Academic writing has a bad reputation. “When a scholar’s vanity/insecurity leads him to write primarily to communicate and reinforce his own status as an Intellectual,” as David Foster Wallace diagnosed the problem nearly two decades ago, “his English is deformed by pleonasm and pretentious diction (whose function is to signal the writer’s erudition) and by opaque abstraction (whose function is to keep anybody from pinning the writer down to a definite assertion that can maybe be refuted or shown to be silly).” Indeed. But the disorders behind the kind of prose that inspires provocations like Philosophy and Literature‘s “Bad Writing Contest” are, if you believe University of Chicago Writing Programs director Larry McEnerney, even more basic than that.
“You think that writing is communicating your ideas to your readers,” McEnerney declares to a roomful of academics in the video above. “It is not.” In this 80-minute talk, titled “The Craft of Writing Effectively,” he identifies the core misconceptions that cause academic writing to be bad — or more to the point, uninteresting, uninfluential, unread. Most all of us grow up learning to write in school, where we need not give much consideration to our audience: a teacher, or in college perhaps a teaching assistant, who’s paid to read what we’ve written. But when nobody’s next meal is coming from reading our papers anymore, we come face to face with an essential mismatch between our assumed goals as a writer and the desires of an unpaid reader.
“I got no problem with somebody writing an essay because they want to think,” says McEnerney. “What I have a problem with is when they come to my office and say, ‘My readers don’t appreciate me.'” But “they don’t owe you their appreciation,” nor even their attention — not if you neglect your core task as a writer, “to change the way your readers think.” This has little to do with the task of writing back in school, which involved the presentation of your ideas and knowledge in exchange for a grade. To produce “clear, organized, persuasive, and valuable” writing, to McEnerney’s mind, you must “identify the people with power in your community and give them what they want,” which necessitates mastering the “code” of that community.
This doesn’t simply mean sucking up to the higher-ups. While you should, of course, demonstrate familiarity with the work already accomplished in your field, you’ve also got to tell those higher-ups — who, like most anyone else, read to have their ideas changed — that something they know is wrong. This requires saving the explanation of your subject for later, after first setting up a problem with the language of instability (words like “but,” “however,” “inconsistent,” and “anomaly”), then offering your own solution. You can see these and other techniques in use, as well as examples of what not to do, in the lecture’s PDF handout. Are there valid objections to McEnerney’s view of writing? He acknowledges that there are, such as as the moral critique mounted by critical theorist Homi K. Bhabha, then a professor at the University of Chicago — and also, as it happens, a second-placer in the Bad Writing Contest.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.