As the rain pounded Houston this fall, I camped out in a conference room on the third floor of the library of an excellent liberal-arts college. I’d been brought to the campus to work with pretenure faculty members on their book proposals. Between appointments, I sneaked looks at my computer to follow the ravages of Hurricane Harvey.
I read accounts blaming Texans for not heeding warnings of the dangers of untrammeled growth, poor city planning, the price of paving over wetlands, and, of course, global warming. Because of arrogance or willful ignorance, these critics noted, Texans believed they would somehow be exempt from inevitable destruction.
For two days, I met one-on-one with young scholars. To each, I pointed out that the entire second floor of this very library had been emptied to make space for the ways in which knowledge is produced in the 21st century. I told many of them a story I’d heard recently: A distinguished historian, toward the end of his life, tried to donate his exquisite collection of books. His university’s librarians didn’t want it. No one, in fact, wanted all those volumes. The books ended up being destroyed.
That we are living in a time of catastrophic change in the publishing business (not to mention other realms) is not news. Many people have seen it coming and have warned that if academics don’t adapt, they are going to go the route of the black rhino. Between appointments, I saw on Twitter two graphs released by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences of the number of Ph.D.s in the humanities being awarded, and the number of jobs in those disciplines. The first spiked up like the kind of trail I find challenging to hike even when I’m super-fit, and the other looked like the sweetest way to end a marathon — sharply downhill.
But we’re not talking trails and races here. We’re talking about people’s lives, about young scholars who have invested years of soul-sucking toil, amassed hobbling amounts of debt, and delayed the gratification of job security to enter a market that is as saturated as the Houston soil. People who find these numbers surprising have had their heads buried in the sand long enough to start growing roots.
The faculty members I met with had already won the job lottery. They had beaten out hundreds of talented peers for increasingly rare tenure-track positions. They were supported by a college wealthy enough to give them reasonable teaching schedules and time off to complete the scholarship they were expected to produce. They taught earnest students, enjoyed shared governance with amicable colleagues and administrators, and got to live in a picturesque place.
And then I came to town to give them the bad news.
There was nothing wrong with their book proposals, nothing that would have raised concerns from their academic mentors or peers. They had all learned the secret handshake. They had read everything important in their fields, digested essential ideas, and could spit them back with appropriate citations. They had mastered the jargon and habits of mind of their disciplines.
And that was the problem. They had been disciplined, painfully, and trained to write in ways that had tormented them as graduate students, when they’d read and reread scholarly texts and spent hours trying to wrest the meaning from the prose and doubting their own intelligence. Now they were the ones writing dense and impenetrable sentences. They’d earned their stripes, and in doing so, had made their work unpalatable to any except the few in their own speciated niches.
Each proposal launched directly into a flat description of the project without spending a nanosecond trying to engage the reader. Too many read like undergraduate papers that assume a captive audience of one, or dissertations whose readerships you can count on a hand. I imagined that the sales figures for most of these books would number in the high two digits, even though the topics were compelling and some even timely.
Most of these fledgling scholars had made the same mistakes, which made my job easier. When you are waist-deep in a big, muddy revision of your dissertation, it can be hard to remember that not everyone is going to find your topic fascinating. None of the proposals did anything in first few paragraphs to pique my curiosity. Not one asked a question I wanted to know the answer to. The work was choked with polysyllabic prose and barren of signs of human life.
Three decades ago, when I started work as an editorial assistant at Oxford University Press, it had begun publishing scholarly monographs after being mostly a purveyor of Bibles and books for the general reader. Acquiring a list of important but narrow studies was as easy as trick-or-treating in an affluent neighborhood. And you could count on libraries to buy many hundreds of copies of each book, enough to keep prices affordable. Those were the days — rich and fat. It’s probably how real-estate developers in Houston once felt.
The whole enterprise has changed since then, but apparently no one bothered to explain how things work now to new assistant professors. Without a library market, university presses act more like commercial publishers, selecting books that will find readers — real people willing to plop down a chunk of change because they need to read the book to do their job, or because they hope it will bring them pleasure.
How many monographs are written with the reader’s pleasure in mind? How many are truly necessary?
