On Academic Writing
Lots of academic writing is bad—such is the conclusion of Stephen Walt, Dan Drezner, Jay Ulfelder, Steve Saideman, Greg Weeks, and probably 10 other poli sci bloggers whom I follow. The diagnoses are many (the logic of discovery versus the logic of presentation, the useful shortcuts of professional language, the lack of incentives), but the solutions aren’t particularly sophisticated, as far as I can tell. They boil down to “don’t write poorly.”
EDIT: Writers credited above do not say all writing is bad, but some of it is. Important distinction.
My perspective is going to be a little different. I think that the problem facing academic writing in the social sciences is that most social scientists don’t consider themselves writers. They consider themselves social scientists first and foremost, and writing is just one part of what they do. Prose is a rather inefficient and cumbersome technology that serves the purpose of transmitting their thoughts to other people.
It’s no surprise, then, that social science writing isn’t very good. It’s not considered a craft worth perfecting.
For all of the value of Strunk and White and Politics and the English Language and other style guides, I see getting the mechanics right as secondary. The primary task is to decide that writing matters, and to think consciously of oneself as a writer.
One piece of advice—one that I haven’t seen mentioned—immediately follows from this: The way to improve your writing is to practice writing. Serious prose writers write every day. Academic social scientists who want to write well should do the same, and this especially holds when carrying heavy teaching, administering, and research loads. Because no one generates enough primary research to fill a solid hour of writing every day, it means writing for other audiences. Book reviews, referee reports, recommendation letters, blog posts, it probably doesn’t really matter, so long as the focus is on the act of writing.
I can’t much tell if I myself am a good writer. But I do know that today is my “non-writing day,” and I just wrote a 300 word blog post anyway.