On bad writing advice, again


Regular readers of my posts may have noticed that my postings have become less frequent of late. This is in part because I am now only working part time and, as part time people usually say, the workload doesn’t seem to have diminished one little bit. But it’s also because I’m temporarily dumbfounded.

Patter posts were often written in response to a question or to something a bit irritating. So am I just not writing now because I’m not irritated with anything?  Well no.

It’s not that I’ve suddenly mellowed and there is now nothing at all that irritates me. Quite the contrary. There is now a proliferating amount of bad writing advice which makes me extremely irritated. At the moment I can’t even begin to imagine how it’s possible to counteract a lot of this stuff – you know the type of thing, just follow these simple steps, use this app to do this task and it’ll all be easy, here’s a one page infographic on what to do – and by the way how about doing my workshop/course etc.

I’ve posted about the dangers of snake oil writing and research advice before – as have lots of other people whose work is not of this ilk. You know, you just have to check the provenance of the advice, look at people’s cvs, see what research informs their work. These days I’m also tempted to say and look at their writing – if they can’t write particularly well, then there’s not much chance they’ll be able to significantly help.

And there’s really not a lot more to say.

So I’m asking myself why am I so concerned. It’s not as if this is a new problem, although the spread of AI does seem to have promoted a new burst of activity.

Well, I’m not simply worried about people being told that writing is like following a recipe. That it’s just a matter of technique.  And that you simply have to read these tips and techniques. What concerns me at present is that there’s also the matter of what kind of writing is being produced through this advice.

I went back to some of the late John Berger’s writing recently. Berger is a beautiful writer, and someone I come to again and again. Not surprisingly Berger was interested in writing and language. When I opened up his book Confabulations (2016) I saw that I had already highlighted this passage

A language cannot be reduced to a dictionary or stock of words and phrases. Nor can it be reduced to a warehouse of works written in it. A spoken language is a body, a living creature, whose physiognomy is verbal, and whose visceral functions are linguistic. …

Words, terms, phrases can be separated from the creature of their language and used as mere labels. They then become inert and empty. The repetitive use of acronyms is a simple example of this. Most mainstream political discourse today is composed of words which, separated from any creature of language, are insert and dead. And such dead ‘word mongering’ wipes out memory and breeds a ruthless complacency. 

You know I think that this really does sum up what I worry most about with crappy academic writing advice. It leads to dead prose. The manipulation of words which appear to have meaning but are actually, as Berger puts it, inert and empty.

We don’t need more of this in academic writing. We need lively and living words that sit comfortably with the creature of language. We perhaps have to try to feel and hear the creature of language in our writing, not simply follow a set of machine-like steps.

Berger writes about his own writing process thus

After I’ve written a few line I let the words slip back into the creature of their language, And there, they are instantly recognised and greeted by a host of other words, with whom they have an affinity of meaning, or of opposition, or of metaphor or alliteration or rhythm. I listen to their confabulation. Together they are contesting the use to which I put the words I chose. They are questioning the roles I allotted them. So I modify the lines, change a word or two, and submit them again. Another confabulation begins.

I really get this. Writing is a process of thinking, speaking, living and breathing with and through words. And you can’t reduce that to a one page cheat sheet, ten easy steps or a set of phrases that you pick up and use.

Having the appearance of something academic doesn’t actually make the work meaningful and interesting.