If the intent of writing is to analyze and express thoughts clearly, and communicate them to others, much academic writing is very, very bad. Sometimes, this may be because the writer has no real intention of being well understood; they wish their writing to be pompous and obscure. Other times, it may reflect incoherence in the ideas of the author. In other situations, it may just be the case that the topic is inherently complicated and complex. On the other hand, the writer may simply be unskilled, unclear on what it takes to craft readable, understandable prose. That can be remedied.
I once read a few pages in old book on a difficult topic. I’m not completely sure what the book was. It might have been “Foundations of Belief” by Balfour. At one point in the book, half of the page was taken up with one paragraph. That paragraph was one sentence, sub-clauses and semicolons interspersed freely. I have no idea how the author could have thought such style was suitable for conveying his thoughts. Although an extreme example, it is not untypical of much current academic writing.
It is hard to say which discipline has the worst writers. Academia has no shortage of bad examples. Since I like to explore philosophical ideas, I am most unhappy with writers of philosophy. Much of the writing is abysmal – so unreadable, so unclear.
This is something I find extremely frustrating; it could be remedied. Perhaps the arguments in philosophy are inherently difficult, but by writing with greater skill, with more clarity, the worth of the writings of philosophers would be vastly increased. There are a few philosophers who succeed at this. Most don’t.
Sometimes, the intended audience will be specialists in the author’s field of expertise. So, there will be concepts and jargon appropriate to the discipline used freely. However, no matter what the discipline, unclear writing is unclear writing. Some of the more common faults are:
- co-opting common words with a specialized and non-standard meaning
- using obscure words and generally unfamiliar words when there are words or phrases with the same meaning in more common use, more readily understandable
- use of more words than is necessary because the sentence structure is awkward
- unnecessary use of the passive voice which increases length and decreases concision and clarity
- lack of cohesion in paragraphs
- inclusion of extraneous detail
- excessive use of footnotes
- excessive use of parenthesis interrupting the flow
- run-on sentences
- too many conditional phrases
- forgetting that full stops, i.e. the period, are available.
There are many books on the craft of writing; clearly many authors have not studied this material.