Sunday, April 08, 2012

Professors writing stylishly

From the Wall Street Journal, on professors writing "stylishly."

Unfortunately, the myth persists, especially among junior faculty still winding their anxious way up the tenure track, that the gates of academic publishing are guarded by grumpy sentries programmed to reject everything but jargon-laden, impersonal prose. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Nearly everyone, including the editors of academic journals, would much rather read lively, well-written articles than the slow-moving sludge of the typical scholarly paper.

This is an interesting point. Junior scholars feel that they have to prove they understand their particular research niche, which can definitely lead to bad writing. That can persist into senior scholardom as well. And, of course, some people are just bad writers no matter their intention. We fall in love with polysyllabic words, like polysyllabic, and throw them like confetti into article manuscripts.

Unfortunately, she doesn't explain why a professor should bother. If arcane language gets where you want to be, then what's the point of being "stylish"? She does mention that it makes work more accessible, which is true, though she doesn't explain why that is necessary. In some cases, it isn't. In political science, however, I think it is, at least to the extent that professors hope their work spreads as far as possible, including the non-academic world. Not everyone cares about this, to be true, but a lot do.

My opinion is that good--if not necessarily "stylish"--writing also increases your chances at publication. Of course, it cannot overcome a bad analysis, and I don't want to overstate the case, but good writing makes the reader and editor more favorably disposed toward you. And that's always a good thing.


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