It was an early morning. Very early. In my lap sat a book, cracked open like a rotten casaba melon pouring out some nasty academic filth onto the floor. Across from me stood a woman, complaining to her friend that she didn’t become an English major to study theory. She wanted to write stories and poetry.
I first registered disgust. If she wanted to become the next great American novelist, she was in the wrong business. The role of the university is to teach us how to dissect, rip apart and fuddle with the intricate workings of our language.
I returned to the theory book in my lap and immediately felt disappointed with myself. I had fallen victim to the glorious illusion put forth by the devious nature of academic writing. The fact that I supported such incomprehensible drivel scared me, much in the same way a visit to the local prison might scare an ill-behaved child into a life of virtue and social responsibility.
Behold, this is what you will become. And once you’ve seen it, you can’t forget it.
Reading bad writing is like an adult trying to ride a merry-go-round. The structure is awkward: it spins around in circles and tends to leave the rider feeling unfulfilled and nauseous. A child will giggle madly as the plastic horse endlessly chases the one in front of it. An adult will wonder when the ride ends so they can get their weary bones off of the fake animal, which has managed to wedge itself in between the adult’s flabby butt cheeks.
Bad writers will similarly marvel at the convoluted construction found in nasty writing, while everyone else will scratch their heads and wonder why they even bothered.
Academics especially have a love affair with large, cumbersome words they either don’t understand or that possess a special meaning only for the writer. You can easily recognize these words, they end in “-ism” or contain several Latin roots.
Writers use these words to make themselves sound intelligent, linking these profound offerings together in a circular logic. It amounts to nothing more than pseudo-intellectual masturbation – it feels great, but just makes a big mess.
And it’s you, gentle reader, who has to mop up the congealing puddle afterward.
If academic writers aren’t getting themselves off with the biggest word they can find, then they’re putting together lots of little words to drown the reader in a tar pit of black ink. The writer who does this intends for the readers to become so lost in the quagmire that they’ll put the paper down and exclaim, “I didn’t understand it, therefore it must be profound!”
The most grievous error incompetent writers commit is not possessing the ability to make something beautiful. Simile and metaphor exist for a reason: they give life to the written word. Even an ugly metaphor breathes some existence into stale and repetitive writing. Academics forget this. They fall in love with their own voice and expect the rest of the world to fall in line accordingly.
Academics also seem intent on committing a minor yet bloody attack on the English language through passive voice. Passive has a place in writing just like a parasite has a place in the world. But like a parasite, passive voice tends to suck the life out of every verb and adjective it infects. “The dog pissed on the rug” carries a hell of a lot more weight than “the rug was pissed on.”
I’ve sat through many a section or seminar where the TA or professor felt it necessary to pass on their wisdom of academic writing. Sadly, the majority of higher-ups in the university system couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag.
The English language is a beautiful thing. It exists as the foundation for our society and thought. Please, for God’s sake, stop beating it to death.
Steven Ruszczycky is the Daily Nexus assistant opinion editor. He’s nowhere near as pompous as he seems.