• August 29, 2015

Prune That Prose

Learning to write for readers beyond academe

Prune That Prose 1

Matt Manley for The Chronicle Review

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Matt Manley for The Chronicle Review

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).


1. dnewton137 - September 08, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Amen! And another aspect of this important idea: Many scholars believe that if "those lesser folks," e.g., university administrators, political leaders, or policy makers, would only comprehend and act upon the scholar's wisdom, the world would be a better place. Perhaps, but the best way to convey that wisdom to "them" is very different from the commonly accepted way to achieve a Ph.D. or a high academic reputation. The true test of its value is not the length and density of its expression, it is the consequent actions. Effective writing of that kind requires nontrivial skills. I am reminded of a letter I once received from an angry faculty member. It was ten single-spaced pages and included an apology for its length, with the remark that he didn't have time to write a short one.

I am also reminded of my favorite physics paper. It was written by a graduate student, was about a page and a half long, and ultimately won the student a Nobel Prize.

Don Langenberg
Chancellor Emeritus
University System of Maryland

2. drj50 - September 08, 2009 at 04:14 pm

All too true.

I thought instantly of C. S. Lewis's book on Miracles. It is concise and accessible to anyone willing to do a little reading and thinking. But, those familiar with the philosophical discussion since the Enlightenment will recognize his considerable interaction with major figures and viewpoints, just without footnotes and in the tone of someone just chatting over coffee rather than dropping big names. There's plenty of learning there, but it is worn lightly.

3. podritske - September 09, 2009 at 09:06 am

This is a wonderful affirmation of the virtues of economy in prose. I am happy to see it. In non-fiction writing, clarity is its essence. In theatre, there is that bit of wisdom about extraneous set decoration. If a gun is hanging on the wall, it had better be fired by the second act, or words to that effect.

4. mheffley - September 09, 2009 at 09:27 am

I've written numerous papers for peer-reviewed academic journals, a mammoth PhD dissertation I doubt even my examiners read through (though they passed it), published two hefty monographs through two major presses (Greenwood & Yale), won a Guggenheim for my writing, passed my 60th birthday...and am just now waking up to the desire and necessity of cultivating my own writing in the way you discuss here, in the project of my third book on music. It is a lovely, lively place to be coming into and getting acquainted with. I'm reminded of academics I've read about who've made their mark as jargonautic specialists (Heidegger, R.D. Laing) then ended their careers by trying to write more like poets and storytellers.

Thanks for your great contribution to the motif of my current daily life!

5. oldcrank - September 09, 2009 at 11:43 am

Thanks for an article that suggests an alternative to the unreadable mess that too often is academic writing.

6. auto23 - September 09, 2009 at 12:17 pm

I have a bigtime NY agent and editor. They say sooner or later everyone in publishing gets approached by an academic who wants a $500k advance to produce a manuscript that should more properly be published by the Penn State University press in runs of 250.

Academics don't know to work with the serious trade press. Once money, careers, reputations come into play, no one's fooling around anymore.

Publishers want manuscripts they can market to readers who are spending their own money on something that's supposed to provide pleasure.

That means no 800-page books when 250 pages will do just as well. Any idiot can write 800 pages. Telling the story/making your point in 250 well-written pages -- without leaving anything out -- takes real skill. (That means no wasting time arguing why the last 10 books on your topic got it all wrong.) Endnotes, not footnotes -- footnotes cause bookstore browsers to set the book aside.

In fact, to hear an editor discuss the physical qualities of your future book from a marketing perspective is eye-opening. In my case, my market was graduate-degreed professionals who would probably read me on planes and in hotel rooms. So we wanted to ensure the book's heft/appearance was not off-putting to someone who would likely have to carry it through Chicago O'Hare.

The typical humanities/social science professor hasn't got a clue for the effort it takes to reach readers who have choices in the marketplace, who don't want their time wasted, who have an interest in the topic but not necessarily expertise. It's not like writing for grad students who have to read your stuff because it's on a reading list.

7. ramesh1 - September 09, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Writing is just like conversation with friend, just exchange of idea..True writing came from extreme love or extreme hate.Nietzsche rightly tell that of all that is written I love only what a person written with his blood.Write in simple language,Avoid technical jargon.write only true in interesting language.
My idea of writing is write only that which give you pure joy and self-satisfaction, If you did not get a single reader, donot worry what writing giving to you that is most precious.

8. waynesteffen - September 09, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Another tip for academics, and anyone else, who wants to write for people: read outside your field. You'll stumble onto some great writing, and you might learn something that will help you connect what you're trying to say to an area your audience already understands.

9. robynhitchcock - September 09, 2009 at 12:58 pm

Is the first paragraph supposed to be an example overwriting? Was this intentional? If not, it sort of undoes the argument of the rest of the piece.

10. clasfaculty - September 09, 2009 at 01:00 pm

My expertise, as an academic, is plain language: the use of 12-15 writing and designing strategies that increase the likelihood that non-experts will understand the information. I also am a principal in The Plain Language Group. I have always been frustrated that as a professor I'm expected to help students learn to write like us: convoluted, esoteric, complex sentences and paragraphs. Even my graduate students often have trouble understanding our academic articles. Focusing on plain language in my research and consulting work has been enlightening. It's so important for the public to demand that information that affects their lives be written clearly because whoever controls the language controls the people. Take a look at your mortgage contract, your credit card statement, your insurance policy, etc. We all have a right to understand that information. Academic writing does not contribute to clarity and understanding except for the few for whom it's intended.

