I had a forehead slap moment last Tuesday when I was proofreading a letter my wife had written to a military officer. She’s doing some research on families of Army National Guardsmen who have deployed, and she needed to write a letter to an officer to keep the research on track. She asked me to proofread it because I can put on the military hat and look at her writing through the eyes of the person she was writing for.
So I put on the hat and took a quick look at the message. She wrote it in Mail.app, and all I initially saw was about 10 paragraphs composed of four or five long sentences. No headings, no sub-bullets…just a lot of paragraphs and a lot of big words. The alarms went off, because I knew there was no way in hell that her letter was going to be read thoroughly. It was just too unapproachable for her audience, and furthermore, he likely would have been reading it on a Crackberry.
I begin to restructure the message a bit, and noticed something very interesting: the key point to be gleaned from a paragraph was at the bottom of the paragraph. I thought about it a bit more, and it dawned on me: that’s why people have trouble reading academic writing.
Look at some of the better posts you’ve read online recently and see how they flow. They generally start with a key idea at the head and have a few sentences that flesh that idea out. Lists are paradigmatic of this structure; an item is introduced and qualified, an item is introduced and qualified, rinse and repeat. Slap an introductory paragraph (which starts with the key idea of the post) and a concluding paragraph (which may still start with the key idea of the post) and you have the post structure that makes up 75% of most blogs, this one included.
Academic writing is usually just the opposite of that structure. We’ll start with a transition sentence that gets the reader from the previous paragraph into the one we’re currently on. We’ll spend a few sentences constructing and qualifying the idea and finish the paragraph with the topic sentence. Non-academic paragraph structure descends from key ideas to their supporting ideas, whereas academic paragraph ascends from supporting ideas to the key idea. So, when people feel like they have to wade through an entire paragraph to get a point in academic writing, it’s because, in fact, they do have to wade through the entire paragraph to get to the point.
For a case in point, look at the structure of the following paragraph:
Aquinas’s motivation for advancing the Doctrine of Double Effect comes from his absolutist ethical perspective. One of the counter-intuitive results of absolutist ethical systems, in general, is that they deem as impermissible acts that many reasonable people find intuitively permissible. If one is never allowed to harm another person, then an agent cannot defend herself in cases where she is threatened, despite the folk intuition that people are morally permitted to defend themselves when they are unjustly threatened. Aquinas is attempting to make room for folk intuition while still holding onto the idea that it’s wrong to harm people–so he moves the discussion from what one does to what one intends to do. So, it turns out for Aquinas that the general moral prohibition against harming other people is, at best, misstated; the general moral prohibition should be against intentionally harming other people, and his theory attempts to flesh out conditions for something counting as an intentional harm.
This paragraph is an excerpt from one of my more readable philosophical essays. You can probably figure out that the paragraph before this one talks about Aquinas’s absolutist ethical perspective. The sentences in between are run-ups to the final point that “the general moral prohibition [against harming people] should be against intentionally harming other people.”
I have looked through a few representative samples of academic writing and my writing is not idiosyncratic in structure. It’s a product of the academic culture, and we train people to write this way and reinforce that training through the academic rewards structure.
I worry, though, that we are doing them a disservice, for we are training and rewarding a writing style that doesn’t translate well outside of our ivory towers. Furthermore, we may be doing ourselves a disservice, since we then have to struggle with our own writing once we’re out of the academic bubble.
It took me awhile last week to translate my wife’s letter. (I dropped it into a word processor to save it as a PDF, and it wound up being 2.5 pages, single-spaced). In the end, we compromised and just bolded the key idea, since there was really no way to restructure her letter without a massive rewrite. The ironic thing about the letter was that it was a very, very well written letter…if it were going to an academic audience.