Last week I finished reading The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear, by Ralph Keyes. As you can guess from the title, Keyes talks a lot about fear.
Fear, he suggests, leads to turgid, jargon-fllled, just-plain-bad prose. In my previous post about the book, I pointed out that the reader’s fear shares some of the responsibility for bad writing; often, we don’t blow the whistle on obscure prose because we think everyone else but us understands it. Keyes takes this a little further; he suggests that bad prose is a shield, of sorts, for the writer.
Writing at all takes courage. Submitting work for publication takes something closer to bravado….There is an alternative. That alternative is writing for publication, but on such obscure terms that readers will feel too ignorant to criticize.
Then he picks on academics. A lot.
In a speech to the Association of American University Presses, Patricia Nelson Limerick, a history professor at the University of Colorado, tried to make sense of her colleagues’ preference for intellectual jive talk. Limerick thought it was a product of their timidity. “Professors are often shy, timid, and even fearful people,” she told her audience, “and under those circumstances, dull, difficult prose can function as a kind of protective camouflage.” From graduate school on, Limerick explained, career academics learn….[to] protect themselves by defending cautious ideas with insider words, complicated syntax, and qualifying phrases such as “as case might be made” and “one could argue that.”
….The rough-draft quality of impenetrable writing can soothe authors’ nerves. If you haven’t given writing your best shot, and the results are criticized, you’re free to say, ‘Shoot, I could have done better if I’d taken the time. That’s just something I dashed off.” If you do write your best, and your best gets panned, there is no place to run and hide…
…[T]o write well, we must express ourselves clearly and risk rejection. We can finesse this risk by generating fog.
Turgidity and obfuscation, in other words, result primarily from fear.
I’m not sure about this. I tend to think that you write badly when you don’t know exactly what you’re saying, and don’t have the energy, or knowledge, or time to figure that out.
I see this kind of prose a lot. It strikes me as incomplete, not fearful.
Here’s an example: I spent most of this morning wrestling with about thirty-five years of post-medieval Ethiopian history which, if I’m lucky, will take up a sentence (or half a sentence) in The History of the Renaissance World (aka The Book That Is Already Three Times As Long As The Final Draft Will Be). Here’s a sample paragraph from a detailed history of Ethiopia after the fall of the Zagwe dynasty…
Of course, the two facets of domination discussed above may lead one, as the Oromo and Somali nationalists often argue, to invoke the colonial book. There is no doubt that the empire-building during the Menelik era was ‘violent and semi-colonial in nature.’ The power relations and the cultural stereotypes that characterize the relationship between the southern people and the northerners had some elements of colonial relations. A close look at the relationship between the conqueror and the conquered would, however, reveal that the subordination of the southern people to the Shewa Amhara cannot be posited as a colonial relation. Any analogy of the conquest of the south with European colonization belies the element of racism, which is an essential ingredient of European colonization that underlies the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. The policy of racism erects a barrier that rigidly separates the colonizer from the colonized. The relationship of the northerners with the people of the south lack this critical element. The divide between the dominant Amhara and the subordinate south is not rigid and it can be crossed by, for example, baptism into Christianity, speaking Amharic, or through marriage.
That’s the kind of prose I run across all the time. That doesn’t strike me as fear. It’s confusion and lack of time.
Try putting this passage into English. It would start (I think) something like this:
During the Menelik era, the empire-builders of the north treated the conquered south like…
And that’s as far as I get. “A colony” would be the next phrase. But what does the writer mean by this? There’s some specific behavior the writer has in mind. (What was it? Extermination? Land-stealing? Being snotty to the natives when you meet them in the street?)
Rather than telling us what that behavior is, the writer relies on a catch-phrase: colonization. I don’t think this is fear. I think it’s…well, I hesitate to use the word laziness (a very judgmental word, that).
OK, laziness. This passage would be clear and straightforward if the writer told us one or two specific “colonial” behaviors. To do that, the writer has to go find examples of this behavior. Real, specific, point-in-time occurrences. That takes time and effort. HUGE amounts of it.
And many pages of writing that won’t make it into the final draft.
