Thinking about writing

Funny stuff from Jo Wolff.

Why is academic writing so boring? I am impatient by nature, easily irritated, and afflicted with a short attention span. That I ended up in a job where I have to spend half the day blinking my way through artless, contorted prose is a cruel twist of fate. But the upside is that it gives me plenty of opportunity to reflect on why reading academic writing is so often a chore and so rarely a joy…As far as I know there has been little, if any, literary analysis of academic writing…But, by chance, I recently read a short piece of literary theory, and, to use one of the two metaphors academics allow themselves, the scales fell from my eyes. (If you are wondering, the other metaphor is deftly deployed in the following: “In this column I shall view academic writing through the prism of literary theory”.)

I love that last bit because it includes the academically-obligatory and nonacademically-poisonous trope that Julian always cites as what The Philosophers’ Magazine (being a magazine not a journal) doesn’t want – that ‘In this column I shall’ item. Part of my job as deputy editor is telling contributors that we want a magazine style not a journal style, and explaining what that entails (and then sometimes explaining it again when we get a journal style anyway and have to ask for revisions). And in much the same vein, in writing Why Truth Matters we had to combine a decent amount of rigor with a style appropriate for a trade book. There were times when we actually got into quite detailed discussions of that – is this too much? Is this too academicky? Is this not academicky enough? We had disagreements about what we could assume people would understand – we have different starting ideas about that: I tend to think that people don’t like being talked down to too much, don’t like explanations of things they already know, and do like to be asked to reach a little; JS thinks people don’t like being made to feel stupid, and don’t like to be asked to reach too much. We were probably both right – some people fit his version better, some fit mine. We have had plenty of comments to the effect that the book is hard work, including some saying it’s a little too much hard work, or much too much hard work. But we’ve had others saying it was a workout but that that’s enjoyable. It’s worth thinking about this in case we write another book some day – and also just because the subject is interesting. Style is interesting; the question of what is interesting and what is boring is interesting.

The secret, apparently, is that good writing captures its reader by means of creating a tension between the plot and the story. The reader is shown enough of the narrative sequence to get an impression of what is going on, and to whet their appetite for more, but much is hidden. Suspense is created, and the reader is hooked until it is resolved…A very simple and effective technique…[I]t makes perfect sense to me, and also explains why academic writing is generally so much easier to put down than it is to pick up again. At least in my subject, we teach students to go sub-zero on the tension scale: to give the game away right from the start. A detective novel written by a good philosophy student would begin: “In this novel I shall show that the butler did it.” The rest will be just filling in the details.

That did make me laugh. And now I think about it…I realize there is a certain amount (a small amount) of tension in WTM. The first chapter doesn’t give the game away – the first chapter is slightly coy – the first chapter sets things up for the last one. I didn’t know that was a literary secret at the time, but I did it that way anyway. I suppose I simply figured I had to leave something for the last chapter to say, or else why have a last chapter?

Anyway – somebody just the other day found it ‘a delight to read’ – which to someone who herself likes to be delighted by what she reads is the kind of comment that makes writing worthwhile, and the attempt to figure out the difference between boring and interesting also worthwhile.

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