The Chronicle Review

Prune That Prose

Learning to write for readers beyond academe

Matt Manley for The Chronicle Review

September 07, 2009

I'm in South London, in the roof garden of the beautiful flat I happened on for the summer. Huge pots of lavender, their iridescent violet flowers reaching skyward, enclose a bench perfect for writing. A tiny but robust herb garden, fragrant with sage and thyme, is off to one side. There are hedges, flowers, grasses, shrubs, even a tree, and a lush cactus garden planted to resemble the bottom of an ocean. Panoramically stretching all around is the infinite variety of London itself.

M, the flat's owner, is a landscape designer who specializes in roof gardens. Fascinated by how she's used light, wind, and plants to create an oasis above the crowded streets of Walworth, I start reading her book, Gardens in the Sky. It features this flat, among others, to illustrate points of design. Creating a peaceful, elegant, private garden with plants that can thrive in the intense wind, sun, and storms to which they are constantly exposed on a rooftop is a huge challenge. Reading M's description while sitting inside her design makes her ideas about structure and aesthetics particularly immediate and powerful.

I realize that this is what I've spent the past 10 years trying to do with prose: To write so that my ideas are sharply defined, vivid, and pleasurable. The process has required a painful unlearning of nearly all I'd been taught as a professional.

Do you ever read your prose aloud, either quietly to yourself or at a public reading of your work? Too many academics would answer no to that question. We have a kind of reverse aestheticism—if our writing is dense and unwieldy, filled with technical terms and convoluted sentences, we wear its lack of accessibility as a badge of honor.

A friend in mainstream trade publishing, who'd like nothing better than to buy books written by smart people on important topics, cringes when she spies an academic heading toward her at a party. For D and her editorial colleagues, "academic" is shorthand for "lifeless prose, cumbersome to read, filled with unnecessary complication, often disdainful and stridently obscure in style and tone." If by chance they do wind up wanting to acquire a manuscript by a faculty member, the first thing they say at the editorial meeting is: "But he doesn't write like an academic!"

I'm fascinated by the fact that we don't take this as an insult. Academics are not embarrassed by writing that's impenetrable. We're taught to feel like doctors castigated for poor penmanship. Producing turgid prose is part of how we define ourselves as professionals.

But why is that? Why don't we want to be like M, a person with deep theoretical and technical expertise, who designs her roof gardens to be both pleasing and useful? Why do academics so often have contempt for writing that appeals to a broader public?

Even so, whether we admit it or not, every writer wants to have someone say about his or her work, "I couldn't stop reading; it was riveting." But producing writing like that first requires being able to imagine really drawing people in, making them feel compelled to think about what we've said.

That would require a very different way of relating to our audience. We'd have to start caring about their interests, learning what they know and what they don't. Popular writing, by definition, invites lots of different kinds of people to invest their time and money in your ideas, and your expression of them.

The contempt that academics have toward that kind of writing is, in essence, contempt for the ordinary reading public. We assume they're unable to grasp the subtlety of our thought. We think that writing for a broad audience requires "dumbing down" our arguments. But that's wrong. Popular audiences are tougher critics than fellow academics are. You have to be saying something of import or interest; otherwise, people will just ignore you and read something else, or play video games, or watch television.

Academic writing derives its authority from certain conventions, some of them bordering on arrogance. When you're a young professor, it can make you feel powerful to sound as if you know so much. And you can get away with that kind of writing because your audience—other academics—will read your work even if it's impenetrable. But eventually, it can get lonely to have so few people to talk to. What you want to say might actually be of interest to an audience wider than those in your specialty.

Some years ago, on a sabbatical at Harvard, I found myself in an undergraduate nonfiction-writing course. I was working on what would become a biography of psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, and a colleague who taught in a writing program suggested that I might get some tips on how to make an obscure figure seem more intriguing. I had no idea what to expect from the course, and applied without much thought. But I immediately took to the instructor, Verlyn Klinkenborg, who, although he had a Ph.D. in English from Princeton, had deliberately left the world of literary criticism to write for a broader audience.

I went to that class every week for two terms, and it was one of the most humbling things I've ever done. Pimply-faced undergraduates ripped to shreds everything I wrote. It took days to produce the five pages of new work we were required to turn in before each class. Once I'd hauled away load after load of the social-scientific weeds that choked my sentences, I had practically nothing left to work with.

After some months in the course, I wrote an article on the ethics of biography. Verlyn read it and said I'd succeeded in "putting the argument below the surface of the prose." That's what I want to talk about here: writing something of substance that isn't ponderous.

Among my fellow social scientists, publishing is "writing up your results." You're describing something you've already done, and you're doing it within a prescribed format, the mark of rigor and substance. In psychology, research articles must adhere to the rules of the American Psychological Association's Publication Manual and be organized into sections called "Introduction," "Methods," "Results," and "Discussion." I know people who can write that type of article in a weekend; it's like filling in a puzzle whose answer you already know. So it was a rude shock when I started trying to write for a broader audience and realized that this meant going through many, many more drafts than I'd ever done.

