Last fall, Steven Pinker promoted his new book, The Sense of Style, with an article in The Chronicle Review entitled “Why Academics Stink at Writing”. I didn’t write about this article at the time because I hadn’t yet read the book; while I had a lot of concerns about the article, I was reluctant to share them in the absence of an understanding of his overall intentions in the book. Over the winter break, I read the book in order to write a review; what I found was a thoughtful diagnosis of the habits that impede strong academic writing and a great deal of incisive writing advice. I recommend Pinker’s account of how what he calls the “curse of knowledge” (p. 59) prevents us from grasping what the reader needs to know. And I recommend his approach to managing complex writing, especially at the sentence level. I feel certain that most serious writers could benefit from both aspects of this book, but I remain uneasy about the overarching tone with which Pinker addresses academic writing.
My uneasiness is straightforward: I worry that Pinker’s decision to treat academic writers as a monolithic group worthy of some measure of scorn is potentially discouraging to novice academic writers. That is, it seems awful to be labouring to join a club that everyone agrees is full of people who are terrible at the thing that they do. Obviously the pressure to be productive means that all aspiring academics do want to join this club, but it’s dispiriting to work so hard for an accomplishment that is so easily and casually derided. Furthermore, since we often learn to write from exemplars, it can be perplexing to see those examples so widely condemned.
The issue is more than just a broad one of how we feel about the enterprise of academic writing. The way we talk about academic writing also has implications for actual decisions that we make as writers. Pinker mentions many things that bog down academic writing: inexpert use of metadiscourse; reflexive indications that our topics are too complex to be readily explained; nominalizations and passive constructions; imprecise or clichéd language; and excessive hedging. All these things are clearly capable of weakening academic prose, and he has good advice for managing these and other potential pitfalls. However, he fails to consider how fraught many of our academic writing decisions are. Take hedging, for example. Pinker describes “compulsive hedging” (p. 43) as a lack of commitment to our own ideas; by characterizing this familiar type of prudence as a problematic lack of confidence, he evinces a lack of interest in the complex process of developing an academic identity. An academic identity of sufficient strength to allow us to take a firm stand behind our own interpretations is not easily formed. Excessive hedging can be irksome to the reader, but it is unrealistic to imagine that novice writers ought to simply abandon their natural and often pragmatic embrace of caution. Pinker has offered ways for academic writing to get better, but he hasn’t paid much attention to why the characteristic tics of scholarly writing persist.
It’s not that I want to defend all academic writing, and it’s certainly not the case that I want to preclude intelligent analyses of why writing goes astray. As I said above, Pinker’s discussion of the curse of knowledge is very helpful and far better than the frequently heard suggestions that academic writers can’t be bothered to write well or that they can’t afford to write well lest they expose their own emptiness. But I do think it is important that novice academic writers begin writing in a supportive atmosphere with a clear grasp of the complex array of pressures attached to their writing choices. Academic writing isn’t laughably bad—it shouldn’t be the butt of a joke. And it isn’t monolithic. An established Harvard academic writing a book is doing something very different than a new doctoral student attempting their first article. Pinker’s critique often makes it sound as though academic writers simply appear whole cloth without any process of learning the craft.
In the end, Pinker’s analysis of academic writing seems to run the risk of being disregarded by the established writers who might benefit while being taken seriously by all the wrong people. These established writers may not listen to his valuable suggestions since they likely have a certain confidence in their existing style. My concern is that while these writers carry on undeterred, two other groups may take Pinker’s critique too much to heart. First, there are those who wish to believe that academics are engaged in an inherently meaningless and solipsistic enterprise; this group will certainly find solace in Pinker’s critique. And, second, there are those who are already daunted by the prospect of joining the academy; this group will likely feel discouraged by the view that even if you succeed as an academic writer, the accomplishment will always be clouded by a lack of respect. His “professional narcissism” (p. 41) critique may be apt when levied against the sort of senior academics that he is targeting, but it feels downright uncharitable when extended to graduate student writers. He clearly feels that there are writers who should be held accountable for continuing to provide turgid and limp prose to the world—and maybe he is right that they should know better. But there are also many developing academic writers who aren’t in a position to avoid all these potential stylistic problems, at least not yet.
Before engaging too deeply with the academic-writing-is-terrible narrative, I urge novice writers to be reflective about their own writing situation. Some of the habits of novice academic writers will reflect the challenge of trying to marshal their thoughts about complex topics for a difficult-to-define audience with a tremendous amount at stake. This challenging situation doesn’t necessarily give rise to great writing. In my view, Pinker offers us excellent advice on improving writing but fails to see how our own positions within the academy may affect our ability to take his advice. By overlooking the developmental side of academic writing, he is overlooking the crucial work associated with becoming an academic writer. This blind spot is unfortunate because the advice itself is outstanding and beautifully presented. However, improving our academic writing—a goal we can all share—takes more than good advice; it also requires a good understanding of why we struggle. And while it is obviously possible to improve our writing in the face of widespread contempt for academic writing, I wonder if it might not be easier in an environment that offers a little more support for the whole enterprise of academic writing.