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Say what? A mini-manifesto for clear and engaging academic writing

July 27, 2012

This is another in my occasional “Friday Feature” series. Friday Features are published on (surprise!) Fridays, and are longer-form discussions of some aspect of archaeology, history, theory, etc., that doesn’t lend itself to a regular, daily post. Friday Features are archived on a single page, linked at the top, for easy access.

I’m a sucker for tips on how to improve my writing for academic audiences. So when I came across a link to a piece called “Seven Secrets of Stylish Academic Writing,” I clicked and read it, largely with pleasure. They had me at “stylish.”

Helen Sword, of the University of Auckland, presents a good list of advice, she presents it clearly, and with, yes, style. “Start with a hook,” “tell a story,” “be human,” “be concrete” — all good advice.

So good that it’s worth expanding upon. How can we write better as academics? In particular, archaeologists, but good writing is good writing, regardless of the field. And what do we mean by “good writing,” anyway? Those are the topics I’ll address below the break. I’ll even put myself on the line by showing a short example of my own academic writing, and how it could be improved. Maybe not to the point of “stylish,” but as close as I can get.

First, a word on sources and references. Everyone who is serious about writing has his or her favorites. Here is a short list of mine (note that I don’t profit in any way if you click a link or buy a book, this is just for reference):

Some of what comes below is drawn from those, and I’ll point them out where appropriate. Onward.

By “good writing,” I mean writing that is clear, concise, and engaging to a reader regardless of his or her audience position – from a casual reader to an informed member of a particular discipline. I suggest that “clear, concise, and engaging” academic writing is built on three legs: craft, style, and narrative.

Leg 1: Craft

By craft, I mean the basic mechanics like grammar and sentence organization. This is the sloggy side of writing, the side that requires discipline. It never gets easy, but it gets easier, with practice.

Craft can seem basic, but like anything basic, getting it wrong throws the rest of your work into doubt.

For instance, we all know that the number of the subject and the number of the verb must match, for instance. What about when other words come between them, though? Compare:

Your archaeology, as well as your shoes, is exceptional.
His plan maps, no less than his troweling technique, are flawless.

Correct in both cases. Pay attention to the subject: in the first, “archaeology” pairs with “is,” and in the second, “maps” pairs with “are.” I would construct both sentences differently, but the fact remains that sloppy mechanics reflects badly on the rest of our work.

In my opinion, the best single guide to the basics of the craft of writing is Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.” It’s a small book, tightly presented and arranged, and with an astonishing density of good information.

Academic writing, though, presents a special problem: Reliance on passive voice. When we let various forms of “to be” carry our sentences, we obscure who is doing the action.

He will be missed.
My first excavation will always be remembered.

By whom? The reader isn’t told. In the second case, it might be by the writer, or it might be by the crew chief who had to deal with the public works department after the writer shoveled through a sewer line.

Active verbs make sentences more interesting, and they clarify who is performing an action, and upon whom. Active voice is direct and bold and concise. But having said that, passive voice does serve a purpose. Compare the following, and see how the placement of the noun changes the focus of each sentence:

Archaeologists of the early 20th century are little read by modern audiences.
Modern audiences are little interested in archaeologists of the early 20th century.

The first example is about the early 20th century archaeologists, and the second is about modern audiences. Passive voice, then, lets you shift words in a sentence to clarify the emphasis. It’s a good tool, but like any tool, it excels at some jobs and fails at different ones.

Passive voice is also partly to blame (see what I did there?) for the universal knock on academic writing: it’s long-winded, needlessly complex, and seems designed to obfuscate. Constructions like “there is,” “it was not long before” and “the primary reason for” set up passive voice, and we can almost always strike them without remorse.

We should also heed Mark Twain’s advice: “God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God’s adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed.” His point is to let nouns and verbs (particularly active verbs) drive your sentences. When you start to cut adjectives and adverbs, your sentences become leaner and more convincing to a reader. It’s one thing to say a particular site is “exciting,” but it’s quite another (and better) thing to demonstrate that through tight, grammatical sentences propelled by strong verbs and clear nouns.

An example of my own

I’ll put myself on the line here. This is a paragraph chosen more or less at random from my dissertation:

Agricultural census data from 1850 and 1880 show that the Perkins and Dennis families were making maple sugar on the farm for at least three decades, and presumably longer. Considering the sketch above of maple sugar’s place in the slavery debate, how much of this production can be attributed to politics (sugar for freedom), and how much to economics (sugar for profit)? Attempting to answer one way or another is not possible based on the available lines of evidence. Yet I suggest that posing and attempting to answer such a question sets up a false dichotomy—rather than mutually exclusive, the two motivations can be viewed as mutually entangled. Either can be considered a motivation without minimizing the importance of the other as a meaningful activity. I will show that regardless of motivation, maple sugaring was an intensely meaningful activity that articulated with a number of aspects of the Perkins and Dennis families’ histories and lifeworlds.

