Why academic writing sucks

17 Nov

Students write boring essays all the time. Big surprise.

The problem is they’re being taught to write boringly.

This conclusion is what I’ve come to after thinking about the topic of writing and education over the last few days. A short post over at 37 Signals set off this round of thinking. In it, an educator proposes a writing class that would essentially work in reverse, teaching students to cut down their compositions, rather than expanding them.

4 pages > 1 page > 1 paragraph > 1 sentence.

That’s the idea. I love it.

The entire focus of writing is turned on its head. The shortest written expression of an idea becomes the most valuable. Editing information is equally as valuable as the production of information.

It evokes the paradigm of journalism. The paradigm of journalism is editing. What is the best way to tell this story? What is the best way to write this article? Those are the questions writers and editors ask every day in journalism. The guiding principle driving decisions of how to present information in journalism is how to most clearly communicate information in a way that will be most accessible to your audience.

Most people in academia (primary, secondary, and the academy) who teach writing in some way would probably say they teach and value clarity and accessibility in writing. That’s good and I think they’re sincere. But these educators, from my experience, teach students to write clearly and accessibly to the wrong audience.

Most educators want students to write to them, the educator. The educator is the audience. Now, the educator is a valid audience. And knowing how to write about a subject area to an expert in that subject area is a valuable skill. But this is the primary audience students are taught to write to from cradle to diploma.

The cumulative effects of this focus on a single audience is devastating to teaching students how to actually communicate in the real world.

A five paragraph theme may be the most logical way to present information to educators, but for most real-world writing situations, this template fails. Think about what most of your writing is. Is it multi-page, thesis-based topic papers? HECK NO!

Our writing is the dozens of texts we send every day. It’s the short (and longer) e-mails we send everyday. It’s the comments we write on Facebook. It’s 140 character bites we spit out on Twitter. It’s the 200, 300 word blog posts every so often.

Now think of the writing we do occasionally. It’s resumes. It’s cover letters. It’s more formal letters to family and friends. It’s invitations to events. It’s letters to businesses. It’s instructions to babysitters and caretakers during nights out and vacations. It’s the longer, more deep blog posts (like this one).

Finally, think of the writing you almost never do (in the real world). It’s academic, topic-based papers.

Educators are teaching students to perfect a form that no one uses (except them).

The lack of use might have to do with the idea that the way in which academic writing is structured is designed to turn away all but the most interested readers. This form is actively trying to turn away potential audience.

The thesis often gets buried at the bottom of the first paragraph, which itself can be quite long. The thesis itself usually doesn’t actually communicate the most important information but rather just acts as a roadmap for the reader.

Key information is strewn throughout the body and is obscured by filling. I can almost guarantee that the vast majority of undergraduate papers contain filler. Students, including me, inject crap into their papers in order to meet what sometime seem like arbitrary page requirements.

Often, I lengthen my papers by including extraneous and extra adjectives and adverbs and other various parts of speech that are not needed or prudent and for which there are absolutely no logical and necessary reasons to demand their inclusion and use in my topical, academic essay.

I would never do this in journalistic writing. But I do it on purpose when writing papers. And teachers eat it up. Do they spurn my extra verbs? No. They don’t even realize this results in totally uninteresting crap writing. If they do, they usually don’t make their displeasure known on my grade.

It’s an example of how disconnected educators can be from how most people read.

On the other hand, journalism is a great example of writers trying to get as in touch with how people read as possible. Why are news stories written in inverted pyramid style? Because people naturally don’t want to read 300 words to get to the point. They want the point now.

We teach students to write introductions. We also need to teach them how to write leads.

Students are taught that they need 4,5,10 pages to explore a topic satisfactorily. They also should be taught that they need to earn the readers’ attention every page they write. No one’s going to read 10 pages of garbage in the real world.

Students are taught that detail is good, that context is valuable. They also should be taught that unnecessary modifiers kill pace and that strong verbs glue readers to the page.

We teach students to write conclusions. We also need to teach them to write kickers.

Teachers sometimes complain that young people vulgarize the English language through ungrammatical text messages and unpolished Facebook updates. But teachers haven’t taught students how to write to these mediums or express ideas in a short-writing world.

That’s what’s truly vulgar.

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2 Responses to “Why academic writing sucks”

  1. khairulorama November 18, 2010 at 5:01 am #

    agreeing with your points.. great post

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Grenades or Smoke Bombs « Jonathan Shorman - February 20, 2011

    […] see several parallels between the education field and journalism. I’ve even explored a few of those parallels […]

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