Commentary

Professor, Your Writing Could Use Some Help

October 26, 2015

How well do faculty members write for the general public? As part of a larger research project on college outreach, I sought the opinions of writing experts. The following three statements represent the range of the opinions obtained:

  • "The authors we typically work with — academics — have difficulty writing for a trade [i.e., public] audience. To retrain them to write for a wider audience can be quite excruciating." (editor at a major American university press)
  • "Academic writers often struggle to find the ‘trade voice.’ Though it may sound perverse to say so, most scholars know too much to write well for a trade readership." (former editor in chief of a major American university press)
  • "The writing of most professors is just so boring." (former editor in chief of a prominent division of Random House)

There are exceptions, of course, even great ones. But I kept hearing similar comments from experts on publishing’s front lines. Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism at the time, spoke of the need for public writing "… to develop a narrative with richly descriptive scenes, realistic dialog, and an arc that builds and resolves tension." He continued, "Most university faculty haven’t a clue about these things. Writing for the public is a craft, and learning it takes a tremendous amount of time and hard work. It’s like learning the violin; you have to practice hard every day, and after you’ve learned it, you need to keep practicing or you lose it."

These comments made sense to me, given how young academics typically learn to write about their field of research. They compose the Ph.D. thesis and submit it to their faculty adviser or advisers, from whom they receive critical comments for editing. Those advisers, in their time, did the same. But who among them has taken the equivalent of Lemann’s violin lessons? Who, for instance, might have taken an intensive course in the writing of creative nonfiction, and then kept practicing so as not to "lose it"?

On Writing

Steven Pinker has made the case that — along with wearing earth tones and driving Priuses — professors can be identified by their bad writing. The rise of this opaque technical language, academese, is not a spontaneous occurrence; in fact, it has deep roots in the psychology of academe.

You can probably think of a colleague, a grad student, or a friend who could use a little straight talk on the subject.

That’s why we’ve compiled a collection for Chronicle subscribers, downloadable below. In it, Pinker diagnoses what ails academic writing, and four experts offer advice on potential cures.

Downloading is simple: Click here.

Some academics argue that they are meant to write for other academics, not for the general public. Clearly, though, both types of writing are possible. Because faculty members are the world’s outstanding experts in a wide range of fields, surely some effort can — and should — be made to inform the world, and to do so in a manner that the world would find engaging.

Here is a simple way that a significant improvement in faculty writing for the general public could come about at any college: Develop a night course in creative nonfiction writing, specifically for professors.

Such a course might meet weekly for a period of two years — enough time to perfect the necessary writing skills. The subjects might include the writing of popular articles, books, even scripts for radio, television, and film. The best writing coming out of the course could appear weekly as a column in the campus newspaper, a local paper, or a blog. The course would be taught by faculty members already on campus, in departments of English, fine arts, writing, journalism, or communications, or by editors at a university press.

How might such courses, if offered by a number of American universities, affect academe’s outreach to the public? One might expect within just a few years a noticeable increase in the number and quality of publications sharing academic knowledge with a broad readership. By the end of a decade, the campus-to-public bridge might have become significantly strengthened. This would not only constitute a generous gift to the nation but also would very likely give back to academe in the form of increased public respect, and perhaps even public support.

Unaware whether such courses already exist, I asked faculty members in departments of English, fine arts, and writing at Cornell, Stanford, Yale, and the Universities of Iowa and North Carolina if they knew of any such program at any university. None of the 53 respondents had ever heard of such a program.

One said, "Universities tend to assume that faculty no longer need help with writing, or perhaps that no one outside their fields is qualified to provide such help." Another wrote, "My gut instinct is that if I were to suggest that any professor of whatever discipline could benefit by having his prose improved, it would spatter all over the fan."

Many colleges have writing centers where students, including those finishing Ph.D.s, can obtain advice and guidance. In some of these, faculty members can drop in for advice. For example, in Australia, the Writing Centre for Scholars and Researchers, at the University of Melbourne, operated by one writing instructor and one assistant, trains about 60 Ph.D.s, postdocs, and faculty members per year in writing for the public.

So we know it can be done. Now we just need to get more colleges to actually do it.

Jeff Camhi is a professor emeritus of biology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of A Dam in the River: Releasing the Flow of University Ideas (Algora Publications, 2013).

Correction (10/27/2015, 11 a.m.): This article originally left the impression that Nicholas Lemann is the current dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. It has been changed to indicate that Mr. Lemann is a former dean.