Stylish Academic Writing |Steven Pinker | Office of Faculty Development & Diversity
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Stylish Academic Writing |Steven Pinker | Office of Faculty Development & Diversity


STEVEN PINKER: Thank you. The invitation to
this conference summarized its theme
in words that I think that Helen wrote, “Pick up
any guide to effective writing and what will you find? Probably some version
of the same advice that Strunk and White offered
in the 1950s,” which I think actually dates back to
the 19-teens from course lectures from Professor Strunk. “Engage your reader’s
attention through examples, illustrations, and anecdotes. Use clear, precise language
to express complex ideas. Avoid obfuscating jargon. Favor active verbs
and concrete nouns. Write with conviction,
passion, and verve. Pick up a peer-reviewed
journal in just about any academic discipline
and what will you find? Impersonal, stodgy,
jargon-laden prose that ignores or defies most,
if not all, of the principles listed above.” Absolutely. And I’m going to follow the
implicit advice in that passage by engaging my
listeners’ attention through some examples. To define the problem
that we are dealing with, here are just a half
a dozen examples that I have
collected from papers of students and colleagues. All of us have read
passages like this. Some of us have written
passages like this. Quote, “Most
importantly, there is a lot of variability in
this population regarding the level of
linguistic difficulty that is being
exhibited,” which means children differ a lot in
their language problems. “In fact, it is most likely
impossible to prove causality between violence in media and
violent behavior in children, and only a small
amount of correlation has been shown through studies.” That is, it’s
impossible to prove that violence in the media
causes violence in children. The two are not even
strongly correlated. “Genetic influences are implied
when non-adoptive siblings who share approximately 50%
of their segregating genes are more similar than
adoptive siblings.” Translation, if
biological siblings who share half their
variable genes are more similar than
adoptive siblings who share none of their variable
genes, then genes must matter. “Comprehension checks were
used as exclusion criteria.” Translation, we excluded
participants who did not understand the task. Finally, “Gilbert,
et al, asked subjects to learn a fictitious vocabulary
by reading assertions, e.g. A [? manishna ?] is an
armadillo, whose veracity was either affirmed or denied
by the subsequent presentation of an assessment word.” Which means that people
in this experiment looked at a computer
screen, the computer screen said a [? manishna ?]
is an armadillo, it disappeared, and then
the word True or False appeared on the screen. Now, by the way, the locution,
the subsequent presentation of an assessment word
is a wonderful example of what Helen has
dubbed a zombie noun. That is, a nominalization,
the conversion of a verb to a noun that reifies
or thingifies a process, and which we, academics,
are all too fond of. So the question is, why are
we so prone to passives, abstractions, and zombie
nouns, all of these sins that we point out over and over
again, but that so many of us can’t avoid using? Now, the most common
explanation appeals to motives, to nefarious motives. That academics, and bureaucrats,
and legal scholars, and so on, want to affect an
impression of expertise, they want to sound
sophisticated and [INAUDIBLE], and so they try to
bamboozle their readers with highfalutin verbiage. And I think there’s no
doubt that this happens, but I don’t think that it is the
principal explanation for why so much academic writing stinks. For one thing, I
think it’s just not all that plausible for
so many mediocre writers. These are perfectly
unpretentious, ordinary people. You can have a beer with them. And I think it’s probably
unfair to accuse them of trying to impress others. Also, it gets us off the hook. It’s like, it makes it too
easy for us to say, well, I wouldn’t just try to
use opaque language just to impress. I’m a regular person. And it makes it easy to
overlook the mental habits that lead us, for completely innocent
reasons, to write so poorly. I think a more complete
explanation would appeal to a mismatch between
ordinary thinking and speaking and what we have
to do as academics. And I’ll illustrate this
with three principles, which I call your inner primate,
the curse of knowledge, and the difference between
naive realism and postmodernist self-consciousness. So let me go through
each one of them. To begin with, we are primates. This is a zoological
fact, but it is also an important principle to