Revision requires making choices, something that academic writing allows you to avoid at all costs. Much of what makes that kind of prose so complicated is that nothing gets left out. Writing for a popular audience, in contrast, forces you to figure out what the hell you're trying to say and come right out with it.

For me, that's the hardest part. At first, I couldn't bear to part with any of my ideas, and found it almost physically painful to cut so much. Then I realized it was like growing carrots. Similarities between weeding in the garden and on the page have long been noted, but the focus is usually on the technical process—what to take out, how to clip back sprawling clauses, and so on. But for me, the key similarity is emotional.

I love carrots, and eating them fresh from my organic garden is especially wonderful. But you have to thin aggressively to get a decent crop. I hate thinning. It seems brutal. I decide who lives and who dies, who becomes a carrot and who ends up just a green top in the stockpot. But forcing myself to thin carrots taught me a lot (although for a long time, I preferred simply to let my partner, a professional editor, do it without a shudder). I got a vivid sense of how too much of a good thing in the first version—in a carrot bed or an article—can result in stunted plants or spindly, overgrown prose.

But pruning your ideas and simplifying your language don't have to eliminate the subtlety and significance of your thought. In "Scholars and Sound Bites," Gerald Graff, a professor of English and education, says that we shouldn't "exaggerate the distance between the academic and the popular, especially if doing so excuses bad academic habits of communication." He warns: "Don't kid yourself. If you could not explain it to your parents or your most mediocre student, the chances are you don't understand it yourself."

Yet for all his insights into the writing process, Graff never pushes beyond the taken-for-granted assumption that clarity requires simplification. But is that really true? Yes, leaving out a clause that unnecessarily complicates a sentence does technically simplify its structure, but it doesn't have to make the idea itself any less complex. Graff seems to be assuming (at least for effect, in his title) that being clear is equivalent to speaking in the sound bites of television. But I think that reflects a common misunderstanding about talking to people who aren't familiar with your topic.

In certain ways, undergraduate teaching is excellent training in writing for nonprofessionals. That's who undergraduates are—people who don't (yet) know how to speak your lingo. Explaining things to them in a way that engages their imagination and expands their knowledge requires making the complex ideas of your field intelligible.

When I was in graduate school at Clark University, I learned a key lesson about teaching from my adviser, Seymour Wapner. He called it the "Beethoven assumption." Si said that if you want to teach someone music, you don't just play scales to them. You play Beethoven, so they can grasp the complex essence of music; then you teach them to understand what they've heard. That has been my guiding assumption throughout 30 years of teaching, and I can tell you, it works.

Just as there's no need to sacrifice complexity in teaching core material, there's no need to do so in one's writing. As Graff rightly cautions: "Blanket suspicion of anything that might be called reductive—which often translates into a fear of making an assertion lest one be criticized—is probably far more to blame than opaque jargon for obfuscatory academic writing and teaching." I'd put that more sharply: Academics write so densely because they are afraid of being held accountable for their words.

But isn't that the ultimate point of research and writing—to say something that hasn't been said before? Supporting an argument with persuasive evidence. Teasing out the meaning of something intricate and difficult, then standing firmly behind that explanation. Intellectual life is invigorated when the stakes are higher, when people are called to account for their ideas.

It's hard to do this. You have to find the form that can best convey your core argument and illustrations. The right style and structure can sharpen key ideas, a benefit in itself. In writing Agnes's Jacket: A Psychologist's Search for the Meanings of Madness, which I hoped would engage a nonacademic audience, I struggled for a long time with the problem of where to place myself in the narrative. The book is in no sense a memoir, yet it was essential for me to appear in the story in the first person to avoid objectifying "mental patients," a practice that the book calls into question. But I didn't know how to pull that off—to make myself a minor character, present but not prominent; a guide, not an omniscient narrator, telling a story about someone else.

In my writing class, we learned to look for structural exemplars, works that might focus on a topic completely unrelated to our own or be written in a totally different style but whose authors had solved certain technical problems. My models turned out to be Anna Funder's Stasiland, Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel, and Timothy Garton Ash's History of the Present—none of which have any connection to each other or to my topic of madness, but all include a first-person narrator with the curious, empathic, quietly observant but nonparticipatory role that I sought for myself.

I spent months figuring out exactly how those writers went about creating that character. I like to think my efforts paid off, because since the book has come out, even neighbors I see only rarely—a beefy truck driver, an eco-friendly home-schooler, a checker at the local supermarket, a colleague—have stopped me on the street to say how much the book interested them. Discovering that I could write in a way that appealed to such a diverse group was surprisingly touching. It made my work feel more real, like it actually mattered.

Beyond the aesthetic and intellectual rewards of writing for a broader public, there are practical advantages as well. We're living at a time when academics are increasingly being called upon to explain and justify our work. Aren't we playing right into the hands of our critics when abstruseness makes us seem irrelevant?

Gail A. Hornstein is a professor of psychology at Mount Holyoke College and author, most recently, of Agnes's Jacket: A Psychologist's Search for the Meanings of Madness (Rodale Books, 2009).