A week or so ago, I had a Twitter discussion with a few academics about writing pet peeves. I’d started the exchange with this simple request:
Free advice to academics: if you find yourself writing “in many ways,” stop and delete it.
Other suggestions followed. Alice Daer suggested “the ways in which.” Robert Jackson offered “could we not suggest that” and “is this not the case that.” And David Morris pointed out that he’d devoted an entire blog post to the specimen “in particular ways,” which is clearly related to my starting example. Morris writes,
First on the chopping block: “X does Y in particular ways.” Within contemporary humanities, this is often applied to cultural objects, i.e. “Michael Jackson’s body of work troubles gender binaries in particular ways.” This, like so much academic mumblespeak, expresses a sentiment of precision while, at best, delaying the moment when the writer actually has to be precise.
“Academic mumblespeak” is just the word for it. Morris’s since added a new entry in his budding seriesÂ on the subject, this time on “I want to argue that…” (Why not just argue it?)
This phenomenon is related to my recent post about why digital printing won’t save academic publishing. In that post I discussed the low costs of printing, and I suggested that instead of trying to reduce costs by marginal amounts, academic presses would be better off planning better catalogs and investing in editing and promotion to realize the sales potential of key titles.
Academic mumblespeak is a silent enemy that is destroying scholarly publishing from within. (Note that I didn’t say, “I want to suggest that academic mumblespeak is a silent enemy that is destroying scholarly publishing in many ways.”)
Mumblespeak makes potentially interesting works unreadable, contributing to their esotericism. Good editing does not involve cutting material, but cutting chaff. I’d wager that the average scholarly book’s length could be reduced by 1/3 to 1/2 without removing any actual content. Such effort would do two things: first, it would reduce the size of books, making them more approachable, affordable, and legible to a broader readership. Second, it would incrementally reduce the costs of printing, since fewer pages costs less on a digital or an offset press.
I’m about to finish Alien Phenomenology, which will become the shortest book I have yet written. It might not be the thinnest in print (I have some tricks up my sleeve, stay tuned), but it exemplifies a principle: a bigger book is not a better book. A better book is one that is affordable and contains efficiently written good ideas. A better book is one that people actually read.