In a 1982 conversation with novelist David Plante, Philip Roth had this to say about how his contemporaries' writing differed from his own: “Updike and Bellow hold their flashlights out into the world, reveal the real world as it is now. I dig a hole and shine my flashlight into the hole.” I spent many years writing about Philip Roth — my doctoral dissertation is on his work — but I’d moved away from literary scholarship over the past few years. This spring, however, I was invited to write a review of last year's film adaptation of Roth’s 2008 novel, Indignation. Drafting that essay provoked a realization about how my writing has changed.
My abandonment of scholarly writing on literature dovetailed with the beginning of my writing this column. Every two weeks, more or less, for the past three and a half years, I have written a column on teaching for Vitae. After so many words typed in a completely different writing context, returning to academic writing was eye-opening. I quickly realized that I am a much different writer now than when I was a graduate student.
Of course, these columns would never be confused with proper scholarly work. They aren't held to the same standards of rigor, specialized jargon is totally unwelcome, and the only trace of the peer-review process comes from a single editor. But all of that is more or less obvious — I am under no illusion that I am writing scholarly prose in this space.
No, the big surprise had to do with attention to audience. When I was in the business of writing academic work, I was like Philip Roth, shining my flashlight into a hole. My head was always down: All my attention was trained on the books and the ideas that I was writing about. I rarely thought about writing for a specific reader. The point was to uncover something interesting or brilliant. How I uncovered something — or how best to communicate it to readers — rarely factored into my thinking.
Now, by contrast, my writing process focuses heavily on audience. I am always thinking about what readers have read before on my subject, what might draw them into the topic at hand, how to keep their attention, how to offer something useful. My writing now could not exist without a sense of audience.
You don't have to look to hard to find diagnoses for why so much academic writing is bad. It's full of impenetrable jargon. The pressure to publish is such that scholars will write even when they have nothing to say. Or perhaps the subjects of academic writing are so complex and high-flown that they are impossible to write about clearly.
But I think the bigger problem is this ignorance of audience. If academic writing is bad, it's usually because the writer didn't give a single thought to the fact that there might be people — real human beings — who would eventually read it. I think we need to change the way we teach writing in order to encourage all students, but particularly those considering a faculty career, to consider their readers.
Writing is essentially an act of communication: Without a reader, it is almost literally pointless. And yet far too many academics are not trained to think of ourselves as writers, or to think about how best to get our ideas across to another person. Students in my graduate-writing course almost uniformly resist efforts to get them to think about their writing as anything other than the transparent effort to transcribe their work — and these are students who have chosen to take a writing course.
Instructors across the disciplines don't all need to be writing teachers. But our students, at all levels, need to understand that there are better and worse ways of writing anything, over and above issues of grammatical correctness. Those better and worse ways almost inevitably revolve around questions of audience. Have you made your ideas clear to the reader? Have you communicated to the reader the significance of your findings? Have you written charmingly enough so that the reader who doesn't need to read your piece reads it anyway? All writers need to think about their writing as communication, as a mode of interaction with others.
With undergraduates, we can look for ways to break with the standard five-paragraph essay — that deadening form so far from our students' natural modes of communication. We can develop assignments that embrace writing's rhetorical aim and help students relearn the skills of telling another person something important, edifying, or funny.
John Warner has written about his efforts to leave the five-paragraph “monolith” behind; I particularly like an assignment he recounts from his youth, in which his teacher asked students to write directions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The next day, the teacher brought in sandwich-making supplies, and asked the students to make sandwiches, following their own instructions to the letter. The students quickly and memorably learned the ways in which their writing failed its purpose.
Assign your students writing prompts that require them to think through the decisions that shape their writing. Make them engage in writing that has an obvious purpose, that is directed toward a specific audience — writing that has a reason for being, beyond the fact that their professor assigned it.
With graduate students, we can stop treating writing as an afterthought. Too many graduate students receive intensive training on their subjects, but are left to their own devices when it comes time to communicate their work to others. We need to tell graduate students, particularly those outside of the humanities, that writing is more than just reporting their findings (it should be said that “reporting their findings” is not at all a straightforward task).
Writing well is not just about adding flourishes to your real work. It’s part and parcel of the work itself. As soon as graduate students begin to see writing as a skill to take seriously, they will think more about audience, about the reasons why someone else would be interested in their work, and about the reasons why the work is significant.
For all the attention that has been given over the years to the problem of terrible academic writing, few have considered how we may be fueling that phenomenon through our teaching.
When we give writing short shrift in our courses, we send a message to students that writing well isn't important to scholarly work. Instead, we need to emphasize how all of us need to think about readers when we write. When we foreground the essentially rhetorical nature of writing, we lay the groundwork for better academic writing in the future, writing that shines a light away from the hole, not down into it.