Why academic writing stinks?

Please call me Bachelor Kelsey Timmerman or if you prefer Kelsey Timmerman Bachelor of Arts.

Actually, no one ever calls me that. A BA isn’t as noteworthy as, say, Dr. Evil’s PhD at Evil medical school.

I speak at a lot of universities and have the pleasure of chatting with a lot of really smart professors with PhD’s and Masters. Sometimes for some reason, folks assume that I at least have my masters.

“Where did you go to grad school?” They’ll ask.

My grad school was writing 100,000 words of travel columns cooped up in my Key West attic apartment accessed by a fold out ladder. That’s where and when I learned to write and found my voice.

So, I didn’t learn to write in an academic setting. I’ve had professors point out to me that my writing isn’t very academic. I’m not always sure how to perceive this and how to respond. Sometimes I think it is a bit of a dig and sometimes I actually think it’s a compliment, since after all, my goal is for people to actually read my work.

I have taken all of this in and was very concsious about making EATING a bit more academic than WEARING. This was mainly in the form of sited facts and studies. I hope however that I didn’t do this in tone or readability.

Recently I heard from a professor using WEARING in a remedial English class. They liked how WEARING was accessible to their students who read at a Junior High reading level. My goal is to write like I speak. Apparently I speak like I’m in Junior High!

So I try to strike a balance between writing to be easily read, but also to be somewhat academic.

The most awkward question I’ve ever been asked during a university visit was during a lunch with faculty. One of the professors in attendance asked:

“Professor Smith has been writing about these issues for years, but his work has reached far fewer people. How does this make you feel?”

Yikes! I had no idea how to answer that. “Sorry professor, Smith!”

I didn’t say that. I think I just took a bite of my sandwich and pretended to choke on it.

There is a place for academic writing, and I believe that certain standards and tone must be upheld so academia can build upon what we know already. Otherwise knowledge is based on pop-science, which is a shoddy foundation to advance knowledge. Malcolm Gladwell is always interesting, but I don’t feel that his work adds to the spectrum of “what we know.” But to make “what we know” spread to the masses someone has to decipher academic writing.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, outlines why academic writing stinks and challenges academics to write better:

Our indifference to how we share the fruits of our intellectual labors is a betrayal of our calling to enhance the spread of knowledge. In writing badly, we are wasting each other’s time, sowing confusion and error, and turning our profession into a laughingstock.

There is no excuse for bad writing. Writing that isn’t clear and concise is bad writing. An author of any article or story who doesn’t write with empathy for his or her reader, needs to work harder.

“Your writing isn’t very academic” shouldn’t be a compliment.

Rebecka Vigus says:

Kelsey, I write fiction and am told I write at a level readable by junior high students. My fan base runs from 13-84. Those who love my writing love it because they hear my voice. Those who cannot find anything wrong with it, claim it is low level reading because they think I’ll be insulted. Hey, if a Learning Disabled student can read and enjoy my book, mores the better.

Uncle Ben says:

I don’t know that I am an appropriate source for an opinion on the genre of the aroma of academic writing…?…and while Dr. Evil appears to be a well written/produced script visually(I don’t hear any audio output)…as far as humor is concerned…(?)…the control of those who end up with some sort of medical degree…at whatever level…is the real malfeasance here since it’s Big Pharma/corporate-pharmaceutical-industrial-complex(CPIC) that controls what these doctors learn in their grad-school years…since their agenda has nothing to do with doctors engaged in anything resembling the healing arts.

They want these freshly educated doctors embracing the concept of “treating symptoms” with the use of their drugs…with the results that the medical doctor presence in this nation writes billions of dollars worth of prescriptions for these CPIC drugs every year….justifying the names of these CPIC corporations on millions of dollars annually being spent on buildings and education grants on these medical grad-school campuses. The names of these CPIC corporations are profoundly on buildings on every medical grad school campus in this nation.

Consequently, these ‘medical professionals’ are never driven to “cure” anyone of any disease…but only to extend the need to continue to have their patients to take these CPIC drugs for the rest of their lives.

Come to think of it…something stinks…!

Becki says:

I was recently trying to read a book about understanding World War I and its impact on people. Notice I said “trying”. I have a master’s degree in library and information studies, and I was struggling to get through the dense “academicese” the book was written in. I was reading for personal education but gave up because it was just too difficult. Which was really disappointing, as their topic was really interesting and I thought it was rather important and too often glossed over. This is a book marketed toward the general adult population, but I have to believe the authors thought they wouldn’t be taken seriously if it wasn’t written in a certain style.

I like your writing style, Kelsey, because it really feels like you talking to me and not just a lecture on your travels or what you observed. Cite your facts, mention if others are researching a similar topic, but please don’t change your essential writing style!

Let your voice be heard!