It’s a decent paragraph, such as it is. I was happy with it, anyway. But it could use some improvement. It’s wordy and overly passive. It contains 149 words in six sentences, for a flabby 24.8 words per sentence. The revision below fixes some of those problems and, to me, preserves all the points I wanted to make:

The 1850 and 1880 agricultural censuses show the Perkins and Dennis families made maple sugar for at least three decades. Maple sugar played a role in the slavery debate, so did either politics (sugar for freedom) or economics (sugar for profit) motivate them? The evidence supports either conclusion. Yet there is a third possibility: The two motivations could be mutually entangled, not mutually exclusive. Regardless of motivation, the Perkins and Dennis families’ maple sugaring was intensely meaningful, and it articulated with many aspects of their family histories and lifeworlds.

This version has 88 words in five sentences, or 17.6 words per sentence. The point is not that every sentence needs to be short, but that almost every sentence can be shorter without sacrificing meaning or nuance. Without question, the reader benefits.

The four-letter words of archaeology: A mini-rant

I’m referring to “probable,” “possible,” and “perhaps.” Sharp-eyed readers will note they all have more than four letters. But these are words we should never use in polite company (again, see Connah for elaboration of the points here).

These words are awful because they imply to the reader that we don’t know what we’re talking about. All writing is argument. We write to convince people of our point of view. If we’re not sure about something, then we don’t have a point of view. Why are we writing?

These words are awful because they convey false neutrality. We like to use them interchangeably. In reality, they are all value judgments. They imply we have done serious reflection and assigned something to one of three categories. Do we define those categories, and what makes something “probable” vs. “possible” vs. “perhaps”? Very, very rarely. Too often — and I’m guilty of this too — we simply use them as synonyms. Moreover, why include something in our writing that doesn’t pass muster with us, the experts? See above.

Leg 2: Style

Style is that quality that makes a piece of writing unique to the writer. A writer with style can take a topic and write it in a way that mirrors nobody else.

This doesn’t have to mean flashy or overwrought. Read an essay by E.B. White (like “Death of a Pig” or “Farewell, My Lovely“) and note his casual eloquence. Read anything by Mark Twain, or by Ernest Hemingway, or by H.L. Mencken. Each has a style and a voice all his own. They may favor more or less complex sentences and grammar, topics from the homespun to the political to the fantastic, but they build their writing on concrete phrases, careful word choice, and fresh imagery.

As readers, we enjoy being presented with novel things. Zinsser (2001) puts it well in noting that people don’t stop reading something because it’s too good or because it doesn’t read like anything they’ve ever seen before. Fresh and novel = good.

Cultivating a style and voice is an asset to our writing. It comes through practice, and through channeling how we naturally talk into how we write. Think about how you talk about something that you’re passionate about. Maybe it’s homebrewing: You have strong feelings about the best kind of beer to make, you are willing to argue for one type of hops over another, and you have a deep knowledge of the various ways to sparge and an evangelical need to convince your fellow homebrewers that your method is right. Moreover, you wouldn’t phrase and present your diatribes passionate arguments about homebrewing the same way as any of your fellow brewers because of your unique position and life experiences.

When we’re  passionate about our writing topic, that passion and style comes through in our writing.

The only way to develop a style is to write, write, write. Essays and blogs are great for that, as we can write our passions. It’s also good to read what we write aloud, and ask “does that sound like something I’d say? How would I say that in real life?”

The more we practice, the more our voice spills over into all our writing.

Leg 3: Narrative

Narrative means writing that is like a story: It has a defined beginning, a middle, and an end. What follows is heavily influenced by Connah (2010) and certain writings of Rosemary Joyce and Ian Hodder, as well as the contributions from the Historical Archaeology 1998 32(1) theme issue, “Archaeologists as Storytellers.”

Narrative structure is a natural fit for archaeological writing because it mirrors the lives of people. But narrative writing ramps up the reader’s expectations. If something proposes to be a story, then it should on some level entertain. There should be a connection between events: the story’s beginning, middle and end. And things that do not directly drive the story should be minimized or excluded.

Wait, ignore data? This is science, we can’t do that! Well, we do it all the time. Think of what’s lost when we go from ¼ inch to ½ inch mesh in screening. Or when we don’t float. Or don’t take C14 samples. Or if we put more interpretive focus on one particular ceramic type that’s very tightly dated. In each case, we’re making decisions about how to collect and interpret, and therefore write, about our data. We’re imposing a sort of narrative structure.

