Monday, December 30, 2013

When Good Writing is Bad

"This is an engaging read, but can you revise it to sound more academic?"

Most of us want to read writing I describe as demonstrating the Five Cs: clear, concise, compelling, correct, and complete. I tell my students and creative writing seminars to resist overwriting. Avoid affected academic prose, with words you'd never use in a passionate, but professional, conversation with colleagues. Stop trying to adhere to high school writing "rules" that generate more fluff and filler than refined thought.

Imagine my disappointment when a journal editor said, "You should being with, 'In this paper we…' and then outline your points. Frame it, state it, repeat it."

Wow. If ever there was bad writing advice, that would be it. Imagine a novel written with that structure:
In this novel we will follow the actions of Jane Eyre, though childhood to marriage. The themes explored include….
If your writing has to be "framed" beyond basic foreshadowing, you write weak prose. Fix it. Punch up the paragraphs and streamline the sentences. We don't want a world of five-paragraph SAT-ready essays that only impress a handful of English teachers and test scorers.

Academic writing represents the worst writing a reader must endure. Often pretentious and inefficient, we should leave the formulas behind and break free from the tyranny of "rules" that foster creating complicated compositions with little content. Write with passion and flare. Compel your readers to move from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph.

When I tell students to be concise, I explain this does not mean leaving behind a good stylistic twist. A student recently mentioned that I advised parallel construction and repetition, devices other writing instructors warned against. They preferred "variation" of words, so every "said" in an essay became a sighed, yelled, asserted, declared or other action.

"What about Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream' speech?" I asked. "The title phrase appears nine times, with two additional variations. Does that make it bad writing?"

"It breaks the rules," the student asserted.

I explained that some "extra words" and "repetition" strengthen writing. That's why we like rhyming poetry and alliteration as readers, especially as children unaware of artificial rules. Give me Dr. Seuss over most modern free-form poetry any day. Learning when to repeat, and why to repeat, takes practice.

One rule should guide writing, including academic writing: engage the reader. If you fail to engage the reader, nothing else matters. The reader honors you; treat the reader with respect. Drop the annoying academic filler, weak transitions, and empty academese. The "rules" about framing, stating, and summarizing help students reach arbitrary word counts, but they do not encourage good writing.

Academic writing treats readers with condescension and bores them with the routine. Being able to engage in "academic discourse" might earn a student better grades or help a scholar publish research, but it is a lamentable metric by which to measure writing ability.

Yet, I did rewrite the academic paper, because I must. It is now properly dreadful.

No comments:

Post a Comment