How (not) to write: nine more tips for academics in the humanities



After the publication of “How Not to Write”, my number of Twitter followers soared to 195.

The internet called me a racist and sexist “mansplainer” vying for a seat in Donald Trump’s cabinet.

With the election fast approaching, the moment seemed right for part two – to secure my seat in a Trump White House. With that in mind, here are nine more tips for academics in the humanities on how (not) to write.

Use French in your English. For beginners, start with just a few words: the longue durée; ancien régime; genrearché; belles-lettres; cause célèbre; évolué; les damnés; milieu; raison d’être; œuvre; en masse and episteme; connoisseur; and fin de siècle.

Eventually, start leaving entire phrases in their original French: distinguish between actual archives and “memory or the desire for origins, la recherche du temps perdu’”. Diagnose this as, “l’effet du réel.” Don’t look with a feverish search for origins, but with le mal radical, with evil itself.

When you’re an academic superstar, you’ll be able to leave entire paragraphs in French untranslated. Adopt this practice sooner rather than later. French, being so radically isolated from English for many millennia, translates poorly into English.

More importantly, assume your readers are fluent in French. This will absolve yourself from accusations of Eurocentrism.

Occasionally, German words will suffice wherever French ones cannot be found: Lebenswelt, Lebensraum, Zeitgeist and Literaturwissenschaft, for example. The addition of German in your English prose is important. It demonstrates your proficiency in changing the source language from French to German on Google Translate.

Be sure to use ‘very’. Insert the word “very” for dramatic effect to make something unremarkable sound profound, as in, “her performance destabilized the very distinctions between the natural and artificial through which discourse about genders operated”; and: “the globalization paradigm reinstated the very suppositions that cultural theories had criticized”. And (my personal favourite): “to speak about post-colonial pedagogy from the vantage point of the Western academy is to engage with the very questions we bring to the classroom”.

The very use of the word very invariably varies according to very variable variables.

Do use ‘do’. Do stuff that you do not normally “do”. “Doing gender,” for example, “involves a complex of socially guided perceptual, interactional, and micropolitical activities”. As one speaker explained, “I do the philosophy of art aesthetics for a living”. You can also do work, as in, “I proffer ways in which ‘do work’ analytically, discursively and materially”.

But be sure to put shudder quotes around the phrase “do work”, lest someone think regions are actually doing work. You do not want your readers to think doing work means “trying to pick up a member of their preferred sex”, as the Urban Dictionary explains.

Employ things. There is not much employment in academia these days, which is why you should be employing things as much as possible. Please make sure to employ things, not people. As in: “Arab Palestinian nationalists employed the map of Palestine as a prominent symbol as early as the 1930s.”

When in doubt, try to avoid telling us who was doing the employing, as in “symbolic objects were employed not to shape national identity, but rather produce the very framework of nationhood” (note: see discussion of very above). Or, in other words, to employ academic examples, the employment of the word employment has ballooned even while actual employment in academia has not been employed to understand to the increasing employments.

Lists, plastic wrenches and jack-o’-lanterns. There are a lot of great ways to come up with titles. Obfuscating quotes with grammatical errors and antiquated speech are great choices, as previously noted last episode. Another is to list three seemingly unrelated things. Examples:

a. Sylvia Wynter, Sociogenesis and Philosophy in the Americas
b. Luminous Grain, Flickering Lines and Piles of Paper
c. Criminologists, duct tape and Indigenous peoples

I’m going to assume the last paper is about the history of indigenous peoples tying up criminologists with duct tape and laughing evilly.

Prefixes. Use prefixes to invent new words as often as possible.

Spacio-temporal relationships; geo-political strategies; trans-agential mediators; socio-spatial imaginaries; the techno-industrial North; ethno-methodological approaches; geo-piracy debates; eco-liberalisation policies; and an ethno-class of people.

Occasionally, the prefix can be a word, not a prefix, as in verbal-ideological worlds or an order-organising principle. Try to include as many as possible in one sentence, as in: “maintain a distinction between Indigenous knowledge-extra-commercium and scientific knowledgeas-product”.

Slashes and dashes. Sometimes, you’ll get stuck on word choice. When in doubt, write all possibilities that you could have chosen, separated by slashes: the malleable bodies/systems; the time/space of governmentality; regimes of power/knowledge; hegemony of the church/clergy; the question of who/what we are; an act of expression/narration; the affect/emotion literature; the racism/ethnicism complex; moral/political laws; in Aristotelian Unmoved/Mover terms; and degodding/de-supernaturalizing our modes of being human.

My personal favourite? The Coloniality of the Being/Power/Truth/Freedom.

As a superstar, you’ll eventually be able to include phrases on both sides, of the “/”. The point is to include as many words as possible into a single concept, as in: the theocentric, “sinful by nature” conception/ “descriptive statement” of the human.

Don’t forget those shudder quotes! You don’t want your readers to accidentally misinterpret a “descriptive statement” as a descriptive statement.

Mask incoherence with elegance. In my previous article, I described how you can use the word “as” to mask incoherence. You can also use the word “of”.

“Of” allows you to make two unrelated words seem related, as in: the coloniality of folkloristics; geographies of the displaced; character of calculability; pedagogies of entanglement; economies of science; sociology of absences; and political economy of knowledge.

These phrases are great because they imply a metaphorical or metaphysical relationships between the two nouns. Good writers know that using concrete examples is a gateway to clear writing. And clear writing can lead to occasional trans-socio-techno-absences of abstractness and inefficient ratios of wordage/knowledge/impact.

Slash and dash. Remember, you can slash up a word into its constituent symbols with a “/” or “(“.  As in: it is related to issues of dis/ability. Or: everybody will also be(come more) monstrous in relation to this ideal.

The words have been inserted into the text, then read with our own world in/sight.

Author Bio: Zachary J. Foster is a PhD candidate in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University and a product manager at


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