Academic publishers now have signing goals, so that they must be mindful of how much coin their list will bring in. Some, especially those who publish reference books, look to build a strong backlist that will sell for many years. But those are not dissertations that have been turned into books.
Many academics wrongly think that technological advances and the ability to print on demand should lower the costs of publishing. But there’s still plenty of overhead: the human effort it takes to create a book out of a manuscript and get it into the world.
Most of the proposal writers I met with realized that — in order to find a market — their books would have to be used in the college classroom. So they included lists of courses in which their monographs could be assigned. Take a minute to think about how many entire single-author books you assign in your courses. How long are those books? How are they written? The chances are slim that a scholarly monograph is going to become required reading on a lot of syllabi.
Likewise, believing that scholarly books will cross disciplinary lines is mostly magical thinking. Sure, historians and anthropologists could, theoretically, be interested in books on literature or sociology, but not if they’re filled with discipline-specific jargon.
Many of the projects I saw could easily have been turned into two or three journal articles, or, if I’m being brutally honest, one really good one. But the expectation for tenure in the humanities is a book. Or two. So graduate students are encouraged to write dissertations that will earn them a degree, and then turn those hundreds of pages into monographs that will win them tenure. But there’s a gap between what’s being written and what readers are willing to pay for — or struggle through.
In my consultations with these assistant professors, I set aside certain problems that were too large to deal with in a brief conference — questions about the scope of their topics, about whether their arguments were worth making, about what market they would ever find. Instead, I chose to focus on the easiest thing to fix: how to write something so that it has the best shot at being published.
For years now, you could find in this publication and others warnings from those who argue that academics’ lack of attention to their prose is suicidal. Each week you can read about the dire state of scholarly writing from people like Steven Pinker, Helen Sword, Michael Munger, me, and others. We have been producing the equivalent of “flood maps,” warning of the hazards of rampant growth and suggesting ways to mitigate the damage. Surely it’s better to heed these cautions early than to hear the resounding “Thanks, but it’s not right for us” rejections that will follow from editors and publishers of scholarly books.
I suspect, based on our lively interactions at the college, that most of these assistant professors are excellent teachers, capable of making difficult concepts accessible. On the page, however, they had contorted themselves into academicbots, devoid of warmth, humor, and humanity.
The storm photos from Houston hurt my heart. So did my conversations with pretenure faculty members. Next month, I’ll outline some of the specific strategies I suggested to these scholars to make their projects more appealing — and more fun and exciting for them to write.
Dear Pretenure Faculty Member:
You were an excellent student, a deep thinker, curious, maybe a little quirky. You loved learning and got interested — so interested — in things most people didn’t care much about. You lived to read, to question, to puzzle and ponder. Back in the day, you may even have loved to write.
Then you went to graduate school, and the joy of being a pupil got pummeled out of you. Years of hazing — being told by professors that you weren’t getting it: your ideas too obvious, your prose too uncomplicated — made you a little sour, a bit less enthusiastic about the whole knowledge-production business.
Early on, you felt capable. Then you were assigned to read the work of the best minds in your field, and found yourself rereading — over and over — paragraphs whose meaning you couldn’t extract. You shook your head. Blamed your incomprehension on a hangover. Got new glasses.
Reading became an exercise in intellectual rigor. You learned to extract useful nuggets and to ignore what you didn’t understand. You read the luminaries in your field and aped their sentences. You tried to sound on the page like those academics you most admired. In class, you mimicked the speech patterns of your professors.
You learned the secret handshakes and shibboleths without questioning, or even noticing, the changes taking place in your language. You hid behind the third person, used the passive voice when you could, and shied away from making blunt assertions and bold arguments. You wrote nothing you couldn’t back up with a zillion footnotes. You began to pad your ideas with throat-clearing statements and ready-made phrases, taking 25 pages to say what what could have been plainly expressed in 10.
Here’s what I want you to know: The emperor has no clothes. Yes, the intellectual heavyweights did have big ideas; they did posit new theories that changed their disciplines or the world. That doesn’t mean all of their writing is good or should be imitated. For the most part, you mold yourself after them at your own peril.
Your advisers were smart, caring people who came of age in a different time. They taught you as they were taught, expecting you to reap the same rewards they did. But their training methods and advice are not doing you any favors in today’s world, academic or otherwise. That dissertation on which you worked so long and hard is probably not a book and may never be a book. It was the last hurdle in the hazing process, but it won’t do you much good outside the fraternity.
