Reflections on Academic Writing and Asking for Help

Reflections on Academic Writing

“The reification of normative value(s) asks to be read as the historicization of the gendered body.”

Full disclosure: I generated the above sentence using an online academic sentence generator, but didn’t it make you just briefly search your mental bibliography for the author? Me too.

Ask the average person on the street about academic writing and you’ll likely elicit some serious side-eye. People respond this way because academic writing is often excruciating to read, frustrating for all but the most determined readers.

Many scholars struggle with academic writing because it’s a notoriously difficult genre to master. Academic writing overflows with buzzwords and horrible adjectives du jour: performativity, discursive, subalterity, conceptualizations, and problematize. The list goes on. From a stylistic and editorial standpoint, academic writing encourages poor writing. Academics engage in wordiness, hedging, labyrinthine sentence structures, and a general disregard for the reader. Everyone kind of knows (and some will even admit) that this kind of writing makes everyone, even academics, feel crazy.  Writing devoid of trendy academic jargon fails to sound critical enough and often isn’t taken seriously. (Helen Sword in her book, Stylish Academic Writing, debunks the claim that publishers want this type of writing , but we still seem beholden to the idea.) Academic writers often confuse poor writing with intellectual rigor.*

Many academics, though brilliant and wonderful people, are poor writers.

Academics themselves recognize the problems of academic writing and have put forth many theories as to why we feel compelled to write poorly.  These theories range from hiding empty ideas behind big words, intellectual laziness, and an attempt to create an exclusive coterie of people who all speak the same secret language.

But what if we're poor writers just because we never learned to write well?

When I began my graduate studies, most of my graduate cohort, including myself, seemed to think that just by virtue of attending a graduate program that we had become great writers. We did not receive writing classes apart from the required seminars as part of our training; some professors made helpful writing suggestions, but many did not. My university had a writing center and occasionally gave writing workshops for graduate students, but we were all too exhausted from the workload to pay much attention to unimportant details, like developing a solid writing style. (I don't wish to blame my program. We were there to learn to be historians, not writers.)

When I studied for my comprehensive exams, I spent a summer reading endless piles of academic monographs. I learned about broad historiographic debates; however, I learned even more about academic writing. I saw how even works that fundamentally shook the foundations of historical knowledge were sometimes equally stellar examples of truly poor writing. My notes on one particularly famous book (title not mentioned to protect the guilty) read: “Don’t put the main argument on the last page.”  I read writing that was weighed down by jargon, tortured methodology sections, and a penchant for wordiness that would have tried the patience of the saints.

When we reached the dissertation stage, we were eager to prove our intellectual chops, so we often churned out awful prose in an attempt to sound more serious, authoritative, and confident than we felt. We tried to rid ourselves of our battered self-images and inferiority complexes by using big words to prop up mediocre ideas. We cranked out terrible writing in classes for years; our good ideas were often buried under an avalanche of poor writing.

Asking for Writing Help

I think that we can all learn to write better. Sometimes we might need to ask to help in order to learn to improve our writing. Resources are out there. I started taking an online MOOC about grammar and writing style this week. I am humbled by how much I still have to learn.

As someone who enjoys helping academics strengthen their writing skills, I am also surprised by the weird sense of shame that many academic writers seem to feel about asking for help (and, worse, paying for it). Asking for help can be very difficult for many people (especially me). We’re trained to be independent thinkers and researchers, which sometimes makes us ashamed to ask for help. Producing scholarship is often a long, difficult, and lonely process, an intellectual journey of the self. Academics, as people on the intellectual cutting edge of their fields, aren’t expected to need help with writing.  Independent intellectual production is still the gold standard for academia, which often means that few academics want to admit that they need (or would ever want) to hire a professional academic editor and even fewer muster up the guts to ask for help. It’s trial by fire, baby, and plenty of people think that they’ve got to go it alone for their work to count.

I think we can do better. I believe that there’s absolutely no shame in getting help with academic writing. If you need help, all you have to do is ask.

*The usual caveats apply here (#notallacademicwriting): some scholars write beautifully. I still think Keith Basso's Wisdom Sits in Places is the most well-written academic monograph I've read.  I wanted it to go on for another hundred pages.