Why is Academic Writing So Bad?

by Roger Alford

Scholarship

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.

http://opiniojuris.org/2013/02/18/why-is-academic-writing-so-bad/

10 Responses

  1. There’s a great recent post by Peter Elbow on the OUP blog about this (http://blog.oup.com/2013/02/academic-speech-patterns-linguistics/). He offers an explanation that I found quite compelling, and that isn’t on either Walt’s or Alford’s list.
    Academics are inculcated with bad writing habits during our educations, especially in graduate school. When we write X, our professors usually counter with: “Well, have you considered Y?” I think most of us can attest that we frequently hear the same kind of comment at conferences–most questions asked at conferences may be variations of this basic point. We jam up our writing with every counterargument and counterexample we can think of in order to head off this kind of challenge and prove the “thoroughness” of our research. We’ve all read–and all written–sentences like “X, and yet on the other hand Y, yet nevertheless X in certain respects, while at the same time Y in other respects.” Wading through a paper or (God forbid!) a whole book stuffed with such sentences is an exercise in frustration.
    Elbow’s point is that while this kind of seeking-all-sides is a bad habit of writing, but it’s an excellent habit of thinking. To a large extent, what makes a good academic is the ability to anticipate and account for counterarguments. It can even lead to genuinely new insights, if you can find a way to reconcile two apparently contradictory principles.
    What we need to do to improve our writing is to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory principles: seeing-all-sides is good thinking, but expressing-all-sides is bad writing, especially when you try to do it in a single sentence. It comes down to is this: expressing complex, possibly contradictory principles in clear prose is possible; it just takes really hard work: multiple revisions, reading passages aloud, circulating drafts for feedback, etc. But if we don’t insist on that from ourselves, how can we insist on it from our colleagues and our students?

  2. A personal favourite:

    Mas’d Zavazadeh is attributed with having once ‘dismissed a critic because of his “unproblematic prose and clarity of his presentation, which are the conceptual tools of conservatism”’ — Justice Peter Heerey, ‘Storytelling: Postmodernism and the law’ (2000) 74 Australian Law Journal 681, 681.

  3. RE: 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.

    I disagree.

    Tom Goldstein of the Columbia School of Journalism and Jethro Lieberman of New York Law School wrote a book called The Lawyer’s Guide to Writing Well. The first sentence of the first paragraph says it all: “Most lawyers write poorly.” They continue, “Leading lawyers across the country agree.”

    If law professors are actually teaching students to write in a convincing and comprehensible manner, then why did those two authors write their book? Because law professors are, in fact, not teaching their students to write well. Teaching someone to write well is a long process which does not fit into a law school curriculum. And too many law professors are poor writers themselves.

  4. If law professors are actually teaching students to write in a convincing and comprehensible manner, then why did those two authors write their book?
    The existence of a book on the subject (without any reference whatsoever to substantiate the claim that “most lawyers write poorly”) does not show the validity of the underlying assumption that “lawyers write poorly”, nor does it in any way address mr. Alford’s claim that legal academic writing is relatively better than academic writing in other fields.
      
     

  5. Having been a non-legal academic before becoming a legal academic, I think legal academics write exceedingly well for academics. 
    I agree with Roger that legal writing tends to be formulaic, prosaic, heavily footnoted, and technical, but those are simply the parameters within which we write. Within those parameters, I think a lot of legal scholars display considerable wit and verve.
    As for lawyers generally writing poorly, I suppose the question is, compared to whom?  What group of professionals (other than professional writers) writes better than lawyers?
     

  6. I have never, ever read any news article where people praise the writing skills of lawyers, judges, academics, and law students. I always read the exact opposite in ABA publications, the ABA Student Lawyer magazine, and even in major newspapers. As one person noted above, many books written by lawyers teach lawyers how to write well. (So I guess a market exists for these books.)

    For those who says that lawyers, judges, and academics generally write well, on what evidence are you making this claim?

    I think we hold ourselves in such high regard that we are now blind to (and even deny) some of our shortcomings.

    Let’s admit it. Many people in the non-legal world do a much better job of explaining legal issues than we do. And that’s completely okay.

  7. Writing, any kind of writing, can be bad in two respects: its aesthetics or its argument. Sometimes we are willing to forgive a lapse in one respect when a text excels at the other. Much of the discussion here confuses the two, and so both writing that is merely aesthetically unsatisfactory and writing that merely makes a weak argument are dubbed “bad.” Yet each could have value in the reciprocal respect. Walt breezes from a paragraph quoting Strunk and White on style to a sentence recommending a source on persuasion without pausing to credit the distinct respective values obedience to each source might confer.

    If we follow the thread back from OJ through Walt and Sullivan to Elbow (the link, it so happens, in the first comment above), we discover that Elbow had a much more nuanced view of the subject than Walt’s or Alford’s clear prescriptions imply. Which piece of writing among all of these is best? Why?

  8. Dean, 

    Well said.  I completely agree.  The best writing addresses an important topic, makes persuasive arguments, and is a pleasure to read.  

    Roger Alford 

  9. I had to write a memorial for a moot court together with another student. I have given her two books in advance:

    Guberman, R. (2011). Point made: how to write like the nation’s top advocates. OUP
    Volokh, E. (2010). Academic legal writing: law review articles, student notes, seminar papers, and getting on law review. Foundation Press

    But she thought I was crazy, still wrote legalese, even after I suggested the following improvements to her part:

    Original: “Conventions that are applicable to the BIOT are:”
    Suggestion “The following conventions apply:”

    Original: “provide for the possibility of”
    Suggestion “grant the state”, “afford the state”

    Original: “is of utmost importance”
    Suggestion: “is vital”, “is paramount”, “is cardinal”

    Original: “The Chagos has very diverse marine ecosystems, accommodating the healthiest and most resilient coral reefs in the world.”
    Suggestion: “The Chagos has very diverse marine ecosystems, sheltering the healthiest and most resilient coral reefs in the world.”

    Original: “finds its origin in”
    Suggestion: “flows from”, “arises from”, “emanates from”, “commences from”, “originates in”

    Original: “The instruments which specifically refer to MPAs include various quasi legal or policy instruments.”
    Suggestion: “Various soft law and policy instruments refer specially to MPA’s.”

    Original: “While the Stockholm Declaration is not a legally binding document, it has proven to be particularly conducive to the further development of international environmental law.”
    Suggestion: “While the Stockholm Declaration is not legally binding, it was particularly fertile to the blossom of international environmental law.”

    Original: “Within the jurisprudence of international courts and tribunals, this obligation has been referred to in relation to the customary obligation of States not to cause transboundary environmental harm.”
    Suggestion: “The jurisprudence of international courts and tribunals stresses this obligation, in relation to the customary obligation of States to avert transboundary environmental harm.”

    She believed that legal literature should be like that.

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