In academic writing, inscrutability is often treated as a virtue. I have a few theories:
- “Smarter than thou.” Ever been at a talk where someone asks a “question” that’s just a transparent way to prove that they know a lot? And that they know big words, too? It’s annoying. For writers, the logic often seems: if the piece technically makes sense, but no one else can make sense of it, you must be the smartest person in the journal. You may be revered for your brilliance, but no one’s going to actually talk about your work. Readers will be too afraid to admit they don’t understand it (and too unsure about whether you do).
- Tone-deafness. This might, more kindly, be called the expertise problem. In essence, you, the author, know this stuff backward and forward. You may start assuming everyone else does, too. Alternatively, you’ve simply read it all so many times you can no longer see the gaps in your logic or spot places that just plain don’t make sense.
- Longer is better. In trying to cover all the bases, you go too far, accidentally creating 5th base and a watering hole somewhere in left field. Looking for a thorough lit. review, an overview of the thinking in the field, and presenting many opportunities for future researchers, you find yourself at 25 pages, when your point could have been made—and made well—in 10.
As an editor and sometime “translator” of ivory-tower-talk, I also have a few suggestions:
- It’s your job to communicate. Identify your audience and speak to them. If you really don’t believe your work needs to be read outside the academy, by all means, mire yourself in theory and let the reader figure it out. But if you’re trying to go further, call a non-professor friend (or your mom) and tell them what your paper or book is about. Ideally, record this conversation. In a nutshell, what you’ve just explained to a non-expert is both your abstract and your outline. Now get to writing.
- This one’s pretty easy: find someone (anyone!) who hasn’t read your paper, and ask them to read it. All they need to do is make a little hash mark where something doesn’t quite make sense or where they simply pause while reading. It’s not their job to figure out what tripped them up, but letting you know where the stumbling blocks lay is invaluable work. Give them a cookie and a shout-out in the acknowledgments—they deserve it. Alternatively, bite the bullet and hire an editor. For a couple hundred bucks, you can get your prose detangled and your bibliography spiffed up. After all, others in your field are just going to check if they’re cited before they even read the paper… you might want to get those citations right.
- Brevity conveys confidence, and confident prose inspires confidence in the readers. Follow that old canard, “Your writing should be like a pair of shorts: long enough to cover the business, short enough to keep things interesting” (I paraphrase). When you strip away the unnecessary bits, your argument can shine, and your readers will feel positive that you know what you’re talking about. To go one step further, be sure there are a few quotable sentences that really sum up the paper and place them prominently in the abstract, at the start and end of sections, or as the first or last sentence of the entire paper.
- I think we can all agree calls for future research are superfluous. It’s science: there’s always more research to be done.
Honestly, all of this advice comes down to one standard: reader clarity. If you’re taking the time to write about something, ideally that means it’s important to you and you think it should be important to others. Speak to them, tell them the story, and please, please, don’t hide the point. None of this is to say you should dumb down your work, just be confident enough in what you’re saying to do it plainly. Now, on to the Roundup!
“Visualizing Punishment,” by Sarah Shannon and Chris Uggen. In which we get a bracing look at U.S. incarceration trends across time, states, and populations.
Citings & Sightings:
“Demography is Democrats’ Destiny?” by John Ziegler. In which a rising Hispanic population puts the GOP on the ropes.
“Slow Down to Pick Up the Pace,” by Andrew Wiebe. In which we get sage advice: take a nap.
“William Alexander on Fantasy and the Social World,” by Kyle Green. In which we talk to a celebrated author about the relationship between fiction and society.
“Jeopardy?” by Suzy McElrath. In which new sociolinguistic research gets the lowdown on uptalk.
“Measuring ‘Good Fit’ in Hiring,” by Shannon Golden. In which Lauren Rivera measures the murky process of choosing a colleague.
“International Criminal Justice,” by Hollie Nyseth Brehm. In which we use videos and transcripts from the International Criminal Court to stimulate classroom discussion.
A Few from The Community Pages:
- Sociological Images. Stuff we learned about the U.S. this week: We’re number four! In plastic surgery, at least. We forget we’re at war. We’re totally thrown off by throwing with the “wrong hand.” We are becoming more diverse on a diverse set of measures. And we can’t stop gendering everything. Even pasta.
- ThickCulture. Jose Marichal on sincerity, statistics, and sports (and homophobia).
- Graphic Sociology. Trash island? It’s hard to imagine, but there are still ways to illustrate it.
- Cyborgology. Looking forward to the Theorizing the Web 13 Conference, Cyborgology also found the time to keep us from worrying about the transparent/surveillance future (who’s scurred?) and consider trust and visibility on Facebook and beyond.
Scholars Strategy Network:
“The Business of Egg and Sperm Donation,” by Rene Almeling. Is this like when my grandma told me not to “give it away”?
“Money Matters—For All Schoolchildren,” by Melissa F. Weiner. The title says it all!