11. dank48 - September 09, 2009 at 01:15 pm

Hornstein is right on the money, and so is Auto23. It's amazing how people fail to understand that, in the real world, people have choices: to read it or not to read it. Not reading it is easier, cheaper, and leaves one far more time for other, perhaps more interesting, even rewarding and fulfilling activities. (Am I the only nonacademic who finds it offensive that so many academics apparently think television is the only alternative to what they may have to say?

About two hundred thousand titles are published in this country every year. Most of them aren't worth reading, of course. One reason a lot of them aren't worth reading is that they're vapid, craven, stupid garbage. Another reason that some others aren't worth reading is that they require too many hours of someone's time and too much effort decoding the impenetrable jargon-larded pseudo-prose, for too little payoff. A book needn't be stupid to be unworthy of the time and trouble to read it; it could be just so loaded with extraneous cumbersome baggage that its intelligence can't come through. Think of a morally worthwhile person wrapped in chains and shod in concrete; the voice may be worthy of our notice, but if we can't hear it . . .

Kurt Vonnegut once quoted a GE Laboratories scientist as saying that anyone who can't explain their work to a fourteen-year-old is a charlatan. Pretty close.

12. gerrydarden - September 09, 2009 at 08:56 pm

Well I appreciated your take on this topic. As I sit here checking email, watching tv, and scanning the Chronicle online, your lead in was enough to catch my interest. But is was the flow and succinct expression of the idea that kept me reading through to the end. Thank you.

13. harfield - September 10, 2009 at 01:04 am

depends on the field. I find literary criticism to have some of the most colourful and captivating language possible, not cumbersome but uplifting and a real treat. Of course, not all critics write this way, and there does seem to have been a downward climb in recent years since Theory took hold, and people's reputations became more invested in strictness than enlightenment. But now that I think of it, the writers I admire are mainly British, so I guess if one's engagements are mainly American, mentioned frustrations may be found.

14. lynnosh - September 10, 2009 at 02:44 pm

I learned to write clearly and concisely at the University of Missouri's School of Journalism. I became such a fan of simple yet compelling writing that when I began graduate school in political science I just couldn't take it. The florid, turbid writing drove me away. I concluded that life is too short to read academic books and I am happy I never looked back.

I'm still a journalist three decades later and I continue to strive to write as simply and clearly as I did in the university newsroom.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy, Author of The College Solution

15. compelling - September 11, 2009 at 12:28 pm

But only illuminating because so many of our professional colleagues have become so lost in their own obscure, jargon-haunted prose that isolates them from a broader audience. Perhaps it's time for more public intellectuals?

16. andreas_ramos - September 12, 2009 at 12:47 pm

I got my graduate degree in philosophy at Heidelberg. Yep, the ultimate in impenetrable writing. I got into computers and wrote (so far) eight books (and two more in the next six months). It took me at least two books to learn how to write for the reader. Academics write for their own self, an audience of one.

Someone wrote about my last book "Andreas says three times as much in only one-third as many pages." Auto23 is quite correct: "any idiot can write 800 pages".

And I agree: Prof. Hornstein is still too verbose. Cut the essay by half and it'll read better.

17. gtkarn - December 01, 2009 at 04:49 pm

i'm a largely retired teacher of writing and often chewed on issues raised here, sharing my concerns about the potential strengths and weaknesses of both academic and "popular writing. Combining the virtues of each is tough and this piece appreciates that, avoiding the tndency to beat up on academics in the name of some nicely cleansed and more communicative "accessible' discourse. William James gives wonderfulattention to the issue in a piece called "The Social Value of the College-Bred," wherein he helps us appreciate the risks of specialization and the virtues of a liberal education. He understood how a specialized education can make you "into an efficient instrument for doing a definite thing," but that "you may remain a crude and smoky kind of petroleum, incapable of spreading light"

What James and so many others who echo Hornstein's piece are addressing is the need to appreciate the rhetorical dimension of all writing -- the need to sense the presence of the self and ideas about one's audience as factors in communicating what one "knows" and wants others to know about a subject. This personal-social dimension of writing is what should be taught not only in Composition courses (of dreadful low status in higher education), but across the curriculum, and I applaud Professor Hornstein's observation that it is in teaching undergraduates that one might learn the value of such attention to language.

One further observation: the idea of reading one's prose aloud has considerable merit. I have heard that CS Lewis did this, and even composed this way --- not just his novels, but his famous volume on 16th century British literature. The more we can help our students understand the virtues of solid writing that earns the intellectual respect of "the academy" and the attention of a non-specialized audience, the more we will have succeeded in democratizing learning and created the light James values.

Finally: the question of to what extent writing conventions in certain discipines and periodicals need rethinking is a valuable exercise; however, I fear that the socializing tendencies of the disciplines and their attendant publication requirements tend to keep many talking amongst themselves, merely. Not adhering to those conventions may ot increase one's chance for publication and, of course, promotion and tenure.

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