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Want to learn to write badly? Then go to university!

The multi-syllabled pomposity and obscurity of much academic writing, particularly in the social sciences, often attracts derision and damnation. The contempt has generally come from outside the campus. But here’s a surprise: Michael Billig, professor of social sciences at Loughborough University no less, has written an insider’s demolition of his colleagues’ writing. His Learn how to write badly: how to succeed in the social sciences rounds up the usual suspects: jargon, acronyms, passives, and using five pound words when five pence ones would do (but, strangely, neglects the long sentences and page long paragraphs). In particular, he condemns the constant turning of verbs into nouns: ‘beware of long words ending in –ization and –ification’ and ‘write about people not things’ Billig wisely advises. He quotes some of the worst academic writing and, sometimes, names the perpetrators. Billig tears apart the arguments put forward in defence of the ‘academic style’ and exposes the inhumanity and subconscious elitism that often underlies it.

Part of the problem, Billig admits, is the modern academic ‘publish or perish’ culture. ‘Journals’ of this, that and the other proliferate (200 to 300 new titles a year), and there are probably a million and a half academic articles appearing annually. Like air filling a vacuum, someone’s got to fill up all this paper, but it doesn’t encourage crisp, punchy and idiomatic writing. ‘Never mind the quality, feel the width’, as the dodgy tailors of my youth used to say.

PEC has generally left academic writing alone. If professors of this and doctors of that want to write to each other in this ridiculous way then the best of British. But that’s mistaken. With the expansion of higher education, tens of thousands of graduates now head every year into central and local government, the health sector, law, financial services, charities, quangos and so on. And many of them, as PEC trainers and editors know, think that the undergraduate essay style will work in the real word. It won’t, and it’s the poor customers, clients and citizens at the receiving end who have to scratch their heads. Perhaps, with Billig’s help, the PEC can begin to cut the gobbledygook at source.

Not all academics write badly of course (many natural scientists write brilliantly for the general public I’ve noticed), but Billig is a pessimist and thinks that he’s pretty much a lone voice crying in the social science wilderness. Gamely, he concludes with a sensible list of writing recommendations for his peers and suggests that George Orwell’s wonderful Politics and the English language be ‘required reading’ for all staff and students.

Is this the turning of the academic tide? Let’s hope that BA soon stands for Bachelor of Arts again and not Baffling and Affected.

Terry Denman, BA, MA, PhD

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