Wordy, wooden, weak-verbed

A piece in today’s Times Higher, on the flaws of academic writing styles, struck a chord with me.  It says:

If you have ever needlessly added the term “Foucauldian” to a journal article or bludgeoned readers by starting an epic sentence with reference to the “post-Mendel application of Lamarck’s apparently superseded scientific theory by non-empirical social scientists”, then you have followed the trend for “wordy, wooden, weak-verbed” writing that dominates academic prose.

When editing text from scientists I seem to be forever adding verbs to sentences, or teasing apart dense clusters of adjectival nouns. I was beginning to think there was something wrong with me, so it was nice to see that I am not alone in struggling to read that kind of writing.

Of course when you are trying to boil down a 3,000 word article into a thick 1500 syrup, for Nature or similar, then the style can end up spare and unforgiving. Authors burn off any excess verbiage in order to meet the demands of the prestige journal.

When you are unconstrained by word limits, though, why not try putting back some of those missing connecting words that aid comprehension. Strive for sentences in the style

The cat sat on the mat

Avoid what the Times Higher article describes as “dull titles, formulaic structures, dull, passive prose and multisyllabic, abstract nouns.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we slip from print through to electronic information resources.
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5 Responses to Wordy, wooden, weak-verbed

  1. I once tried to edit a paper for a friend. I came to the conclusion that it was simply incomprehensible on any level. I ‘think’ I managed a little improvement but not much. It still made no sense whatsoever unless you had a working knowledge of the research and the various people involved and were one of the team as it were. My sympathies to anybody rash enough to try reading this stuff!

    There is good writing out there but it certainly isn’t common.

    viv in nz

  2. rpg says:

    “it was nice to see that I am alone in struggling to read that kind of writing.”

    I think there’s a negative missing there, somewhere.

    Yes, please. More of “The cat sat on the mat”-type of sentence. And in fact, writing like that users fewer words, I find. Small is beautiful. It is possible to be clear, concise, and come in under the word count–it just takes a bit of skill and a lot of practice.

  3. Frank says:

    Oops, thanks. I have added the missing ‘not”. I think there is a version of sod’s law that says whenever you write something critical of other people’s writing, you will slip up yourself.

  4. I have myself done the 4,000 word epic to 1,500 word Nature Genetics reduction. The result, though a model of brevity, is not quite as nice a read as I’d like. But generally, I am wholly in agreement with you. It can be astonishing how easy it is to recover a page or two from a grant application simply by trimming unnecessary words.

    Not that I have any very recent experience with that, oh no no no.

  5. Frank says:

    I guess there are two contrary effects here. 1. Removing words that are inserted for embellishment or in a foolish attempt to add weight. 2. Ensuring that sentences are grammatical and that words which aid comprehension are not omitted.

    Richard W and RIchard G both suggest that a clear writing syle can be achieved without excess length, so that effect 2 seems to outweigh effect 2.

    I just looked up “Foucauldian” in PubMed and found 129 instances. Top of the list comes the journal Soc Sci Med. I don’t think it crops up often in molecular biology papers.

    Today’s interesting item on writing in the Times Higher is a review of the book “Stylish Academic Writing”. I found it somewhat perplexing.