Monday, November 07, 2005

Holding academic writing in awe!

Read this...

"Too precise a specification of information-processing requirements incurs a risk of a decision-maker's over- or underestimating, resulting in the inefficient use of costly resouces. Too little precision in specifying needed processing capacity gives no indication with respect to the means for the procurement of needed resources."

Some time back, I would have been in awe of this kind of writing. Now, I am more confident that a lot of writing, especially of the academic kind, is needlessly complex because the writer hasn't taken the care to simplify it or hasn't understood it clearly enough. As Richard Feynman said, if you can't explain it in terms that a freshman can understand, than you don't understand it either. And it is disrespectful because none of us would speak like that in our conversations.

Sample some of the World's Worst Writing from here reproduced below for convenience!
The academic journal Philosophy and Literature chose the following three pieces of writing in its "bad style" contest. Irony and parody were excluded from the contest, so all three are genuine pieces of academic writing.

"The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power."
Judith Butler, professor of rhetoric and comparative literature,University of California 1997
"If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to "normalise" formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality"
Homi K Bhabha, professor of English, University of Chicago 1994
"As my story is an august tale of fathers and sons, real and imagined, the biography here will fitfully attend to the putative traces in Manet's work of 'les noms du pré, a Lacanian romance of the errant paternal phallus ('Les Non-dupes errent'), a revised Freudian novella of the inferential dynamic of paternity which annihalates (and hence enculturates) through the deferred introduction of the third term of insemination the phenomeno-logically irreducible dyad of the mother and child."
Steven Z Levine in Twelve Views of Manet's Bar (Princeton UP 1996)

And one for my engineering buddies...
Short int, usually abbreviated to short, is normally the same as int, except when int is the same as long, in which case short will be shorter, if you see what I mean.
Ivor Horton, being uncharacteristically opaque on C programming

I find this important because simplicity of communication still hasn't found its way in most academic writing! And I remember lots of it still make its way into mine. I had this incident in my eighth grade English class where we were supposed to submit an essay. Yours sincerely wrote a nice and neat essay, then opened Roget's thesaurus and substituted a complex word for every simple one...and if you substitute frigid for cold without knowing its context, you could be in for a nasty surprise! Needless to say, I was very embarassed!

Anyways, the reason why a lot of academic writing is held in awe and the style keeps getting propagated can be boiled to one prime reason...the usage of passive voice!

First read this,
The reason for Locke's frequent repetition lies in his distrust of the accuracy of the naming power of words.

And now read this,
Locke frequently repeated himself because he did not trust words to name things accurately.

The second one is so much more smooth, because the crucial action in the sentence is expressed as a verb and not as a noun. I am thankful to my professor for pointing this out. Verbs impart energy to a sentence. Nouns make it seem like through plodding through mud. I could write well, but it did not mean that it read well!

And oh! Here follows a better version of the first sentence in the beginning of this blought (blog-thought)!

"When a decision-maker specifies too precisely the resources he needs to process information, he may over- or underestimate them and thereby use costly resources inefficiently. But if he is not precise enough, he may not indicate how those resources should be procured."

Less verbose, more verbs!

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