By Cally Guerin
Many years ago, I wrote a PhD thesis that used French psychoanalytic and postmodern theory. It may have been the translation of the texts, but I found it necessary to read, and re-read and re-read again before I even began to understand the concepts, let alone learn how to work with them. Part of my difficulty was the cultural preference in those texts for long, convoluted sentence structures; another part was the slow process of becoming familiar with a new vocabulary.
However, it took many years before I started to recognise that sometimes when I couldn’t understand a piece of writing, the problem lay in the writing rather than me.
There are plenty of jokes about how obscure academic writing can be. Many readers will be familiar with the Bad Writing Contest from the 1990s; or have read Steven Pinker’s diatribe on how and why academic writing stinks. As Pat Thomson points out, this kind of writing is an easy target. But you undoutedly know what these critics mean – those sentences with very long noun groups, filled with abstract nouns or ‘nominalisations’ and lots of punctuation.
So, given the poor reputation of academic writing, how should we best advise doctoral candidates to strike the right balance in their writing? Continue reading