Tuesday, 6 September 2011

More on guidelines for academic writing

For the August meeting, Simon led a discussion on academic writing.  He introduced it with some comments by Richard Feynman and provided, as an example for discussion, some painfully convoluted prose from another American academic.

Some of us felt that Feynman's interpretation of the paper he was attempting to describe was overly simplistic.   Many people receive information via visual symbolic channels without necessarily "reading".  However, Feynman's point was valid.  A great deal of academic writing (particularly in social sciences and humanities) is unnecessarily opaque.  In 1996, a physicist (Alan Sokal) highlighted the problem when he published a hoax article which contained "syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever...; strained and even absurd analogies; rhetoric that sounds good but whose meaning is ambiguous; and confusion between the technical and everyday senses of English words"  (Sokal, 1996).

Those of us that are native English speakers often struggle with academic writing.  It was interesting to hear therefore, from researchers attending the discussion whose first language is not English.  Unsurprisingly, they too struggled with much of what they had to read.  The two Arabic speakers present felt that academic writing in Arabic was less afflicted by unnecessary complexities than was academic writing in English.  It could simply be that they were less bothered by them, but it would be interesting to devise an opacity scale for publications in different subjects and different languages.

In the course of the discussion, I asked people to nominate examples of clearly written articles for inclusion in the blog. Sadly none were suggested.  Thanks to Liz C however, I now know that there is a Postmodernism Generator available online which randomly generates academic essays, and, in the late 1990s, the journal Philosophy and Literature ran a "Bad Writing" contest.

In response to a request from some overseas students for guidance on clear writing, Ben Allen recommended  George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language".  If nothing else, the key points at the end are worth taking on board:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never us a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

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