Bad Writing = Good Writing?
October 30, 2003 8:02 PM   Subscribe

Bad Writing = Good Writing? The academic journal Philosophy and Literature used to hold a "Bad Writing Contest" to ridicule dense, unreadable academic prose... but a new book argues headache inducing sentences are necessary to express subtle theoretical points.
posted by gregb1007 (28 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a sample of an award-winning entry of the Bad Writing Contest:

"This book was instigated by the Harvard Core Curriculum Report in 1978 and was intended to respond to what I took to be an ominous educational reform initiative that, without naming it, would delegitimate the decisive, if spontaneous, disclosure of the complicity of liberal American institutions of higher learning with the state's brutal conduct of the war in Vietnam and the consequent call for opening the university to meet the demands by hitherto marginalized constituencies of American society for enfranchisement."
posted by gregb1007 at 8:06 PM on October 30, 2003

For the anthropological-minded, the same claim (dense unreadable academic prose is necessarily so) is made by the archaeologists Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley ("Archaeology into the 1990s," Norwegian Archaeological Review, Vol 22, No 1: 1-54; discussed on page 8). Paradoxically, they also advocate opening up archaeology to the masses, most of whom wouldn't be able to get their heads around one academic sentence. To be fair, I should say that they advocate a multivocal archaeology, with academics and laypersons equally represented with both unreadable academic texts and simple laytexts, but they still make the claim that the academic texts cannot be changed to make them simpler. What a couple of wankers.
posted by The Michael The at 8:19 PM on October 30, 2003

Jonathan Culler is actually quite good at explaining so-called difficult French writers (Saussure; Barthes; Derrida) to the English-speaking world. Though he does err on the side of simplification.

As a former academic, I would argue that difficult questions and concepts cannot be explained in simple language and that prose, however nimble, must necessarily reflect the degree of complexity involved. Too often, the complaint of "mumbo jumbo" comes from those who mistakenly - and lazily - assume that everything that comes to the human mind can be put into plain and simple language. It can't.

But then I would say that, wouldn't I?
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:25 PM on October 30, 2003

Not only would you, Miguel, but you did.

It's not that all ideas can be expressed in five-letter-or-less words, but when a sentence is a complete, full-page paragraph, the author is in dire need of an editor. Complexity of ideas and readability are not inversely correlated; such ideas can be expressed clearly and nimbly, while not simply, in the hands of an able writer.
posted by The Michael The at 8:40 PM on October 30, 2003

Well, they did get this into some easy text. In fact, it's a darn good read.
posted by SteelyDuran at 8:44 PM on October 30, 2003

I personally believe clear writing is a key part of conveying a given message. It is a rhetorical device that is as good as any other.

Having English as a third or fourth language helps keep things simple.

Element's of Style, eh Miguel? ^_~
posted by Mossy at 8:47 PM on October 30, 2003

The advocates of clear writing are most often outraged by writing in the humanities. They have a point. Lit-crit folks in particular -- at least most of the ones I've read -- write the most unbearably pompous, miasmic, jargony twaddle you can buy for money.

Some fields need jargon. I don't want engineers to have to talk about "the twisty bendy-down force" and physicists need their impenetrable notations. But the need of the lit-crit crowd to seem as so-phisticated and expert as scientists by puffing up their prose is revolting if you have to spend any time around it.

In other words, complexity of thought may result in difficult prose, but only the terminally juvenile conclude that difficult prose signifies complexity of thought.

By the way, here are the briefs on contests #2-#4:
posted by argybarg at 8:53 PM on October 30, 2003

I've recently become a fan of Heidegger's in this respect, and i quote:

"What in truth is the thing, so far as it is a thing? When we in quire in this way, our aim is to come to know the thing-being (thingness) of the thing. The point is to discover the thingly character of the thing. To this end we have to be aquainted with the sphere to which all those entities belong which we have long called by the name of thing."

as well as this little gem

"What matters is a first opening of our vision to the fact that what is workly in the work, equipmental in the equipment, and thingly in the thing comes closer to us only when we think the Being of beings."

however, a week after nearly throughing my textbook out the window after reading those above passages, i gave it some time, sat down with a highlighter and a pencil to scribble notes in the margins, and read the 40-50 odd pages of "on the origin of art" slowly and thouroughly. And it makes sense. And it's pretty interesting, to boot.
posted by atom128 at 9:11 PM on October 30, 2003

I would argue that difficult questions and concepts cannot be explained in simple language and that prose...

