Don’t try to write “classy” – starting the phd


One of the earliest books on academic writing in the social sciences is by Howard Becker. Or  Howie as I gather he likes to be known. As I don’t know him, I’m compelled to call him by the full name on his books. No Howie for me. That might seem like a silly thing to say, but it is relevant to this post, as you’ll see.

Now, in Writing for Social Scientists, Becker describes four types of persona that academic writers assume when they take up their pens –

  1. the writer who wants to be classy. Becker describes the classy writer persona as one that leads us to use fancy language, big words for little ones, esoteric words for commonplace ones, and elaborate sentences making subtle distinctions … Our language strives for the elegance we would like to embody and feel. (p. 34) The “classy” writer persona is one that many beginning academic researchers feel that they have to adopt, Becker suggests, in part because they think it is the right way to write.
  2. the writer who wants to emphasize their esoteric expertise. According to Becker, this “inside dopester” likes to appear knowledgeable, to be the kind of person who knows “inside stuff” ordinary folks will have to wait to read about in next week’s newspaper. They use lots of unexplained details, which leads readers to accept what they say, because “How could someone who knows so much be wrong?”
  3. the writer who wants to claim intimate knowledge because “I was there.” This writer persona alternates abstracted descriptions with eye witness accounts; these I-saw-this sections work to make the impersonal claims appear true.

Becker is very concerned about these three academic writing persona. None of them is without significant problems, he says, although all of them can be readily found in journals and books. Becker favours a more ordinary, straightforward style of writing.

So 4.  the writer who conveys a more everyday “folksy” persona. This persona, Becker proposes, produces the authority in their writing through plain talk, evidence and argument, rather than rhetorical flourishes.

Becker accepts that none of the four academic writer persona is correct, or incorrect. Rather, each does different things. Each positions their readers in different ways, some of which are more manipulative and more alienating and hierarchical than others. But I guess that you could argue that Becker’s down-home folksy style, his number four, is in fact seductive in its own way, and that its very ordinariness is what gives it a particular kind of authority. There’s no BS with that Howie, what he says must be right.

But Becker’s primary concern is for doctoral researchers and what they learn to do. He worries that they are particularly drawn to the classy persona, that’s the one that uses big words and long complex sentences. Relatively new academics, Becker says

…know plain English but don’t want to use it to express their hard-earned knowledge. Remember the student who said, “Gee, Howie, if you say it that way it sounds like something anyone could say.” If you want to convince yourself that the time and effort spent getting your degree are worth it, that you are changing in some way that will change your life, then you want to look different from everyone else, not the same. That accounts for a truly crazy cycle in which students repeat the worst stylistic excesses the journals contain, learn that those very excesses are what makes their work different from what every damn fool knows and says, write more articles like those they learned from, submit them to journals whose editors publish them because nothing better is available (and because academic journals cannot afford expensive copy editing) and thus provide the raw material for another generation to learn bad habits from. (p. 41)

I share Becker’s concern about PhDers adopting “classy” academic writing early on, as do many of my colleagues who write and teach about academic writing.

So a plea… For those of you just beginning a doctorate, and for all of the rest of us, Becker’s words are worth remembering. We always have a choice about whether to adopt a “classy persona” and produce “dull, verbose, pretentious writing” in the name of academic excellence.

And if you haven’t read it, check out Howie’ s book. It’s an oldie but a goodie.