If we embrace that, if we make clear the decisions that lead us to give more emphasis on some data than others, we end up with a written record that has a narrative structure (“We did this, then made this decision, which led us to do this”), and is more intellectually honest as well.

I’d suggest that all archaeological scholarship, from the densest theory piece to the simplest site report, is narrative by nature. We simply don’t acknowledge it, and we don’t consciously use the elements that make a compelling story: everything from attention to craft, to voice and style, to characters, motivations, and conflicts.

What would this look like in practice? There are great examples out there, starting with the Historical Archaeology volume I mentioned, and including parts of Jim Deetz’s classic In Small Things Forgotten, Robert Ascher and Charles H. Fairbanks’ Excavation of a Slave Cabin: Georgia, USA, Janet Spector’s What This Awl Means, and Rebecca Yamin and her team’s work on Independence Mall in Philadelphia. In every case, the authors craft compelling stories based on robust data and analysis. They just don’t read like 99 percent of archaeological writing, and that’s a very good thing.

A key point to keep in mind is that we’re usually not writing about our discipline, be it archaeology or neuroscience or evolutionary biology or whatever. We’re writing about people engaged in the work of those disciplines, or about people from the position of academics working within those disciplines. The closer we remain to people (or animals or geological formations or whatever key noun our work deals with) in our writing and analysis, the easier it is to write as narrative, and the more compelling our writing is to readers regardless of their position.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at some of the published examples of “the best science writing” out there. One place is this 2011 list from Slate. Some are by academics, some are by journalists, but all are compelling stories dealing with complex topics with high “science” content.

Bringing it all home

Any writing about writing invites criticism. There are likely errors of grammar and usage here, and places where I could have easily rewritten a passive sentence as active. This really emphasizes my point, though, that what I’m calling “good writing” is hard work. Every revision improves your draft. A blog post necessarily doesn’t go through the rigorous editing and revising process that an article does.

A bigger problem is what I’ve left out. This isn’t the format to go deep into what I’m not saying about academic, particularly archaeological, writing. I’m not commenting on the empirical status of archaeological evidence, raising the ethical issues of voicing people of the past, or suggesting that rigorous data collection and analysis and reporting are not important.

I am suggesting that we be aware of the possibilities of writing within our discipline, we expand our techniques, we hone our style and develop our voices, we attempt to reach our audiences more effectively, and we be intellectually honest in the way we chronicle our work.

I’m excited to see reactions, positive or negative, as well as suggestions for further reading. Feel free to share them in the comments.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 1, 2012 5:17 pm

    Thank you for the insightful post. My writing experience has been a challenge. I received my bachelor’s degree in journalism, where I was taught to write clearly and concisely (for tenth-grade level, I believe we were told). When I entered graduate school for history, I read some of the writing of my fellow students and it was complex, filled with jargon, and at times downright incomprehensible. Therefore, I spent several years trying to make my writing style similar so that I could appear as “smart” as other students. It then took another year or so to realize the ridiculousness of what I was doing. Writing so that people can actually *understand* what you are saying is not just okay – it is the entire point of the exercise! Hopefully it won’t take all graduate students as painfully long to reach that conclusion.

    • John R. Roby permalink*
      August 1, 2012 5:41 pm

      Thanks Lynn! Very similar experience here: the journalism degree and working at newspapers has strongly influenced my writing style — or at least the style I aspire to. I turn out hopelessly muddled paragraphs with the best of them, but I try to edit, edit, edit.

      I think the emphasis on paper length that we experience as students is part of the problem. “A 25-page term paper” and so on. Padding is the enemy of clarity, but it’s easy. The great quote attributed to Twain comes to mind: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have time.”

  2. August 18, 2012 8:34 am


    What an excellent post! You captured and distilled a lot of my complaints about my own writing, let alone that of others. I recently got hold of some organizational-speak and couldn’t decide whether to run from it or stuff it for the mantle. OrgSpeak may be the bastard step-child of academic writing: an attempt to sound smartish wrapped in babblous gobbledygook so convoluted as to actually serve as a bar to participation.

    On another front, I’ve reached a point where I almost stop reading at the sight of either “I think” or “I believe.” Either of those phrases used introductorily tell me the writer/speaker hasn’t even convinced himself.

    I’ve bookmarked this post as something to which I may return next time I catch my skies too full of thunder and lightning.


  1. A mini-manifesto for clear and engaging academic writing (taken from Digs & Docs. Great post!) | Writing my Academic Book in 12 Months

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