Freedom from Bad Academic Writing

The following  column on George Orwell’s advice to free students from bad academic writing is worth reading:

In two decades of teaching, I have worked with exceptionally bright undergraduates. Once they enter graduate school, however, they conform to the “smelly little orthodoxies” of theory and the jargon-ridden writing of their discipline. I’ve always despised jargon that deadens prose and will be passé by the time these young conformists hit old age. Future generations will have to decipher why words and phrases such as “subaltern,” “post-structuralist,” “late capitalism” meant to the scribbling class of early 21st century academics.

The advice Orwell gives is similar to advice Winston Churchill gave on good writing. This passage says it best (from Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”):

“Orwell leaves us with a list of simple rules:

* Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

* Never use a long word where a short one will do.

* If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

* Never use the passive where you can use the active.

* Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

* Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I am posting this advice for my own students and as a reminder to myself (fallen creature that I am).

Jonathan Bean is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Professor of History at Southern Illinois University, and editor of the Independent book, Race & Liberty in America: The Essential Reader.
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