On Resistance to Better Academic Writing

A recent Facebook post by John Sloop asked why academic writing isn’t better–more creative, more varied, more polished. This has been on my mind lately, as I spent a month in March with the copyedits to Diminished Faculties. On one hand, the book is very intentionally academic. With A Political Phenomenology of Impairment as a subtitle, you’re not going to get an airport bestseller. On the other, I view copyedits for books as the time to really refine the writing; to make it as “good” as possible. “Good” in this case means didactic–getting my point across. It also means avoiding cliches, using purposeful metaphors (and a lot of them), having good “hooks” going in and out of chapters, and moving the stories along. But “good” also involves undoing some of my writerly tics–I have a bit too much love for the em-dash and the parenthetical phrase. And some sentences just had words in there that didn’t add anything to the sentence. I was probably typing and thinking at the same time. It happens.

So for me, this meant going through the copyeditor’s query, farming out a fresh read to an RA who hadn’t read the manuscript before, and then rereading the whole thing myself slowly and critically, editing vigorously based on these three reads (the copyeditor, my RA, me) and rewriting some stuff. I also have stylistic goals of clarity and active voice whenever possible. Basically, I would like to write like a midcentury American pragmatist who also has a sense of humour, and who has sometimes enjoyed hallucinogens. This has occasionally gotten me into trouble–one journal editor rewrote a bunch of my sentences to passive voice to make it sound more “sophisticated.” I fought back, but there are definitely things in that article I would change.

I don’t always go through this process with book chapters and journal articles. I wish I did, but it just doesn’t work out in terms of time. You often get copyedits or page proofs without copyedits back on a very short timeline. Which I suspect is one reason a lot of other people’s academic writing is unnecessarily unpleasant to read (and there are some zingers in things I have published, too).* Some of it is simply time-crunch and that style is not a priority in a lot of cases. Trade press editors edit for style and focus; academic presses do not offer that service (though I have had good advice from my editors).

And then there is gatekeeping. Journal articles are more heavily policed than chapters in edited books, which are more heavily policed than monograph books are. In a way, I am most free in my book writing, which is why I aim to be doing more of it versus other kinds of academic writing.

Well-written books that don’t conform to academic style are actually very attractive to university presses–they sell better. But it is also much easier to get a book contract if you have already published an academic book. It’s really tough for first time authors, especially in fields that don’t sell that well.

Also, some fields are more stylistically conservative than others. In my experience, African American studies is wide open right now stylistically, rhetorical studies when I was close to it was very concerned with policing its borders, but so is history (a field where there is tons of crossover potential). Sometimes it’s also ignorance: someone who’s never read ethnography will call it “anecdotal” (this has happened to me multiple times with reviewers of anthologies where I had a chapter). So imagine what auto theory or research-creation must look like to them. 

It’s incumbent on us tenured profs to sit on committees and review tenure cases and explain stuff to committees. This is a big part of my practice and I think we all–especially full professors–need to pitch in and be intentional about whose cases we are supporting and why.

Also, different people want different things out of their writing. Several years ago there was a big push towards multimodal publishing in the digital humanities, but we quickly learned that most emerging scholars in the field wanted to publish more traditionally because they didn’t have the extra energy or resources for more experimental formats, nor did they have tolerance for additional potential career risk.*

Writing style is a different thing, and I’ve made it a cornerstone of my graduate seminar pedagogy. We do better when we recognize scholars, including ourselves, as writers, and pay careful attention to the craft.

*I am not arguing against difficulty; difficult prose is fine if the author is in command of it and the difficulty serves a purpose.

**They were also right: an alarming number of digital humanities projects from the 2010s are no longer available in any format. At least we know how to preserve books.