issue get raised. Thanks Brayden!

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    Thomas

    April 23, 2010 at 4:54 pm

  3. Orwell’s article is a must-read for academics, particularly in business disciplines. This might well explain part of the academia-practice gap, and why very few on either side see any point in bridging it.

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    SaY

    April 23, 2010 at 9:26 pm

  4. SaY: I think the academia-practice gap is over-hyped. I think there is good, “basic”-type science and research in management/orgs (as well as other fields) that does not somehow have to immediately be “useful” (beyond a desire to understand, explain, a quest for “truth,” even beauty), to be digestible by a lay audience or managers. A focus on “what’s the managerial implication” is fine, for some — but there are some quite foundational issues that will never be addressed if the litmus test is managerial relevance or understanding by a wider audience. Plus, even highly abstract, theoretical and analytic issues have a way of finding themselves, eventually, into practice: the mathematician GH Hardy was proud of the fact that he worked on something completely useless, number theory, which however ended up later having huge practical relevance.

    Frankly, I think there already is a healthy division of labor, with some closer to practice and others not — many folks are concerned about the relevance question, and work on it, while others could care less and work on more “useless” research.

    OK, that’s my quick rant (probably goes far beyond the point you hoped to make).

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    tf

    April 23, 2010 at 10:03 pm

  5. One dissent:
    Don’t use jargon, period.
    Rather, don’t use it unless there is no alternative.
    You may have to say “regression coefficient” for the lack of a plain-English alternative.
    But most of the time there is a plain-speaking term that can be used. It’ll help the reader — even the sociologist — and it’ll help the writer, who may realize, “OMG, is that what I am really saying?!”

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    CSF

    April 24, 2010 at 1:58 am

  6. One version of the academia-practice gap is that myth that writing for general audiences “improves your style”, or (essentially the same thing) that academic writing is somehow inherently “bad”. Gail Hornstein said as much in this piece:

    http://chronicle.com/article/Prune-That-Prose/48273/

    My comments here:

    http://secondlanguage.blogspot.com/2009/09/gail-hornstein-takes-up-familiar-theme.html

    There’s good and bad in every genre.

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    Thomas

    April 24, 2010 at 8:10 am

  7. I’m not so sure if the praise of Orwell is warranted here. I had always thought that his advice was good, but then I read this series of posts at Language Log (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2248) and now I am far from certain. He seems to make a lot of the same mistakes as Strunk and White.

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    Andrew Roberts

    April 24, 2010 at 5:15 pm

  8. […] avoid bad writing By Guru Rachel Toor dissects bad writing for you (link via Brayden at Orgtheory): By writing prose that is nearly unintelligible not just to the general public, but also to […]

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  9. I reread Orwell’s essay last night and I think it’s important not to focus too much on those rules. What is important is a certain “attitude”, namely, that of always trying to get a meaning across. In fact, the rule Brayden says Orwell leaves out is emphasized in various ways throughout the essay. When writing, he says, one must “decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person.”

    http://secondlanguage.blogspot.com/2010/04/science-and-english-language.html

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    Thomas

    April 27, 2010 at 7:03 am


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