By Ann Larabee

Everyday, as a journal editor, I plow through terrible writing. I long for the days when scholars wrote well.  Scholars like Leslie Fiedler, Richard Hofstadter, Leo Marx, Janice Radway, Annette Kolodny, even the early Michel Foucault--and really anything written before 1980.   Now, most of the scholarship I read has descended into an unnecessarily dense, cryptic, abstract prose that makes me feel that I am slamming my head against an incommunicative stone wall or slogging through a mud lake.  There are familiar nervous tics: a relentless reference to the author and the writing process, a tossing about of highly abstract terms when simple ones will do, scare quotes, obsessive hyphenation, blank repetition, excessive qualification of every word and idea, and run-on sentences that begin well and then meander into the murky wood.  The authors imagine these tics to make ideas sound nuanced and important, but they merely hide either insecurity or an incoherent mentalese.  Many editors have given up, so that now the tics have spread through all of scholarly prose. For the sake of every hardworking editor who is destroying her own grey matter trying to get through these terrible essays, I offer this advice. Examples have been thinly disguised to protect the guilty.

1.  Avoid referring to your own writing process.  Purge first person of this kind, and don’t merely replace "I" with "this paper." (For the uninitiated and ungrammatical:  "we" is first person!)

"I begin with a brief introduction to the theory . . . "

"I suggest that . . . "

"I will argue that . . . "

"I uphold that . .  ."

"In the first part of the analysis I look at how . . . "

"I use So-and-so's idea to describe . . . "

"It is important to note here that I do not claim that . . . "

"By looking at X, I aim to . . . "

"I will demonstrate in my analysis . . . "

2.  Avoid the road map.  An essay of twenty-five pages doesn't require a paragraph that explains the outline of the paper ("First, I will X  . . . then, I will Y,  . . . and finally I will Z.")  The progression of X, Y, and Z should be crystal clear in the essay.  Quoting your chapter outline from your book prospectus in your book introduction is really lazy writing. I blame social scientists for the incursion of the road map, which emulates the strict formats of science writing. If you are a social scientist, you might have to adhere to providing the road map, but I beg all of you social scientists to desist!

3.  Only Judith Butler can write like Judith Butler.  Judith Butler has a style.  If you write like Judith Butler, you are a mimic without a style and a robotic meme generator.  Develop a style.  Yes, it's excessive individualism.  That's what makes for great writing.  Think: economy and elegance. 

4.  Eliminate scare quotes. These have really grown like a fungus, I suppose from a postmodern irony.  I have had an author argue to me:  "This is what we cultural studies people do."  Just because everyone is doing it doesn't make it good. Great writing is not a bandwagon. If a word is questionable or ironic, make that clear in the text rather than expecting scare quotes to carry your meaning.  Look at these examples, and ask yourself whether the scare quotes are really necessary. What are they supposed to convey? What if someone speaking to you was air-quoting every other word? None of these quotes are identifying a source. 

X surveys a range of both “high-” and “low-brow” texts—including photography, art, films, books, and television. 

The thrift "movement" is reflective of a larger social trend. 

This model presumes an unchanging and "correct" grammar. 

They wanted to see the potential of X fully explored, in a manner that would be "true to the original" and "authentic," a "re-imagining" of the old. 

What cyborgs "really are" is a question posed by the show. 

5.  Try to eliminate wordy negatives. For example, replace " The Xs do not participate in such orgiastic pastimes" with "the Xs eschew such orgiastic pastimes." Replace "he plans not on watching the film but on necking with his girlfriend" with "he plans to neck with his girlfriend rather than watching the film."  When you are tempted to use the word "not," take a deep breath and take out the red pen.

6.  Avoid "it is" to begin a sentence.  Replace "It is in the shadow of these overwhelming accusations that X has coined the term 'Y'" with "In the shadow of these overwhelming accusations, X has coined the term 'Y.'" 

7.  Whenever possible, avoid overusing qualifiers like "perhaps."  An occasional qualifier is fine and necessary, but if you are qualifying everything, then you have some rethinking to do. Have some courage.

8.  Develop a vocabulary.  Developing a vocabulary will help you avoid making up words, especially by adding "hyper-" or "post-."  Making up words adds to the rampant problem of jargon completely obscure to most readers.  

9. These words are misused and overused: utterance, genre, discourse, interrogates, reifies, ideology, dominant, hegemonic, interpellate, reality. They are often (though not always) devoid of meaning. Passages that include them now often seem like postmodern mad-libs. I'm sure my fellow editors could add many more to the list.   To correct this, ask yourself whether such an abstract term really conveys your meaning.  For example, does "genre" really convey a meaning beyond "type"? Is "ideology" used for "ideas"?  Do you really need "utterance," when you mean comments, observations, reviews, or some other more specific speech act?  Jetison the baggage.  For example, instead of "the discourses of realism," write "realism."  If you are engaged in a theoretical discussion, then, yes, it's fine to use these words.  But ask yourself, do we really need yet another discussion defining genre?  What and to whom are you hoping to communicate?


AuthorAnn Larabee