Maybe my editor at Norton will see this blog post and send me some chocolate.
So I’m not sure I buy this particular explanation for obfuscation and turgidity. I don’t think that’s a result of fear. It’s an unwillingness, or an inability, to put in the time and work needed to be clear. If you doubt me, you try putting the last half of that paragraph into clear English. And you can’t use the code-word racism. You have to be specific.
What happens when you’re truly afraid? Ah…for that, you’ll have to stay tuned for the third and final blog entry about The Courage to Write.
I have a semi-related question. Okay, not to writing, but to the History of the Renaissance World and the fourth volume. Just wondering if you could share with us the time span covered in volumes 3 and 4 in your series? I tried searching here and TWTW forum, but didn’t find it anywhere. Just curious since I’ve started high school with my oldest two. We did your History of the Ancient World last year and dd thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve got the Medieval World in house and we are looking forward to it. Thanks!
I also can’t use the code word “racism” because I don’t think that is the inherent quality that makes colonization colonization. The ancient Greeks practiced colonizations, which they understood to be the practice of sending forth members of their city-states to found new cities that would owe something to the parent city (like Pergamon funding the Stoa in Athens). In the same way, British colonization was often an effort to expand territory the way that Happy Days used to spin of new tv shows (I won’t ask you to identify which of America, Canada, Australia or New Zealand is Mork & Mindy, Lavern & Shirley or Joanie Loves Chachi).
I think in modern eras, the difference between conquering and colonizing got blurrier, not because the imperialistic Europeans were so grasping, but because they no longer acted as if the conquered territories needed to be wholly subjected or even purged of their previous residents.
None of which really helps the sample quoted. Maybe something like
During the Menelik era, the empire-builders of the north treated the conquered south … with disdain as a subjegated people. However the southerners found that they were able to assimilate by learning Amharic, converting to Christianity or marrying into northern families. This is not unlike the European empire building of Charlemagne or the merging of Saxons and Normans in England.
But then, the author wouldn’t have been able to get in his subtle sideswipe about European racism.
“During the Menelik era, the empire-builders of the north treated the conquered south likeâ€¦”
…their own personal mini-mart. They took the profits, only put crap on the shelves and provided terrible customer service, but would occasionally hire from the neighborhood.
Hehe. Just trying to help. Big fan. I’ve read your History of the Ancient World so many times it’s embarrassing. Can’t wait to see how it ends.
(bad-and-non-specific-and-lazy-writing-alert) Oh. my. goodness. This blog post is EXACTLY what I needed to read right now. WOW. Thank you! And this is precisely why I love to read your writings and use your teaching-writing-and-literature advice – because YOU write clearly and precisely. Can’t wait to read the next installment!
“I pointed out that the readerâ€™s fear shares some of the responsibility for bad writing; often, we donâ€™t blow the whistle on obscure prose because we think everyone else but us understands it. ”
“I tend to think that you write badly when you donâ€™t know exactly what youâ€™re saying, and donâ€™t have the energy, or knowledge, or time to figure that out. ”
“Rather than telling us what that behavior is, the writer relies on a catch-phrase: colonization. I donâ€™t think this is fear. I think itâ€™sâ€¦well, I hesitate to use the word laziness (a very judgmental word, that).
OK, laziness. ”
“So Iâ€™m not sure I buy this particular explanation for obfuscation and turgidity. I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s a result of fear. Itâ€™s an unwillingness, or an inability, to put in the time and work needed to be clear.”
I wholeheartedly agree with these quotes!!
This just helps me to “keep on keeping on” as far as asking questions of my kids (in math, grammar, writing, Latin, life, when they are trying to wheedle something out of me, etc.) and helping them to think through their answers, so that their answers are clear to people outside their own minds.
Once again so very grateful for you and your Mom and all you have done over the years.
I am definitely guilty of feeling “stupid” when I don’t understand an essay or book. It never occurs to me that it might be just bad writing! I also realize recently that if I’m saying something that I’m not entirely certain about, I use passive voice. Rewriting it in active voice makes it into a stronger statement and forces me to re-think what I’m writing.
