who are you trying to impress?
In academic writing, we often get the sense that the author is playing a game. They aren’t really trying to address an important problem. Rather, they are trying to impress some audience. All academic disciplines have a version of this. The economist tries to impress the audience by the level of math they use. A sociologist tries to impress the reader with citations to obscure European social theorists.
It is interesting to ask, who are academics trying to impress? Here are some possibilities:
- Themselves – Very often, academics fall in love with a theory or a concept of rigor and they try to become as pure as possible. Their work becomes a way to enhance their self-image. This probably at work when writing is bulky and cryptic.
- A promotion committee – Like all people who work in organizations, we are trying to impress the people that promote us. The way we do that it is to show excellence within the mainstream. This is what probably motivates very polished, but very narrow research. It is also the emotion that pushes technique over substance.
- Journal editors – In my view, this probably results in the most confusing writing because journal editing is often chaotic process. Manuscripts routinely generate conflicting reviews and authors often play a game of “what have I got in my pocket?” Editors too often just say “try to address all reviewers” instead of choosing an angle for the author to work on. So many times, I feel as if journal articles abruptly shift focus, have short mini-sections crammed in, and so forth.
- Non-academics – Think TED talk. When we try to impress outsiders, we shift to interesting stories and ideas that play on sympathy. Important details get dropped.
Academia is an area with big egos and people are trying to build their careers. So writing that tries to an impress an audience is normal. But we do have another option, especially the lucky folks who have job security. We can attempt to write in simple and direct ways, and be patient, so we can get to enough of the details. In a way, we have a moral obligation to write clearly and without ego because our ultimate allegiance is to the truth, even if we live in a world of other people we need to impress.