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.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 17, 2017 at 12:29 am

2 Responses

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  1. Supposing instead of “who are you trying to impress?” you asked “who is your audience?” Whom are you speaking to? The former construction makes the whole thing sound smarmy. The latter is an essential question for any good writing. It is not clear to me that bad, obscure writers advance better in their careers than clear writers with an engaging prose style. To the contrary, clear and accessible writing seems to help one’s career advancement.

    There are some topics that are inherently niched. You need a ton of background even to understand the question, and it is extremely hard to to provide any meaningful non-technical explanation of the question. (A lot of number theory and mathematical physics has this character. I think so does some kinds of cultural theory and, to a lesser extent, almost any writing in a specialized subfield.) Writing popular science that takes these hard topics and comes up with a way of simplifying them for lay people is itself an art.

    What I do agree with is that when the target audiences are class professors, dissertation committees, or tenure review committees, the resultant product is less likely to be something anybody is happy with including, ironically, class professors, dissertation committees, or tenure committees.



    April 17, 2017 at 4:56 pm

  2. I’m surprised that you leave “reviewers” off of your list. When I have talked with people about writing, they (and likely I, though I am probably not reflexive enough to know all of my own hang-ups) cite trying to satisfy or impress reviewers. Reviewers are not, however, described in the sense of embodied individuals, but as some mercurial and capricious entity that hands down fates. For this I blame the way that reviews have been conducted within sociology.

    The editors whom you cite represent only the end of this process. The influence of the editors starts before authors even submit manuscripts. The practice of soliciting reviewers–as a principle–from different methodological traditions and on different topics ends up making the most immediate audience ambiguous. I see this as a consequence of reviewers breaking peer review by coauthoring papers rather than adjudicating whether the findings and interpretations are plausible enough to be considered seriously.

    Some of the best writing advice that I ever received was to pick 2-3 people with whom I wanted to communicate and write papers to them. My writing became much clearer and my ideas have been taken more seriously (occasionally by the very people who I targeted when I wrote the paper).

    Liked by 1 person


    April 17, 2017 at 6:55 pm

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