remember as we compose writing. Our minds did not
evolve to think thoughts about sociology or literary
analysis or cosmology. Our minds evolved to
deal with– to understand the world through vision,
through space, through force, through motion. Things get pushed. They go clunk. They move from one
place to another. Everything else is a
learned abstraction. Now, we are– the mind
is capable of making those abstractions, but it
requires a particular history, which we can see, we
can reverse engineer, through the ubiquitous
metaphors in our language. We say, inflation rose in July. What exactly do we see
or experience or feel when we use that sentence? Well, it’s highly abstract. We all understand it, thanks
to two concrete metaphors, inflation, increase in size,
and rise, change in position. These distributions
have thick tails. That is a way of describing
a mathematical property of a power-law distribution. To distribute, of
course, is to scatter, to put in numerous places. A tail is a concrete object. They can be thick or thin. Ethnic tensions are flaring up. Again, you could
walk down the street and never actually
see an ethnic tension, let alone it flaring up,
but we understand that, because we have the metaphor
of tension, of, say, two people pulling on a
rope, and another metaphor of something that is cool
suddenly bursting into flame. And by the way, notice
that each one of these has a mixed metaphor, which
shows that although there were historical origins in
these locutions in terms of concrete experience, we have
packaged them so well that we forget what the original
metaphor is, allowing us to mix our metaphors. So this is an encapsulation
of what we do as, not just as academics, but
as thinkers, as citizens, as people who read
Newsweek magazine. We take a concrete
event, so ethnic tension might be the Irish
kid throws a rock at the window of
the Italian store, but then we take that
event and hundreds like it, and we package it into
a single cognitive unit– cognitive psychologists
call this process, chunking– and then we build more complex
chunks out of assemblies of simpler chunks. We abstract away from
the concrete particulars, so that a rise in
emotion can be analogized to arise in a physical flame. And then we pick a noun
and we label the chunk. We do this so often,
we don’t realize how much of our vocabulary
consists of applying nouns to highly abstract ideas,
which, fortunately, we can then manipulate. We can feed them into
still more abstract ideas with things like causality,
variability, difficulty, genetic influences,
comprehension checks, exclusion criteria, criteria, presentation
of an assessment word. Each one of those
particular expert in a discipline or, for that
matter, even a literate adult, has already mastered
as a simple unit in their mental vocabulary. Now, the power from
that comes from the fact that you don’t have to
work backwards every time and remind yourself
of what exactly has to take place in
the world for something to count as an ethnic tension. The problem is that this leads
to the opposite of ideal prose, particularly when your
reader or your listener may not have packaged a
complicated series of events into the same chunks. You might use a chunk that
is overlearned, perfectly clear to you, but if someone
else hasn’t recapitulated the process of packaging
their experience into that abstraction,
they, in the worst case, may have no idea what
you’re talking about, in the best case, be expending
so much cognitive effort to reconstruct what
went into that chunk, they have little left
over to understand the rest of the passage. This brings me to
the second principle for why academic prose
is so systematically bad and it is another psychological
phenomenon sometimes called the curse of knowledge. That is, it is very
difficult to imagine what it’s like not to know
something that you do know. Now, the curse of knowledge
was actually first discovered in children, where it goes
by the name of, sometimes, deficient theory of mind or
difficulty in mentalizing. That is, in knowing about
someone else’s mental state, acting as an intuitive
psychologist or a folk psychologist and trying to
figure out what’s going on in someone else’s minds. Children are bad at that when
the content of someone else’s mind differs from the
content of their own mind. Classic experiment. You show children
a box of M&M’s. They open it up. There are pencils inside. The child is surprised. You say, well, Jason is
going to come into the room. What does he think
is in the box? And the child will say, pencils. Now, Jason, of
course, had no way of knowing that the M&M
box has pencils in it. The child, himself or herself,
didn’t know until a minute ago that the box had pencils
instead of M&M’s. But the child, now
