On Academic Writing

Academic writing is a difficult skill to master, one that causes countless students and even professors endless consternation. With a little practice, however, the attentive student will find his prose immensely improved.

1. More is better. Never use one word where three will suffice; never use a short word where a long one will do. There exists no rhetorical device quite like the superfluity of vocabulary to impress and overwhelm one’s readership. In those cases where you cannot easily find more words to add, try repeating a word in a different form. “The word superfluity was mentioned three times” becomes “Mentions of the word superfluity were mentioned three times.” The constant effort of trying to untangle your sentences will cause a fog of stupor to descend on your readers, preventing them from paying close attention to your content.

2. Quote liberally. Never underestimate the value of a well-placed block quotation. With minimal effort, you can easily add a hundred words or more to your piece while demonstrating the depth and breadth of your knowledge. When you quote someone else who said something smart, you appear smart by association. Don’t waste too much time integrating the quotation into the surrounding text or crafting a suitable introduction; just drop it in there and force your readers to follow along. With luck, the effort of trying to understand the relation of a quotation to the surrounding text will distract your readers from critiquing your argument.

3. Be vague. Don’t make your arguments too strong; a clear, direct argument is the easiest to refute. In fact, it’s best if you don’t make an argument at all. Rather than saying, “The sky is blue” or “I argue that the sky is blue,” say, “It could be argued that the sky is blue.” The combination of hedges and the passive voice will obscure your argument sufficiently to deflect unwanted criticism away from you. If the reader is able to penetrate your obfuscatory writing and examine the argument directly, you will be able to hide behind the defense that it wasn’t really your argument anyway.

4. Don’t Worry about Sources. Nobody reads those things anyway, except for the poor editors burdened with the task of formatting them in a consistent and logical way. It’s your job do dazzle us all with your intellect; it’s the poor editor’s job to toil away tracking down page numbers and publication information while keeping you safe from allegations of inadequate attribution or plagiarism.

As the philosopher Calvin once said, “The purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity. With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog!” So get to it, writers; you’ve got peer reviewers to dupe.

On the Welsh and “Presume”


My dear X,

Regarding the attached: Let us set aside for the moment the fact that your heroine, a woman of deep perception and understanding, fails to grasp that when she alights from a train in Wales and is spoken to by a Welshman, he is likely speaking Welsh–not gobbledygook–to her. Let us also ignore, for the present, that the only thing she quotes as intelligible from the gentleman’s speech is, in point of fact, rendered as gobbledygook. Let us instead focus on the verb “presume.”

The job of a writer is to know, to the best of their ability, the meanings and connotations of the words they choose to use in their writing. It appears that you are using “presume” with its most common meaning here (“to suppose to be true without proof”), but let us reason together: your heroine and her friend board a train for Wales; Cardiff is announced as the final stop; the two travelers disembark from the train in Cardiff; a man approaches them and speaks a language other than English. How much more proof does one need that the Welsh in Wales speak Welsh?

It may be that you mean “assume” here, but I cannot presume to assume that. You must have a good reason for using “presume”: perhaps the subtle connotations of the word communicate something about our heroine? I have  corrected the MS to clarify this point.