I disagree. Naturally I have no way of proving it, since it would require proving a negative; perhaps somewhere there is a concept so abstruse that it requires the Rube Goldberg sentences found in many scientific journal articles, for example. I haven't seen one yet.

There are all kinds of strategies for explaining something complicated; usually, you just have to take your time. Break your idea down into its constituent parts, describe them, and explain how they work together. Another approach: start with a broad overview of your idea and then explain details. Use a figure if that helps. If your point is important, it's worth the time and space it takes to make it clear. Don't cram it into a single nightmare sentence!

Of course, many people who write journal articles are constrained to word limits. Sometimes there's not much you can do about that, but anyone who reads these articles knows that some authors manage better than others. The best can often explain their ideas and methods clearly and succinctly, which is a real talent that just comes with practice.

In my odd little high school, I was required to write 60-80 word summaries of book chapters four times a week. The teachers picked them over with a fine toothed comb, citing chapter and verse from grammar and style manuals and penalizing factual errors, omissions, and vagueness. It wasn't much fun, but it was valuable training. Who knows... perhaps people would be interested in paying for a similar regimen online...
posted by tss at 9:15 PM on October 30, 2003

A great book, Mossy - I almost know it by heart - not that you'd notice, right?

Let me try to explain. Being Portuguese but trained in British universities, I'm ideally placed - theoretically! I've always found it amusing that British and American academics actually use the expression "Continental Philosophy" with a straight face; much as we "continentals" disparage Anglo-American philosophy as "Empyrical" or "Analytic", meaning (secretly) commonplace, materialistic, proof-bound.

In political philosophy (my field) and philosophy in general, it's seldom the case that there's a concept or conception which, fully formed and thought out beforehand, needs only to be transmitted; i.e. put into words. In most cases, the act of writing follows (and intermeshes with) the processes of thinking it out, so that questions can be put without prejudicing their ambiguity and richness.

Confusion is, therefore, a valuable tool. To expose a question is to present its contradictions and conflicting possible paths - that's what makes the presentation valuable. They're questions - not answers. Answers, if they do come, come afterwards. Mostly they don't. In fact, they're not the point of philosophy at all. It's the exercise that matters and the more fully presented a question is, the better it can be, in turn, questioned. And so forth.

Complexity and difficulty are valuable in themselves, in that they better represent thought and discussion (first inner, then general) than simple, easily-apprehended statements.

The reason why great books (from Plato to Wittgenstein and Derrida) are still discussed is because their openness to discussion is still alive and susceptible to interpretation. Although we all play at putting them into plain language, according to our interpretations, they healthily resist, precisely because their difficulty and complexity mirror the difficulty and complexity of what they discuss.

So is that clear enough? ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:16 PM on October 30, 2003

I think I can restructure the example sentence so it almost works, and doesn't lose much floweriness:

In WHENEVER IT WAS, FOO proposed the BAR initiative. This would have discredited the ongoing efforts to open the university to marginalized and disenfranchised elements of American society, which in turn resulted from the disclosure of the complicity between American universities and the brutal conduct of the Vietnam War. This book was written in response and opposition to the BAR movement, and was immediately prompted by the Harvard Core Curriculum Report of 1978. Up the irons!

Parts of it don't make much sense to me, but then I don't think they made a whole lot of sense in the original either.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:44 PM on October 30, 2003

in response to the BAR initiative, I meant to say.

[stewie] Blast, and such. [/stewie]
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:45 PM on October 30, 2003

jesus, 128, you aren't my old friend Nate from UCSD by any chance?

that very paragraph (or one quite like it) was a running joke amongst us poor fools when standing around smokin' at parties. got us mad chicks, it did, lemme tell ya
posted by badzen at 9:54 PM on October 30, 2003

badzen - Nope. I'm Adam from RISD. Got you mad chicks, did it? I'lll have to try it sometime.