knowing it, can’t imagine that someone
else doesn’t know it, even if they had no way
of figuring that out. Now, we can’t get too
smug, because we adults are prone to exactly
the same shortcoming. We’re apt to forget that our own
chunks, our own abstractions, which we laboriously learned in
our intellectual autobiography, not everyone else
may have learned. There’s an old joke about
the joke tellers convention. Stop me if you’ve heard this. But a comedian
invites a friend along to the annual
convention of comedians and sits in the audience,
anticipating an evening of rip-roaring hilarity. And what happens is that each
comedian gets on the stage and says, 347. Uproarious laughter. Then someone else
gets up and says, 212. Everyone giggles hysterically. Friend says to the
comedian, what is this? This doesn’t seem funny. And he says, well, you see,
we’ve heard these jokes so many times that we save the
trouble of actually telling the joke by just referring
to them by their number. And so the punchline actually
is not relevant to my point. But anyway, the friend
goes up and he tries. And he goes up and he says, 417. Silence. 512. Nothing. He sort of slinks
off in humiliation. He said, I was dying up there. What happened? And the friend says, well, it’s
all in the way you tell it. Now, that isn’t the
point of the anecdote. The point is that all of us
are a bit like the comedians at the comedian convention. That is, we refer to
things by abbreviations, forgetting that other people
have not learned them. Finally, there’s a third
reason for bad academic prose and that is that
there’s a mismatch between the optimal mental model
of prose communication, what you ought to have in
mind as you communicate, and what we actually
do as academics. Writing is a highly
unnatural human activity and academic writing is
more unnatural still. There is an unknown audience. They are distant
in time and space. Talking about things
that none of us have experienced in common. And I think the
problem is all the more acute for graduate students,
who I– people often ask me, you must see a lot
of awful writing among your undergraduates. And the answer is, no. The answer is that the
truly horrendous writing comes from graduate students. The reason being, I think,
that they are suddenly immersed in this world in
which everyone knows so much. Everyone seems to
know everything and so you just
don’t know who you’re informing of what, since
everyone just seems so knowledgeable except you. And it’s very hard to
gauge, and in fact, easy to overestimate how much
knowledge your reader has. But just getting back to the
third reason for the awfulness of academic prose. Given this inherent difficulty
that you’re not really engaging in any natural
form of communication, you have to have a model,
a fictitious model, of how you should be
pretending to communicate. And my favorite model of this
comes from a wonderful book by Mark Turner and Francis-Noel
Thomas called Clear and Simple as the Truth,
which outlines what they call classic style,
a tacit model of the prose communication process that
they recommend as an ideal. The model, that is, the
fictitious, pretend kind of communication that you
aspire to in this style is joint attention. That is, the writer
orients the reader to something in the world
which the reader can see with his or her own eyes. The goal is to help
the reader see reality. The style is conversation. The classic style model has
in it a number of assumptions. The assumptions are
that truth can be known. That prose is a window into
an objectively existing world. That the thought can stand
alone and precedes the word. Writing is not thinking. That thoughts are
concrete images. An agent applies
force to an object, an object moves or stays put. In that sense, classic prose
is the opposite of anything that is relativist, ironic,
romantic, post-modern, or self-conscious. It’s a model of communication
that is realist, indeed, naive realist. There is an external world. Anyone can see it. The purpose of
prose communication is to get someone
else to see something that is objectively out there. Now, this is highly congenial
to the worldview of a scientist and it is pretty much the worst
nightmare to a post-modernist. And this might even help
explain why, I think, so much of the clearest
prose from academics is often from
science popularizers. I know Helen did a survey
of academic journals. I don’t think science
came out so well. But I think our clearest
prose stylists nowadays are people like Richard
Dawkins and Brian Greene, who try to convey
science to the public. And I think there’s a
systematic reason for that. Namely, the mental
model of the scientist is pretty close to the ideal
