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Academic writing

This article appears in the issue March 2013 (100 Companies) [Vol 22, Issue 3]

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Academics are the experts at knowing things—not necessarily the know-how of tacit knowledge, but the explicit knowing-about. So, overall, why are they so terrible at communicating what they know? It's not because they have poor communication skills. I'm guessing that a lot of it is due to having been trained according to an ideal of knowledge that pretty much guarantees that academics are going to be bad at conveying what they know.

Consider the standard introductory chapter of an academic work. It lays out the problem, provides some context, and then tells you what will be in each following chapter, usually in some detail. They do this so that you won't have trouble following the book's chain of thought. But, why? Non-academic books that are read by far less well-trained readers rarely do this. Instead, non-academic books—popular books—shoulder the responsibility of letting readers know where they are in the flow of the argument. In fact, popular books don't give away the entire argument all at once because they want to tease the reader along. In fact, Malcolm Gladwell—and the many many authors he has influenced—has made a career out of zigging when the reader expects him to zag. When academic books lay out the entire journey in that first chapter, it's as if the writers want to make sure readers understand that all that matters is the content, not the pleasure of reading.

Academics thus treat knowledge as mere content, devoid of personality, devoid of any particular interest and devoid of sociality.

Write engagingly

But knowledge isn't a big pile of facts. Facts matter, for sure. But the scholar has pursued her topic because she finds it interesting for some reason. Those reasons themselves are not devoid of context. Among all the unanswered questions, the scholar has chosen to devote her time and energy to this one issue about which she's written a book. And unless the scholar is made of adamanatium, she is not insensible to the effect her work will have on her social standing and her career. Nevertheless, scholarly works generally are written as if the author not only is dispassionate but unimpassioned. Worse, they assume that the reader is already interested in the topic. This means that generally an academic work assumes its readers have a high level of background in the field, which reduces the number of readers. That's understandable, because other academics would be bored by attempts to bring all readers up to speed. But less forgivable is the all-too-common assumption that those reading an academic work are going to read to the end because of the interest they bring to the work, not because the work—and the ideas within it—have been rendered interesting by the author.

That generally confines academic writing to academics, reducing the influence of what these experts say. And that is a shame. We need to benefit more from the work, research and insight of academics. And those academics who write engagingly, engendering interest in topics we otherwise would have passed by, are treasures to be celebrated.

Knowledge deserves better

It will be difficult to move academic writing beyond its traditional stodginess. Some of it has to be so technical that its audience will necessarily be small. Plus, while everyone can write badly, not everyone can write well. But, more important, typical academic writing reflects old assumptions about the nature of knowledge. We have believed that what's true is true, and truth ought to be interesting in itself. But while truths are truths and facts are facts, their discovery and exploration is always a human activity, undertaken by individuals with particular concerns. It does not demean knowledge to make it interesting to those who are not yet aware of those truths or why they matter.

This is to say that knowledge is something communicated-it is not every true thing about the universe, but what we've uncovered and shared. Communication is not the transmission of bits across a neutral medium. It is a full-body social activity that has motives and social effects. Knowledge thus cannot be fully separated from what makes it interesting. And making knowledge more interesting, rather than thinking that that demeans the regality of knowledge, not only has the good effect of increasing its effect, it is also more true to the nature of knowledge itself.  

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