Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ease up on the academic

The doctor is IN.

An inquiry from a reader who wonders about criticism that his writing may be excessively academic.

[F]or the past year I have been working part-time as an editor and researcher on book manuscripts for a media personality. My duties often include re-writing some parts of a manuscript and adding whole new sections and chapters. My employer seems to like the work I have done, but other folks who have read the finished manuscripts have remarked that they tend to be "too academic."

My background is in academia, but I am puzzled by the criticism. Does it refer to content (too much focus on minutiae), style (too dry and abstract), form (given too much like a lecture and not like a story), or something else?

I suspect that it's some combination of all of the above, which would mean I either need to learn to write differently, and soon, or find another way to supplement my income.

From your blog, I respect your opinion a lot. Do you or your other readers have any practical advice on how an academic writer can create more accessible prose? My first thought is to imagine my six-year-old daughter as my audience, which would help me keep things simple and maybe a little colorful.

It might not hurt to start out by asking these readers what they mean by “too academic,” but I would not be optimistic about it. Readers can say what they like or don’t like, but few of them are equipped to explain their reactions analytically. So let’s look into the possibilities.

Vocabulary: Being fond of Big Words myself, I enjoy parading them.* When a reader of this blog thanks me for the gift of a previously unknown word, I break into one of my unaccustomed smiles. But some people find it painful to have their vocabularies stretched, and you should therefore make sure that your diction is not too abstract or elevated. I’m not sure that your six-year-old daughter would be the best source of advice on vocabulary, but if you know a twelve-year-old to consult, you would fall into the range of most adults. (Don’t, for God’s sake, imitate me.)

Syntax and paragraphs: I’m not saying that you should break everything down to a series of simple declarative sentences in the manner of the Hemingway parodists (among whom the first and greatest was Ernest Hemingway). But many of my undergraduate students at Loyola will identify any sentence longer than a dozen words as a “run-on,” especially if it has two or more clauses. Academic writing tends to boast longer, clause-clustered sentences, and you might want to stick to more abbreviated versions. Similarly, academic paragraphs tend to be longer. One-sentence paragraphs are fine, and three or four sentences are probably as many as you want to pack into a single paragraph. Look at a daily newspaper or popular magazine for models. Or Web sites.

Content: Not having seen any examples of the work you do, I can’t comment knowledgeably about it. In general terms, journalistic writing tends to look for and showcase the significant detail rather than flatten the text with a barrage of details. It focuses more on people than on objects or procedures, and it tends to explain objects or procedures through the relationship of identifiable people to them — thus the “anecdotal lead,” which presents a person whose situation is representative before describing the forces and events that created the situation.

Style: Written American English has been growing increasingly informal, even colloquial, over the past century. Newspaper journalism from the 1930s and 1940s, for example, looks much more formal, even stodgy, than what is currently published. What the contemporary reader looks for is the sense of the writer speaking directly to him or her. Read aloud what you have written. Anything that sounds false or strained when you read it aloud is probably something you ought to revise to make more conversational.

The writer: To an editor (well, to some editors), the writer is an annoying inconvenience that nevertheless makes editing possible — the chicken that must be plucked, cleaned, and butchered before it can be turned into a delightful coq au vin. But you do have some obligation to make the text resemble the work of the author, perhaps dusted off and perfumed a little, but still recognizably the author more than you. The text should be not what you would have written, but what the author would have written had he been a better writer.

More?: You out there reading this, are you going to help this guy or not?

*You may know Dr. Johnson’s remark about learning among the Scots, “like bread in a besieged town, to every man a mouthful, to no man a bellyful.” Learning was a lot like that in the part of eastern Kentucky where I grew up, and I formed the habit early on of letting it be known when I had had a decent meal.

Voices from the choir

A serendipitous discovery and a boon to time-wasters goofing off at work across the land:

The King’s Singers’ famous weather report for the British Isles performed in Anglican chant is available on Youtube:


Addendum: Please note the corrected attribution in the comment below that this recording is by a group called the Mastersingers, not the estimable King's Sinmgers.

I'll write what I like, said he

Responding to the post “This is not a passive construction,” Bruce Holtgren posed these questions on my Facebook page:*

Regarding this topic, I'd appreciate you weighing in on this example:

1. "Let's go to the movies," John said.
2. "Let's go to the movies," said John.

Is the latter passive? If so, does it matter enough to fix it? (I once had an editor who insisted that the answers were yes and yes.)

The latter example is not a passive sonstruction but a simple inversion of normal word order. There are many journalists who get peevish about the Inverted Said. Perhaps they find it too literary.

Generally speaking, in ordinary journalism, the normal word order is preferable; the reader glides over it without distraction. But making a fetish of this point, as many writers and editors appear to do, leads to the occasional maladroit construction. Here’s an example:

“That will not do,” McIntyre, the language blogger and currently unemployed three-decade veteran of daily newspaper copy desk, said.**

That long, suspensive appositive (which, incidentally, I would also deplore) suggests that the reader is moving through a periodic sentence, with an emphasis coming down at the end. Arriving at the homely said creates a minor anticlimax.

If the attribution following direct quotation includes an appositive, the inverted veb/subject construction is both apt and natural.

*I feel a little uncomfortable about these comments on Facebook, which exclude from the discussion readers of this blog who are not members. Would you like for me to start copying Facebook comments to this site?

**In my seventh week of joblessness, it occurs to me to be grateful at my liberation from journalists (some of them, alas, copy editors) who dress up their idiosyncratic and uninformed preferences with ill-understood technical terms (split infinitive, split verb, passive voice) or mere buzzwords (flow, voice).