Why is Academic Writing So Bad?
There is an interesting discussion by Stephen Walt over at Foreign Policy on why academic writing is so bad. It is a subject academics are reluctant to discuss, yet there is no doubt that much of what passes as legal scholarship is dull, disagreeable, undigestable. Here’s Walt’s take:
The first problem is that many academics (and especially younger ones) tend to confuse incomprehensibility with profundity. If they write long and ponderous sentences and throw in lots of jargon, they assume that readers will be dazzled by their erudition and more likely to accept whatever it is they are saying uncritically. Moreover, jargon is a way for professional academics to remind ordinary people that they are part of a guild with specialized knowledge that outsiders lack, and younger scholars often fear that if they don’t sound like a professional scholar, then readers won’t believe what they are saying no matter how solid their arguments and evidence are.
The second problem is the fear of being wrong. If your prose is clear and your arguments are easy to follow, then readers can figure out what you are saying and they can hold you to account. If you are making forecasts (or if the theory you are advancing has implications for the future), then you will look bad if your predictions are clearly stated and then fail. If your argument has obvious testable implications, others can run the tests and see how well your claims stand up.
But if your prose is muddy and obscure or your arguments are hedged in every conceivable direction, then readers may not be able to figure out what you’re really saying and you can always dodge criticism by claiming to have been misunderstood. (Of course, sometimes critics do deliberately misrepresent a scholarly argument, but that’s another matter). Bad writing thus becomes a form of academic camouflage designed to shield the author from criticism.
My own sense is that legal scholarship is better than most academic writing because we are trained at law school and in law firms to be convincing and comprehensible. Once in the academy, we are further trained to reach two audiences: our academic peers and our student gatekeepers who hold the keys to the kingdom. Obscurity may be appropriate for one audience, but not the other. Our law student underlords save us from the trap of most other academics.
So why does legal scholarship still miss the mark?
First, legal scholarship is formulaic. There is an order and predictability to legal writing that stifles creativity. You know the recipe: (1) Introduction with obligatory road map; (2) Background section for the neophyte; (3) Excruciating description of the problem; (4) Unrealistic normative solution; (5) Standard conclusion. This formula rules the day. Add ingredients, mix hastily, half-bake to 25,000 words, and then publish.
Second, legal scholarship is prosaic. Many legal scholars are more interested in arguments than words. We love the research, but not the writing. We are “ideasmiths” rather than wordsmiths. I recently read a draft article on financial regulation that had profoundly good ideas expressed in profoundly bad ways. At some point in the writing process, an entire draft should be devoted to simple wordsmithing. Every word, sentence, and paragraph should matter. When the manuscript is nearing completion we should be spending days wordsmithing, polishing rough edges, adding color and texture, altering the draft so that it is elegant and interesting.
Third, legal scholarship has a footnote fetish. Years of experience responding to law review editors has made original thought suspect. Today articles often have 500, even 600 footnotes. Student editors routinely demand supporting citations for original thought to the point of farce. The fruit of creativity struggles to survive with such aggressive pruning.
Fourth, legal scholarship is technical. Let’s face it, many of the subjects we write about are arid and lifeless. The devil is in the details, and those details are devilishly difficult to disseminate. It is not easy to make Rule 26(b) sound snappy. Maritime delimitation is not exactly the pearl of great worth. Okay, maybe it is, but writing about it is not. The trick is to make a technical subject sound as interesting as possible. Great legal writing often is about taking dry and tedious ingredients and transforming them into agreeable fare. It will not keep your teenager from rolling her eyes when you explain what you did at work today, but it should keep your colleagues and students from giving up in frustration.