The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Friends, I would like to share a peeve with you. A peeve of the petly variety, and one I believe many of you share.

Bad Writing.

Bad writing can be found everywhere, and is mostly avoidable. Come across a badly written blog? Don't read it. Or hate-read it, if your grammar sirens aren't paralyzing. A badly written novel stays on the shelf. Badly written poetry goes out of print.

Badly written academic work, tragically, is often unavoidable. It's on the syllabus, or it's related to your research. Or maybe it was written by someone in a department to which you'd like to apply, and like any diligent potential applicant you want to acquaint yourself with the work of potential advisors and colleagues.

Torture, as we of the Gitmo generation know, is illegal. And mean. And really just not all that effective. Which I suppose makes the vast majority of academic writing in violation of the Geneva Convention. Come on guys!

Academics, by all accounts, have to read a lot. And reading a lot, it's widely believed, is crucial to writing well. But the vast majority of the academic papers and books I've read during the course of my academic career have been convoluted wormholes of headache-inducing ineffective communication. And I don't just mean the professors suffering from Publish or Perish fever who don't edit their work and frankly don't give two figs about the suffering of their potential future readers. I mean Big Names. Like Spivak and Butler. Even poor Derrida is completely misread, and while I'll allow that some of that is laziness on the part of researchers who would rather read a paper about his writing than his writing itself - but only some of that recalcitrance is laziness. Some of it can probably be attributed to the sheer overwhelming volume of work, and the incredibly low bar set by so very much of it.

Where did we go wrong?

Well, I won't go into that. But I will go ahead and give you the silver lining (which I feel I should tell you is pretty glorious): having identified a problem, we have ourselves a cause! Even the most crowded of fields have wide swathes of unreadable research, and if you have the stamina and super-human decoding power necessary to synthesize and reformulate, you can raise that bar.

Stay tuned. The next installment will highlight the rare gem that is quality academic writing. Please, if you've stumbled across any particularly excellent writers in academe, do share. As many ways as it can all go wrong, there must be as many ways for it to be done right.

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