And the fact is, many of you — especially those working in visiting, part-time, and other nontenure-track positions — will have to learn to survive off campus.
Perhaps you sent out hundreds of job applications and got zero tenure-track interviews. You heard murmurings when you started grad school about the academic job market, about how rough it was, but you were always a star student. You would be the exception. Now you’re eking it out on the adjunct path, pulling espressos and tutoring SAT takers. Bitterness threatens to consume you.
Or. You snagged a gig as a full-time, nontenure-track lecturer. You teach too many classes and worry each year whether your contract will be renewed. You devote all your time to students. The questions, the emails, the texts never stop. You give them everything you have, and still they want more. They love you, but your job security is tenuous.
Or. You finished your dissertation and, against odds no one in the state of Nevada would take, you landed one of those rare tenure-track jobs. You hustle to prepare for your classes and grade papers between committee meetings. Your own writing and research gets back-burnered. But the clock, it ticks. Third-year review comes too soon, and you’re making progress. You have a book project that’s based on your thesis. You know that books and dissertations are different, but you’re not exactly sure how. No one has ever taught you, or even talked about, how to write a book. You figure you might have picked it up through a process of osmosis.
You start your book’s introduction by writing, “This project looks at X,” and then you say what X is. You might claim that no one has ever looked at X before. Perhaps you’ll be brave and argue that those who have studied X got it wrong. You assume that, because you find your topic interesting (or once did), others will as well.
Here’s the bad news. While you could count on one hand the number of copies you had to make of your dissertation, your book will need to find a bigger market. It’s no longer anyone’s job to read your work. Now it’s up to you to seduce your readers, to entice them to heed you.
I don’t blame you for not knowing any of this. As a professor, a writer, and a former book editor myself, I want to help you succeed in the academic-industrial complex. Here are some writing tips you may not have gotten from your advisers:
As you write, imagine an actual reader. Not your thesis adviser or one of your grad-school pals. Think of someone smart in ways you value — someone who is not an academic, or at least not in your field. It might be your mother, or your favorite undergraduate. The question such readers ask themselves as they scan your writing: Why should I care about this? In the first pages of your work, explain how your research matters, and do so in language that these intelligent, nonacademic readers will understand.
Write the way you teach. Imagine leading a college seminar on your topic. What background do people need? How can you explain clearly where your work enters the conversation? (Note: This is not the same as providing an exhaustive literature review to prove you’ve done your homework.)
Whose prose do you love? Think about scholarly work you find pleasurable to read. What makes it enjoyable? Which academic authors do you most want to have dinner with because their personalities come alive on the page? Reread their work to figure out how they managed that. Steal their moves.
Write so someone who knows you will recognize your voice. You want your readers to say, “This sounds like you.” Not like a neophyte slinger of polysyllabic Latinate diction, but the best you — the you who loved to read and write, the you who gets good teaching evaluations. A strong voice makes readers feel that a human is speaking directly to them. On the page, be someone the reader wants to have dinner with.
Remember what initially interested you in your topic. Recover the excitement of unearthing new material or reaching a startling conclusion from your data. What’s the part you talk about when you describe your work to friends? Know where your juicy bits are.
Tell a story. Narrative desire is hot in all of us. Go deep into your notes to find an anecdote that contains the seeds of your entire argument and start there. That will probably be the easiest and most fun section to write.
Search for — and destroy — pretentious language. You know which words you use to make yourself sound smart. Remember that you are smart; don’t slum in the ghetto of cant to try to prove it. Trust that your ideas are good enough not to have to fancy them up with jargon. (If you’re worried about lack of complexity or depth, think harder.) Use technical terms when necessary, but only after you’ve introduced the concepts they represent.
Clarity is a good thing. When you find yourself perpetrating one of those long sentences loaded with 25-cent words, type the phrase, “by that I mean,” and see what you write next. Keep that explanation, but go back and delete “by that I mean” — and also, maybe, the long preceding sentence.
Cut as much as you can. Make sure your sentences are not too long, too short, or too similar. Vacuum out junk phrases. Omit needless words by using simple editing tricks.
