Academic Writing in Classic Style

A PhD involves reading an awful lot of what other people have written. You develop opinions on writing. Some of these opinions are quite hard to explain. They operate on an “I know it when I see it” basis.

I have recently read Steven Pinker’s work on why academic writing stinks (and how to fix it). He is a strong advocate for the classic style.

The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity.

(Pinker, 2014, pp. 28-29
An image of two people with the same Object Of Joint Attention. One of them (the writer) is attempting to explain it to the other (the reader) via a conversation.
Taken from Philosophical Disquisitions

Many people try to sound clever with their writing. This is because they’re trying to get their reader to believe them. One way to do that is to use words that the reader doesn’t understand, in order to make the reader feel that they don’t have the expertise the writer has in this area.

But on the whole I don’t believe that academics are bad people trying to deceive me. A far worse problem is that in order to keep their writing as short as they can, a writer uses terms that their readers might have to look up. I have been defeated by the TLA (three-letter acronym) and the ETLA (extended three-letter acronym) many times. The person who wrote (or even said!) them wasn’t trying to bamboozle me at all. They were pressed for time and tried to get their meaning across by invoking something that I didn’t already know. They ended up taking even more time when I asked them to please explain what a “<whatever they said>” is.

Alas, an explanation of a concept that can only be understood by someone who already understands the concept is a rubbish explanation. I find that this is often a problem with Zen proverbs. Here’s a Zen proverb:

“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh

This is using an example of tea-drinking to tell you to slow down and enjoy life. I, as somebody who is already a fan of slowing down and enjoying life, understand and agree with it. Somebody who does not want to slow down and enjoy life is never going to understand or be convinced by something like this. So its explanatory power is really extremely limited. It’s the kind of thing that can be passed around with sage head-nods by people who already agree with it.

Of course, Zen proverbs aren’t designed to explain things you don’t know. They’re designed to remind you of things you already know. You can think of them like exam revision for the exam of life, rather than actually teaching the course.

“Proverbs are merely revision for the examination of life.”

~Kes Ward

I am currently attempting to write a literature review. The process is somewhat painful and mind-wrenching, especially for someone like me who spent my undergraduate days solving maths problems rather than writing essays. I feel as if I missed out on the formal teaching of academic writing. Reading about classic style is helping me formalize a sense I’ve developed over time but couldn’t quite put into words. It feels almost like a Zen proverb.