Dissertation Guide

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What is meant by academic style?

“One of the exercises our tutor gave us, in our second year as undergraduates, was an article to read in the American Sociological Review. There were three of us in this tutorial and he sent us away one Wednesday and said, ‘”Come in next Wednesday and tell me what you thought”.’ So we all went along and dutifully read this article and came back. I think I was the first to go. He said, ‘”Well, what did you think?”.’ I took a deep breath and launched into my five minutes about what a terribly profound piece of sociology it was and all the rest of it. And he sat there very patiently and listened to me and then said, “‘I don’t know if you’ve got the giste of the article at all, tell me the truth, did you understand it?”.’ ‘”Well, not really, it was a desperate struggle. I think I got bits of it but it was awfully difficult to understand”.’ He said, ‘”Why do you think that was?”.’ I don’t know what I said but I was thinking, “‘This is a terribly erudite academic and I’m just a spotty undergraduate, just not bright enough to cope with advanced sociology”.’ He said, ‘”No, nothing to do with that. It’s just desperately badly written. I challenge anyone to understand this. This is rubbish. There’s a good idea in there but, boy, you have to work hard to read it. Next time you’re in the library and you’re reading stuff you don’t understand, try to have the confidence to believe that it’s just as likely, if not more likely, that it’s badly written rather than you’re not bright enough”.’ And, hey presto, bits of the academic world began to open up.”

“There is a different ethos in writing for a newspaper where your mission is to inform. In constructing an academic treatise you desire to impress the reader with your erudition, often descending into obscurity, citing high-falutin sources and sometimes even assuming that the reader has prior knowledge, dwarfing the reader in your text. In a newspaper everything has to be understood instantly. If you lose the reader’s interest, or confuse the reader, you lose their attention.”

“Now I feel very depressed by the amount of turgid, badly written, polysyllabic, showing off, prose that I’m forced to read by people who, quite frankly, should know better. It’s just bad style and it’s difficult to read, and I think it gets in the way of writing process. Some PhD students are enthralled with badly written academic stuff and waste a lot of time, I think, trying to regurgitate that style. One of Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing novels was “when you’re writing and you read it back and it sounds like writing, start again”. That’s partly to do with the way he uses dialogue and so forth, but I think there’s a kind of bastardised version which is ‘if, when you’re reading back what you’ve written, it sounds like an academic parody then don’t do it, be yourself.’ There’s a simple message that you’re trying to get out. If you can do it in simple language there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s all the better for it. Eventually that writing will be more fun for the rest of us to read.”