Why is academic writing so hard to read, and so painful to craft? Peter Elbow nails it.
No, the chaos that bedevils the speech of so many academics takes the form of frequent interruptions in the flow of speech — interruptions that come from imperious intrusions into our minds of other thoughts. Before one sentence is finished, we break in with “well but, that isn’t quite it, it’s really a matter of…”. Academics often can’t finish one sentence or thought before launching into a related one. (“Elections tend to favor those who… You know what’s interesting here is the way in which political parties just… Still, if you consider how political parties tend to function…” and so on.) Alternatively, we drift intosentence interruptus: a phrase is left dangling while we silently muse — and we never return to finish it.
When we academics were in graduate school, we were trained to write badly (no one put it this way of course) because every time we wrote X, our teacher always commented, “But have you considered Y? Don’t you see that Y completely contradicts what you write here.” “Have you considered” is the favorite knee-jerk response of academics to any idea. As a result, we learn as students to clog up our writing with added clauses and phrases to keep them from being attacked. In a sense (a scary sense), our syntactic goal is create sentences that take a form something like this:
X, and yet on the other hand Y, yet nevertheless X in certain respects, while at the same time Y in other respects.
And we make the prose lumpier still by inserting references to all the published scholars — those who said X, those who argued for Y, those who said X is valid in this sense, those who said Y is valid in this other sense.
We breed such a suspicion of anything smacking of generalization that we contort our writing to hedge, dissemble, and CYA. This is one reason why I find theoreticians to often be the best writers, at least in my field of Ecology.
Two small steps toward remediation?
1) Treat every appearance of the words “could”, “should”, “may” with deep suspicion.
2) When citing, focus on the first paper that dealt with the issue, the best such example, and a recent good paper in the journal you happen to be sending your manuscript to.