Could it be that academics like Limerick (love her name, by the way) just want to jump on the “victim” bandwagon and can now do so, thanks to having a malady of their very own? I can just see the support groups: “Hi… I'[m Jane, I’m a writer, and I’m afraid.” It will be only a matter of time before Writer’s Block appears in the DSM manual. 🙂
Actually, I think it’s both laziness and if not fear, the need to appear smarter than one actually is. I am both a writer and a lawyer, and I know with my own writing, I will never be able to take my writing to the next level because of my laziness and/or incompetence. In the legal field, I do see a lot of folks who use obfuscation mostly due to arrogance and/or fear rather than laziness.
I have often felt that same degree of confusion after reading articles in many newsmagazines and newspapers–except there the situation is slightly different. I think they are just trying to fill pages and thus create large volumes of nothingness.
As an example: I spent 5 minutes (approximately, on the print version) of my life reading this article: http://trib.in/jpzCRx. After that time, I really came away with nothign more than I could have digested from the headline, captions, and a couple of highlighted ‘blurbs”. I think this is a good example of writers seem to have lost the concept of writing to convey an idea and then support it with points. The rise of the media 1-sentence paragraph must surely be a sign of the coming apocolypse (or maybe not).
By the way, based on the information preseneted, I think Sebastian’s re-write of the paragraph is very succinct and clear and is the way it should have been written.
Thank you for reminding us that it is we who are sane and it is the poor writing of the world that is truly insane.
I’m an academic and can speak from that perspective.
1) I think you’re on to something regarding laziness, but keep in mind that academics tend to write for each other. I don’t know the particular book you’re reading here, but I assume the primary audience is other academics in that field. In each field, there are fairly standard definitions of terms, and I can see other academics understanding what “colonial” means in a given context. Thus, the writer doesn’t feel the need to define it clearly. It may still be lazy, but understand that you may not be the intended audience either.
2) Another reason academics write this way is to be purposefully inaccessible. I was once told by a professor that my writing for an academic publication was not complex enough. I needed to use more complex sentences and vocabulary because we’re academics and this work doesn’t need to be accessible by a general public. I hope that’s rare.
3) Another reason is a snowball effect. We read this stuff all the time, and so imitate it. Thus, we add to the body of poor writing and perpetuate the cycle.
4) Yet another reason is a strong emphasis on not writing about yourself in the first person, at least in the sciences. You can’t say “I added 5 ml of of the substance to the solution and stirred” in a respectable academic journal. This leads to resorting to passive voice.
I hope it helps to see another perspective.
I agree that turgid prose can be laziness and/or lack of time, but I’d like to pose an additional cause: Shorthand.
Every field develops its “jargon,” which is used as a sort of verbal shorthand. People within the same field understand one another easily, but people outside the field are left wanting a Babelfish in their ear. After you become a native speaker in your field’s jargon, you don’t even notice that you are using it. Thus, your comments appear (nearly) indecipherable to people outside your specialty.
It takes real talent to (1) identify one’s own jargon and then (2) translate it into clear speech/prose. And then, just to make things interesting, you could add (3) make it easy enough for a child to understand it.
My husband often says that you don’t really understand unless you can explain it to a four-year old.
Now, as to your challenge to make the last part of the paragraph understandable, I will give it a try, although I am totally out of my field of expertise. I would need to study what this academic means by many of his specific terms first. I would also have to confirm that I had the authority to substantively edit, and I would make sure I checked my end result with the author. BUT, my kneejerk is to render the last two sentences something like this, first defining racism:
Racism, treating other people as inferior because they are different from you in some way (skin color, ethnic background, etc.), leads to unfair treatment of others. Therefore, when a country decides to make another country a colony, barriers between colonizers and colonized are inevitable. However, the relationship of the northern Shewa Amhara to the southern people does not exhibit this kind of racism. Typical racism has very rigid barriers; on the other hand, the barriers in the south are more permeable. Southern individuals who are baptized into Christianity, learn the Amharic language, or marry an Amharic citizen, can become viewed as peers to northerners.