Saturday, September 08, 2007

The unbearable boredom in academic writing

Jonathan Wolff contrasts literary writing and academic writing to illustrate why the latter tends to be boring. Here's his key point:

Academic writing needs to be ordered, precise, and to make every move explicit. All the work needs to be done on the page rather than in the reader's head. By contrast, good literature often relies on the unsaid, or the implied or hinted at, rather than the expressed thought. But as we tell our students: you will only get a mark for it if it is written down, however obvious, and however infantile it seems to spell it out. Such discipline applies all the way through as the pressures of writing for peer-reviewed journals are much the same. To call a paper "thorough" is high praise.

And here's how he illustrates the consequence of these 'rules' of academic writing:

At least in my subject, we teach students to go sub-zero on the tension scale: to give the game away right from the start. A detective novel written by a good philosophy student would begin: "In this novel I shall show that the butler did it." The rest will be just filling in the details.