Do academics write badly because they’re rushing?

I saw the science journalist Simon Makin give an excellent talk yesterday on how social and natural scientists can make their writing clearer. He offered some excellent tips to this end, including assuming your reader is exactly as intelligent as you are, but has absolutely none of your knowledge. For this reason, clarity isn’t about being simplistic: aim to clarify without simplifying.

What struck me in the discussion of drafting and redrafting was how likely this is to fall by the wayside when rushing. If you’re working to a deadline, particularly when other deadlines immediately follow them, it’s unlikely you’ll invest the time needed to do this. His description of drafting involved careful tinkering, picking and poking at a text in a way which leads to incremental improvement. As opposed to simply trying to get it out of the door so you can move onto the next demand.

This isn’t simply a matter of time. It also reflects the moral psychology of rushing. When we rush, we close down our engagement with the objects of our attention. Things that might have been deeply meaningful to us instead become obstacles to surmount. We simply can’t care about the clarity of our writing in the same way when we’re rushing.

2 Comments

  1. I’m not aware if you’ve read Billig’s book “Learn to write Badly. How to succeed in the social sciences”. He argues that the labour conditions in which researchers work, move them not only to rush but also to seek security in the use of jargon that make them belong to a community where their work is validated, published, cited, and so on. He also specifies criteria to avoid some of the most common ways of making things more confusing.

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