Understanding Incoherence

Peter Elbow had a post this week on the OUP blog on why academic communication can so easily become incoherent and why that fact isn’t as bad as it sounds. What I love about this post is its wonderful lack of cynicism about academic writing. Elbow, here as elsewhere in his writing, is looking to expand the way we think about writing, not lay blame. So many harsh things get said about academic writing: it’s dense, jargon-laden, oblivious to audience, and so forth. Those generalizations are true at times, but most of that writing isn’t produced by malefactors deliberately trying to obfuscate with specialized vocabulary and serpentine notions. The first thing I want my students to understand is that they write hard-to-understand prose because they are trying to convey highly sophisticated material. The second is that a failure to craft an audience-friendly text out of that sophisticated material is not an indication of an unwillingness to do so.

Whether you are discussing densely layered theories or explaining complex physical processes, chances are you are labouring to meet the often-opposed goals of clarity and accuracy. I think we all know the somewhat magical feeling when those two goals demand the same thing of us in a single sentence. So often we can see a ‘better’ version of a sentence that would be great except that it would also be wrong. Adding in the detail and nuance to make it right then undermines the clarity that we had hoped to achieve. The way forward isn’t always apparent, but it won’t be found by disparaging either pole or by despairing of the entire project of academic writing.

In fact, Elbow does give us a way forward. He asserts that a great deal of our academic writing difficulty comes from our habit of interrupting ourselves to provide extra evidence, forestall possible objections, or even attack potential detractors. And while the effects of this habit can be deleterious for the reader, Elbow is clear on the value of the underlying state of mind that keeps us alert to digression and dissent. Interestingly, he believes speech—despite the real tendency of academic speech to become incoherent—can help us bridge the gap between our often tentative, ambivalent, overqualified prose and the strong coherent version that our reader is looking for. In his words,

If I want strong written words that readers will hear and take seriously, I need coherent, well-shaped prose. For this goal, it turns out that the unruly tongue comes to the rescue. My tongue may breed incoherence when I let it run free, but if I take every written sentence and read it aloud with loving care and keep fiddling with it till it feels right in the mouth and sounds right in the ear, that sentence will be clear and strong.

Overall, Elbow is offering us an encouraging account of why it is legitimately hard to accomplish the essential goal of clarity in our academic writing. In doing so, he is also offering us inspiration to keep on trying.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @ProfessorIsIn, resources on mental illness in academia. I’ve been haunted by this related article from The New Yorker.

From @StanCarey, writing in the @EmphasisWriting blog, on making 140 characters go further. Try the fun Twitter challenge!

From @evalantsoght, great advice on #acwri for multilingual graduate students.

From @Margin_Notes, data on PhD completion rates and times to completion in Canada.

From @jpschimel, interesting thoughts on what acknowledgement slides do to the end of a presentation.

From @thesiswhisperer, thoughts on why being obnoxious might actually be helping some people get ahead in academia

From the After Deadline blog at the New York Times, great reminders about the errors spell-check won’t catch.

From Dave Paradi’s PowerPoint blog, a helpful distinction between ‘content visuals’ and ‘design visuals’.

From ‏@DrJeremySegrott, a #Storify of the February 7th #Acwri Twitter chat on motivation.

From @UA_magazine, an amusing account of the bureaucratic absurdity of a large institute of higher learning.

From Mark Bauerlein in @Chronicle, thoughts on the implications of teaching writing through personal reflection.

From @ThomsonPat, using a detective metaphor for academic inquiry.

From @grammarphobia, ‘Most of What You Think You Know About Grammar is Wrong‘.

From @utpjournals, ten rules of writing adapted for #acwri.

From @GradHacker, concrete and helpful tips on surviving your dissertation.

From @GradHacker, a discussion of the ‘digital skills, technology, and tools‘ that ought to be developed in graduate school.

From @ryancordell, reflections on conference tweeting, politeness, and community building.

From the After Deadline blog in the New York Times, helpful advice about using ‘like’.

From the Draft blog in the New York Times, the upside of distraction and the dangers of a monomaniacal approach to writing.

From @ThomsonPat, a list of common flaws in methods sections.

6 responses to “Understanding Incoherence

  1. Pingback: Warp and Woof (2.15.2013) | Cataclysmic

  2. Pingback: Links: Understanding Incoherence | Postgraduate Study | Scoop.it

  3. Pingback: Understanding incoherence: why it is legitimately hard to accomplish clarity in academic writing | Impact of Social Sciences

  4. Very interesting post, and a very interesting blog. I am conscious of this matter at the moment as I’m due to give a seminar on Clarity in Academic Writing next week!
    I think you’re right about the tension between accuracy and clarity, and the point on self-interruption is valid. For me, the latter points to a deep problem; when academics write for a wide audience, most of us think a little too much about how the material will be read by colleagues, and too little about how it will be understood by the public – it’s quite hard to free oneself of this ‘look-over-the-shoulder’ mentality.
    I spend a lot of time trying to write pieces that work on both levels, but it’s difficult to get the balance right!

    • Thanks for commenting, Cormac. I hope your seminar goes very well! I think you are right that it is difficult to write well while, as you say, looking over our shoulder. This tendency doesn’t just lead to diminished clarity; it can also lead to writer’s block and associated productivity challenges. It can be hard to write for an audience that has been conceived of as entirely critical. Sometimes I think that we need to think less about writing for a general audience (which some people–especially graduate students–may not be doing) and more about writing for a readership that we think of as being interested and sympathetic.

  5. Pingback: Warp and Woof (2.15.2013) | Cruciform Theology

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