model for good prose, at least according to the theory
of Turner and Thomas. So let me just give
you an example. Again, always illustrate
your abstract ideas with concrete examples. This is from an article by
the cosmologist Brian Greene and I’ll just read it to you. “In 1915, Einstein
published the general theory of relativity, which was the
culmination of a 10-year search to understand the
force of gravity. The theory was a marvel
of mathematical beauty, providing equations that
could explain everything from the motion of planets to
the trajectory of starlight with stupendous accuracy. Within a few short years,
additional mathematical analyses concluded that
space itself is expanding, dragging each galaxy
away from every other. Though Einstein
at first strongly resisted the startling
implication of his own theory, observations of
deep space made by the great American astronomer
Edwin Hubble in 1929 confirmed it. And before long,
scientists reasoned that if space is now expanding,
then at ever earlier times, the universe must
have been smaller. At some moment in the
distant past, everything we now see, the
ingredients responsible for every planet, every star,
every galaxy, even space itself, must have
been compressed to an infinitesimal speck
that then swelled outward, evolving into the
universe as we know it. The Big Bang Theory was born. During the decades
that followed, the theory would receive
overwhelming observational support. Yet scientists were aware that
the Big Bang Theory suffered from a significant shortcoming. Of all things, it
leaves out the bang. Einstein’s equations
do a wonderful job of describing how the universe
evolved from a split second after the bang,
but the equations break down, similar to
the error message returned by a calculator when
you try to divide 1 by 0, when applied to
the extreme environment of the universe’s
earliest moment. The Big Bang thus
provides no insight into what might have
powered the bang itself.” Now, this is not fancy prose. It’s not poetic. It’s not inspiring. But it is quite
astonishing in conveying highly abstract
ideas, nothing less than the history
of the universe, and the history of the last 50
years of theoretical cosmology, what the problem with
the theory is now that scientists are
attempting to deal with, in utterly transparent prose. Now, despite that
built-in advantage that I think science
has, even scientists have to be a bit post-modern. That is, when you do
science– although notice how Greene conveyed the history
of cosmology in classic style. There was a great
deal of confidence in the way he described things. There was very little
hedging or uncertainty. And you really
feel, when you read that prose, like you’re standing
next to him and he’s saying, look at that, look at that,
look at that, look at that. Now, of course, this
is entirely fictitious, because even the most
realist scientist has something in common
with a post-modernist. Namely, convictions such as,
it’s hard to know the truth. The world doesn’t just
reveal itself to us. None of us is objective. Objectivity, in
fact, is elusive. We understand the world
through our own theories and constructs. They are not just pictures
or images, but sets of verbal propositions. And our ways of trying
to understand the world must be constantly
scrutinized, examined, and purged of error and bias. Now, these precepts are what
any scholar has to always have in mind, but even
though they are the reality, they are all poisonous
to clear prose style. That is, many sins
of academic writing are actually
accurate reflections of this self-conscious,
ironic, meta aware, post-modernist stance
that even the most realist scientist has to live with. And I’ll just give
you– again, I’m going to follow Helen’s
advice, and all of our advice, and I’m going to be
concrete by what I mean. So for example, what makes
academic prose so turgid? Well, one part is,
one ingredient, is the focus on the activity
of studying something, of the writer’s job or clique or
peer group or daily activities, as opposed to the
thing in the world that you are writing about. I’ll give you an example
from my own field. Paper– that all too
familiar opening. “In recent years, an increasing
number of researchers have turned their attention to
the problem of child language acquisition. In this article, recent
theories of this process will be reviewed.” We’ve all heard
that, but notice it has nothing to do with the
actual phenomenon of interest. It’s all about what the people
who study child language do. A much better
beginning would be, “All children acquire the
ability to speak and understand a language. How do they
accomplish this feat?” A second sin of
academic writing, and again, this comes from the