Start your revisions with a new blank document. Re-vision: See again. After you’ve spent years working on something, you know which pieces actually fit in your manuscript and which ones you shoehorned in to please someone else or to cover your butt. Cut the parts that bored you to write. Start over, with your most exciting material. (Yes, I know how hard that is, and it never gets easier. And yet this technique always pays off.)
Use technology. If you’re comfortable with PowerPoint, try using it to make a new outline. Move chapters and concepts around until they flow logically and you have an energetic structure that carries the reader forward.
Realize that four chapters are not enough for a book. They might be enough for one groundbreaking journal article. You won’t fool editors by sending in something that has the heft of a book manuscript without the substance. It must also read like a book.
At this point of your pretenure career, you’ve passed the big test and learned the secret handshakes. Your dissertation was your last work as a student. Now you must become a professional. Be brave enough to put your ideas into the world unadorned by all the bad habits you picked up in your doctoral program. Strive not just to please your advisers, but to surpass them.
Dear Senior Professor:
We grew up together. In the ‘80s, when I was an editorial assistant at Oxford University Press and you were a newly minted assistant professor, my boss gave you a contract for your first book. He didn’t have time to pay much attention to you (your second book was the one he wanted), and it didn’t matter. That first monograph earned you tenure.
Later, when we each had “associate” in our titles, I went over your prose line by line and asked questions, sometimes naïve ones, because I had trained in publishing, not in your discipline. When I began to acquire my own list at Oxford, and later at Duke University Press, I traveled to your campus and we talked about who, in your opinion, was doing interesting and publishable work. You were engaged, broadly knowledgeable, curious. Over the years I’ve tracked your career, heard you on NPR, read reviews of your books, and watched with unearned pride as you’ve risen to the top of your discipline and profession.
We need a generation of scholars who can make arguments about why the production and dissemination of such knowledge is a democratic value we must fight to protect. We can do that only by using our words.
Yet things have changed in academe since we listened to Stop Making Sense,wore bangles, and ate sun-dried tomatoes on everything. You now have the same job as your graduate adviser, but the career path you followed has been blocked to your own graduate students. You know all too well about the various crises in higher education — the tight budgets, vanishing state support, adjunctification of the professoriate, corporatization of universities. It’s pretty much all bad news, all the time.
The good news is that now you are on top of the heap. You are a journal editor, officer of your academic association, chair, dean, provost, president, peer reviewer, and, most important, graduate adviser. You are now in a position to effect real change, and I’m asking you to do just that.
Sure, you can’t solve academe’s financial woes, but you can fix the part of this broken system that you do control — namely, your graduate students’ training, and in particular, how they write. (Part 1 of this series focused on our deadly dull monographs, and Part 2 addressed pretenure faculty members on their writing.)
The first step: Take stock of what’s different from when you rose through the ranks. Back then, your serviceable and professional prose made it into print without much editorial help beyond someone like me fixing your typos and inserting “Oxford” commas (in all my years working at that press, I swear I never once heard it referred to as anything but a serial comma).
Unless you managed to snag a contract from a commercial publisher, it’s likely you never received the gift of having someone make your writing not just correct, but better.
The bulk of your sales were most likely to libraries, which can no longer afford to subsidize specialized monographs. With the consolidation of trade publishers (there are about three left), university presses must now look to acquire projects with the potential to reach a broader audience than in the past.
In today’s lean times, scholarly publishers are losing money, or worse, shuttering altogether. Even with print-on-demand technology, the important work that they do in evaluating manuscripts and preparing them for publication is expensive.
Likewise, you and other faculty members have outsourced important parts of the tenure-and-promotion process to presses, but sometimes you forget that scholarly publishing is a business. These days many editors have bottom-line quotas or signing goals. Their books need to find readers to make money.
Journals have long been repositories for incomprehensible, off-putting prose, and since most articles are read by no more than a handful of people, it hasn’t much mattered. Scholars often get twitchy when something is too much fun to read, so journal editors and peer reviewers skim over dense and deadly sentences without comment, without asking for rewrites that would, if undertaken, force the writer to learn to do better.
From many academic friends — including eminent scholars — I’ve heard stories of articlesrejected because the language wasn’t “academic enough.” Reviewers critique the prose as too “flowy,” “too easy to read,” and therefore inappropriate for publication.
