Friday, October 30, 2015

Eschew obfuscation: write clearly

There's an article in the Atlantic about the "needless complexity of academic writing". Apart from learning that there's a Plain Writing Act (who says Congress is gridlocked!), I wasn't too surprised by the points made. Yes, academic writing can be turgid and yes, part of this is because we want to "impress the reviewers", and no academics can't be coerced into changing the way they do things - at least not easily.

Steven Pinker has proposed an alternate theory of why academic writing is so jargon-heavy. Paraphrasing from the Atlantic article:
Translation: Experts find it really hard to be simple and straightforward when writing about their expertise. He calls this the “curse of knowledge” and says academics aren’t aware they’re doing it or properly trained to identify their blindspots—when they know too much and struggle to ascertain what others don’t know. In other words, sometimes it’s simply more intellectually challenging to write clearly.
For me, blogging has always been a way out of this blind spot. First of all, I can be more conversational and less stilted. Secondly, even if I'm writing for a technical audience, I'm forced to pare down the jargon or go crazy trying to render it.

But I wonder how hard it really is for experts to write clearly about their work. I wonder this because these same experts who write prose that you can clobber an elephant with are remarkably colorful and vivid when describing their work in person, on a board, or at a conference (though not at a talk itself: that's another story).

While it's common to assume that the obfuscation is intentional (STOC papers need to be hard!), I think it's more a function of deadline-driven writing and last-minute proof (or experiment) wrangling.

I'm thinking about this because I'm planning to run a seminar next semester that I'm calling 'Reading with Purpose'. More on that in a bit...

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