necessary self-consciousness of a scholar, but again, is
poisonous to clear prose, is metadiscourse, writing
about the writing. My first book for
Harvard University Press, I had a copy editor
who warned me about the academician’s habit
of metadiscourse and excessive signposting. We tend to mistakenly think
that to help orient the reader, we keep having to place
signposts, telling the reader what we’re going
to do, what we just did, what we’re going to
do next, such as, and again, this ought
to sound familiar. “We have just reviewed
structuralist theories. Next, it will be
necessary to summarize functionalist theories. But first, constructionist
theories must be discussed.” The problem being
that the reader has to expend so much effort
understanding the signposting that they have totally lost
track of the actual narrative. Yet another problem is
excessive apologizing. “The problem of
language acquisition is extremely complex. It is difficult to give
precise definitions of the concept of language
and the concept of acquisition and the concept of children. There is much uncertainty
about the interpretation of experimental data and a great
deal of controversy surrounding the theories. More research needs to be done.” Sound familiar? And finally, compulsive hedging. Somewhat, fairly, nearly,
almost, partially, relatively, comparatively, predominately,
to some extent, to a certain degree. And for me, what crystallized
this bad habit was an anecdote where a
fellow academic pulled out a photograph of her
four-year-old daughter and she said, “We
virtually adore her.” Now, this shows that the
academic’s habit of hedging has gone too far. Well, the question–
I think that one of the main challenges in
stylish academic writing is how do we resolve
the inherent discrepancy between the demands of clear
prose, which basically invoke an implicit theory of
naive realism– the truth is out there, it’s objective,
all you have to do is look and you’ll see it
with your own eyes– and the demands of reflective
scholarship– objectivity is elusive, we understand the
world through our theories, and so on. And these are not, in
fact, contradictory. Because you don’t
have to believe that all the canons of classic
prose are literally true, that the truth can be
known and so on, but rather the art is to write
as if they are true and to count on
the reader to fill in the missing hedges,
apologies, qualifications, self-conscious
remarks, and so on. That is, you can
pretty much take for granted that anyone who is
reading your academic article knows that what
you’re writing about probably has some controversy,
otherwise you wouldn’t have anything to say, knows that it’s
difficult to draw conclusions from data. That’s kind of the ground rules. You don’t have to state
it in every sentence. And in fact, human
language is only possible because the reader
or the listener naturally fills in
the lines, connects the propositions, a
process sometimes called conversational implicature. That’s a fancy jargon word
for reading between the lines, for supplying what
was not explicitly stated using common sense
and shared expectations to fill in what was not
stated in so many words. My favorite example comes
from the little bit of poetry on the shampoo bottle, wet
hair, lather, rinse, repeat. Now, when you read
those instructions, you naturally know
that you don’t have to try to wet your
hair when you repeat it, because your hair’s already wet. And the author of those words
didn’t actually state, oh, the first time, wet your hair. The second time,
you don’t have to. You know that. And also, when it
says repeat, you know that means repeat once. You don’t go into
an infinite loop, repeat over and over again. But if an academic had
written those words. So just to summarize, the
sins of academic writing, as Helen so expertly
pointed out, include zombie nouns, that
is, abstract nominalizations, excessive abstraction in
general, passive constructions, hedging, apologizing,
excessive signposting. The reasons that these
sins are so tempting are not just the attempt to
affect expertise, but also because of an inherent
mismatch between the demands of clear prose and the
activities of scholarship. Namely, the human mind
is inherently concrete and abstraction requires a
laborious process of chunking, which a reader may
not have replicated, that the curse of
knowledge makes us forget our own history
of abstract chunking, and that the mental model
underlying clear prose communication, a kind of naive
realism or joint attention, are incompatible with the actual
demands of scholarship, which depends on a certain degree of
self-consciousness, skepticism, and irony. Thanks very much. [APPLAUSE]

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