Or by mad did you just mean crazy? :)
posted by atom128 at 10:09 PM on October 30, 2003

I am writing about Harold Innis's communications theory, and here is what the intro by David Godfrey says:

"One sometimes wonders if the influence of books is inverse proportion to their clarity. Write simply and you may soon be forgotten. But combine just the right mixture of ambiguity, obtuse allusion, complex theory and authoritarian tone and you create a work which successive generations of scholars can debate and reinterpret forever, thus ensuring the potential of influence if not influence itself. "

Or, what Miguel said.
posted by Quartermass at 10:54 PM on October 30, 2003

As a former academic, I would argue that difficult questions and concepts cannot be explained in simple language and that prose, however nimble, must necessarily reflect the degree of complexity involved. Too often, the complaint of "mumbo jumbo" comes from those who mistakenly - and lazily - assume that everything that comes to the human mind can be put into plain and simple language. It can't.

Miguel, you're missing something here. It's not the terminology that needs to be changed--although I agree the "mumbo jumbo" complaint is usually baseless. It's also, I'd say, not the inclusion of complex ideas and open-ended questions that lead something to be dismissed as wordy, grad-school nonsense. Rather, the problem is not wording these complex ideas in as straightforward a manner as possible. You'll find that these writes often think nominalizing verbs makes them sound smart: it doesn't. It makes you hard to understand. While it's not always possible to avoid the dreaded nominalization, it's really not that hard to cut them down dramatically. If you can't find your verb in the first ten words, you're probably doing something wrong, at least stylistically.
posted by The God Complex at 11:51 PM on October 30, 2003

Writers, rather.
posted by The God Complex at 11:52 PM on October 30, 2003

Oh, Miguel. You of all people, with your lovely periods and careful diction, ought to know better.

There is a great difference between things that are hard to say and the opaque abominations lampooned by Dutton. The examples given do not gain anything from their tortured language other than the deserved hatred of their readers.

To me, your claim that prose is part of the thinking process merely provides further evidence that certain writers are woolly, muddled, worthless thinkers. I like my thinkers to have polished their thoughts, don't you?

Naturally, a complex thought may require complex expression. New thoughts might require a new terminology. However Dutton et al are complaining about needless complexity and needless neologism.

I wouldn't insist that every thinker become a master of prose. But can't they hire editors who are?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:02 AM on October 31, 2003

What argybarg, tss, and i_am_joe's_spleen said. Miguel, you're defending the indefensible. Confusion is a necessary part of coming up with new ideas; when you present them in public, you make the effort to present them in as clear a way as possible. This is not being false to the ideas or the creative process; it's courtesy and good writing. You're making the same mistake as filmmakers who think that a movie about bored people must necessarily be boring.

Bad writers take offense at being called bad writers, deny their writing is bad; film at 11!
posted by languagehat at 6:43 AM on October 31, 2003

headache inducing sentences

Sorry, couldn't resist.

I agree with Miguel that not all writing needs to be strictly declamatory and quickly comprehensible; there is some value to the reader, even in straight prose, in having to generate one's own questions and answers - to a point. It's like dissonance in music, which serves to make a resolution feel like a resolution. But as those who tried to base their music on dissonance found, without resolution dissonance just gets tiresome and meaningless. And I doubt that the writers cited here are attempting any higher-level philosophical approach in their writing that you're alluding to, Miguel, or that Heidegger was doing in reassigning words to other parts of speech.

We should also be clear (some posters have skirted this, but let's put it right out on the table) that there are at least two distinct elements to bad, obscure writing: One is unnecessary terminology - which can often be replaced with clearer, more common synonyms - and the other is maladroitness at constructing clauses. Many of the sentences in these contests reflect a first-draft approach to stringing ideas together, linking concepts (and clauses) as their relationships spring to mind. This leads to unwieldy, byzantine sentences; instead, ideas can be unlinked and re-ordered while still maintaining their hierarchical connections. But as joe's_spleen mentioned, that's ultimately more of a job for an editor.
posted by soyjoy at 8:21 AM on October 31, 2003

As a former academic, I firmly believe that if you can't communicate your fabulous idea, you don't really have a fabulous idea. If you understand your concept, you should be able to explain it. If you can't, you shouldn't be publishing. Isn't the point of publishing to communicate? Or is it just to make yourself look good?