You have — mostly unintentionally, yet with disastrous consequences — given young scholars the impression that if they want to be taken seriously they can’t render their research in ways that humans find enjoyable to read. Day after day, you send the message that clear and direct prose is unwelcome in academe. Few graduate students are rewarded for doing more than aping the abstruse style of those who have come before; no extra credit is earned for writing well.
Of course you must continue training new academics to do serious research, to analyze results, to make bold arguments, to produce new knowledge. The dissertations you direct, tightly focused and rigorous, help students master the tools of the trade. But we need to move toward a culture in which the quality of research remains excellent and the writing is also readable.
Each of the distinguished professors I interviewed in my Scholars Talk Writing series have warned against academic jargon, and have given specific advice on how to write better. Their suggestions are strikingly, almost boringly, similar. Your students may never be brilliant writers, but writing well does not require brilliance or innate talent. Like most things, prose style improves with attention, practice, and discipline.
And yet, scholars aren’t learning to write well. Or worse, they’ve been slapped down and bruised by their graduate training — forced to write in tentative and fearful ways that are inaccessible to all but those in the guild.
In recent years, you have heard that you must prepare your thesis advisees for careers other than the cushy tenured jobs we enjoy. There’s no shame in joining the contingent labor force, though not much comfort or joy in it, either. Alt-ac has entered the lexicon.
Please mind the gap between hearing that message and adjusting the way you mentor advisees. At least make sure that when they leave academe, they do so with the ability to summarize complex ideas and arguments, to think with nuance and creativity, to analyze and interpret data, and to write good, clean sentences. Too many academics feel they must prove they’ve learned the secret handshake and arm themselves with polysyllabic Latinate prose to show they’re members of a club that is gaining numbers and losing ground. Tell them they don’t have to write like that.
What’s at stake here is more than the job prospects of your students — though that’s important enough. What’s at stake is the future of democracy.
You are allowing jargon-filled blather into the world and letting important research go unappreciated. By not insisting that your students learn to write well you are playing into the anti-intellectual hands of the car salesmen and property developers who get elected to state legislatures and even higher offices, and of the business-oriented parents who care only that their kids snag high-paying jobs right out of college.
When academic prose is more soporific than Ambien, and more headache-inducing than MSG, you give all of those skeptics further ammunition to talk about how state and federal funding of higher education is wasted.
You may say that you know all of that, that you’re already teaching your handfuls of students the importance of clear communication. That’s great, but it’s not enough. We need a cultural shift. You now have the power to make decisions about publishing, about expectations for conference presentations, about the way money is allocated. You need to step up. How?
Peer reviewers and journal editors: Take a stand on the quality of the prose you recommend for publication and ask for revisions until the language is clear — even “flowy.”
Conference organizers: Require presenters to make their work available in advance of the meeting and use conference time to foster real discussion. Don’t allow scholars to stand up and read their papers aloud. We all know how to read.
Chairs: Create journal clubs and book groups in which faculty members and students study how good authors connect the prose with the passion. Foster the formation of writing groups.
Deans and provosts: Support teaching-and-learning centers that train scholars to express themselves more clearly, both in the classroom and in their writing. It can’t be only teaching assistants in composition who focus on writing instruction. Every professor in every discipline needs to make learning how to write clear prose a priority.
This is a moral issue at a time of profound change in higher education, when the very idea of expertise is under assault. We must not cede the conversation to know-nothing politicians who are putting everything we value at risk. The ecology of the academic world is no longer sustainable. We must adapt or face extinction.
I am not asking you to dumb down your students’ research or broaden the focus of esoteric and specialized topics that won’t, by their nature, ever be of interest to more than a handful of other scholars. I understand the value of doing work that is not accessible to a general audience. We still need that. But at the same time, we need a generation of scholars who can make arguments about why the production and dissemination of such knowledge is a democratic value we must fight to protect. We can do that only by using our words.
You are now, my old friends, the ones in power. Some of you have already been doing this good work through your professional organizations, arguing for changes in graduate education and working on behalf of non-tenure-track laborers. Keep that up, and include, in your reforms, a focus on writing.
It’s time to fix this mess, before it’s too late.