Academics Need to Stop Using Overly Complex Writing
Some scholarly writers should learn that bigger doesn’t always mean better
Opinions / May 18, 2019
One of my biggest pet peeves when reading academic journals, books, or course materials is when the author begins a sentence with the word “indeed.”
It makes me picture the author as a top-hat-and-monocle-wearing aristocrat, stroking their chin and holding an oversized pipe to their mouth, swirling an expensive scotch and playing a game of chess against a Dachshund.
“Indeed” is a word that does not add descriptive value to anything that follows. Its official intended purpose is to add emphasis to a statement or tweak the rhythm of a passage, but in reality, it’s just a filler word that makes the author sound pompous and indirect.
Here’s an example taken from Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge:
“We can examine what use is served by this analysis that I have rather solemnly called ‘archaeology’. Indeed, we must: for, to be frank, as they are at the moment, things are rather disturbing. I set out with a relatively simple problem: the division of discourse into great unities that were not those of oeuvres, authors, books, or themes.”
Foucault—who, ironically, is responsible for laying the foundations of how we express meaning and ideas in modern communications theory—is at times notoriously difficult to read. That second sentence of his is a prime example of the clunky, interjection-laden garbage that students and academics have to wade through in order to get to the relevant parts of the text.
In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault points out that when we communicate through language, we are not only expressing obvious and explicit things like ideas, statements, or opinions, we are also reinforcing more implicit, underlying themes like power and authority.
The words we choose to explain our ideas are often as important as the ideas themselves.
Unfortunately, because of this, a lot of people end up using needlessly complex words to create an impression of being superior and highly-educated.
Here’s a more modern example quoted in a 2015 article about academic writing in The Atlantic.
“The work of the text is to literalize the signifiers of the first encounter, dismantling the ideal as an idol. In this literalization, the idolatrous deception of the first moment becomes readable. The ideal will reveal itself to be an idol. Step by step, the ideal is pursued by a devouring doppelganger, tearing apart all transcendence. This de-idealization follows the path of reification, or, to invoke Augustine, the path of carnalization of the spiritual. Rhetorically, this is effected through literalization.”
This is an excerpt from Barbara Vinken’s book on French novelist Gustave Falubert, Flaubert Postsecular: Modernity Crossed Out, and reading it almost gave me an aneurysm.
Using challenging sentence structures peppered with obscure terms, extra prefixes and suffixes, and pedantic-sounding interjections and adverbs like “indeed” or “to be sure” does not add to the value of the work in a constructive way. Instead, it often overcomplicates ideas and needlessly frustrates readers who have to put additional effort into trying to clarify what the intended message is supposed to be.
It makes the work ego-driven when it should be informative and accessible, and it makes you sound like a damp, floppy thesaurus who has no friends.
Quality writing is defined by its effectiveness at communicating an idea, and more often than not, keeping things simple is more effective. Truly intelligent people are able to communicate and teach complex subjects without needing to resort to overwrought or bloated prose to prop up their own sense of importance.