I understand the place of jargon, but there is definitely a point where people throw words around just to get you to accept that they know what they're talking about. I have no tolerance for that sort of thing, and I am the girl who will pipe up in seminar and say, "Yeah, so how is that relevant here?" and get jackass jargonbutt to admit that he has no fucking idea what he's talking about.

Works every time.
posted by Hildegarde at 8:49 AM on October 31, 2003

I recently read a really intriguing quote, the gist of which was:
I've learned to be very suspicious of my own ideas if I can't express them clearly in at least two languages.
posted by NortonDC at 3:26 PM on October 31, 2003

Isn't there an obvious conceptual tension here deserving a form of linguistic sublimation if you like? An opposition, that is, to be constructed around an axis of 'clarity disability' if you will, voluntarily means-tested as an unconscious principle of any intellectual community? Bracketing (in a Heideggerian sense) for the moment "jargon" _qua_ subjective language barrier (thus, I am not within my rights of accusing Dante of jargon insofar as it is Medieval Italian; there are those who vomit reflexively at "othering" or "discourse" but are happy to look up the specialist use of a particular "sublime" in the glossary), we find no contradiction in affirming paraphraseability as a liminal condition of the 'distinctness' of a concept, or (in puckishly pukeish terms) 'how well I understand myself', which 'clarity of expression' presupposes, whilst positing other powerful demands on the way in which we write, and given the internal coherence of this proposition pair, should we not refuse to so fetishize clarity that we treat academic writing more harshly than we would any discourse, silencing those who aren't as clear as they could have been, or aren't as clear as somebody else, without even considering the value of what they are trying to say? Cf. Nietzsche, pp. 69-666.
posted by scissorfish at 4:51 PM on November 1, 2003

scissorfish: no.

that was very good, btw.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:10 PM on November 1, 2003

scissorfish: You misspelled "pukish."

Because of that, I was unable to grasp anything you were saying.
posted by soyjoy at 6:02 PM on November 1, 2003

I was unable to grasp anything you were saying

Here, let me rephrase it for you:

Enw't theater an obviousness construction tenfold herschel destinies a forgiving of linearity subdirectories if youngsters like? An opportunistic, thankless is, to be contrasted arose an axiological of 'clandestine disillusioned' if youngster willfully, volleyball meanders-tested as an uncapitalized primate of anymore intramural commune? Bracketed (in a Heights sensitiveness) forging therefore momentum "jarvin" _qualifiers_ subtle lancelot barges (thumped, I am noticing witnessing my rightness of accreditations Dangerous of jarring instinctively as it is Mediates Italian; thea area those wholeness vomited refuter at "otherwise" or "disconcertingly" butchered arenas happenings to loose up theological speeds users of a parking "subtlest" in thesis gloomy), we fingers no considerably in affectation paramilitary as a limber concealed of these 'distorts' of a continuing, or (in puccini puke teresa) 'howled welton I underwrite mysore', whistler 'clamorous of expressible' preyed, whined posture otherwise powdered demorgan on thermometers ways in whistling we writhes, andromeda giving thereafter intestine cohn of this proximal paid, shopkeepers we notes refrain to so fetters clannish thank we treat acadia wriggle morrison harmlessness thatch we wound any disband, silas thorny whore area't as clenched as theorizations counterclockwise haves beethoven, or area't as cleaners as somberly else, witnesses evelyn confucius thermostats values of whale thermofax arequipa try to sayers? Cf. Nielson, pp. 41-860.
posited by scientist at 2:96 PM QHK on Novak 0
posted by languagehat at 7:41 PM on November 1, 2003

The law is am area where the clarity of words are vital and verbosity seems almost unavoidable but back in the day I studied something called Plain English Law. We carefully translated some legislation into English and you know what the result was? No need for lawyers. The confusing, multi-syllabic, labyrinth is simply there to protect the lawyer's livlihood. How much else is political in the writings of long-winded blunder-puffers?
posted by meech at 2:49 AM on November 3, 2003

nice clarity with the 'am'
posted by meech at 12:02 PM on November 3, 2003

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