Classic Style as an Antidote to Bad Academic Writing


I planned to call this video “Classic style as an antidote to stuffy academic writing”, and then switched it to "bad academic writing", and then switched it back again because I wasn’t sure I wanted the tone to be so judgmental.

But I do think that stuffy academic writing often becomes BAD writing when pushed too far, so let’s use this title. I’m borrowing this sentiment from Steven Pinker, who in his book A Sense of Style, writes

Classic style is an ideal. Not all prose should be classic, and not all writers can carry off the pretense. But knowing the hallmarks of classic style will make anyone a better writer, and it is the strongest cure I know for the disease that enfeebles academic, bureaucratic, corporate, legal, and official prose.

So, what are some of the symptoms of the disease that Pinker is talking about?

To start I’ll just list the ones that he mentions, and then we’ll talk about a few of them in greater detail.

Symptoms of Bad Academic Writing

First, “overuse of metadiscourse”.

Metadiscourse is talking about talking. We looked at metadiscourse in a previous video where we talked about reflexive style.

In this context, Pinker is concerned with what I called “practical metadiscourse”, the sort of metadiscourse associated with conventional forms for writing introductory sections, concluding sections, and signposting, where you pause in the middle of your essay to remind the reader of what you’ve just said, where you are in the overall organizational plan of the essay, and setup what you’re going to say next.

Every essay needs some of this, but Pinker is bothered by the way that academic writers often handle this task.

Second, "excessive hedging and apologetic language".

Too much language devoted to telling the audience how restricted and tentative and qualified your claims are, and how aware you of are the complexity of the subject matter, and how difficult these issues are to address.

Too much effort devoted to avoiding the appearance of naivete or lack of sophistication to the author’s academic peers.

Third, "overuse of cliches".

Shopworn, verbal formulas that are used without thought. Because they’re formulaic the mind just skips over them and you lose an opportunity to say something interesting.

Fourth, "excessive abstraction".

Your writing gets crowded with nouns that don’t refer to anything concrete. You start talking more and more about "levels", "models", "perspectives", "issues", "strategies", "paradigms", and "discourses" -- concepts that become increasingly ungrounded by concrete examples or cases, and can’t be visualized in any meaningful way.

And fifth, "overuse of the passive voice".

In the active voice, the subject of the sentence is the one performing the action, like in the sentence “John walked the dog”.

In the passive voice, the object of the action becomes the grammatical subject, as in “the dog was walked by John”.

Passive voice often has the effect of distancing or separating the one doing the action from the effects of the action, like when we say that “Some protestors were shot”, rather than “The police shot some protestors”.

Overuse of the passive voice can make the language dry and impersonal, and make it harder to imagine that the reader is having a conversation with the writer, because the subject of the action is continually being erased, or pushed back.

So, the claim that Pinker is making is that these symptoms of bad writing will be lessened to the degree that the author tries to write in a more classic mode.

The bars in the graphic represent the five different symptoms we just discussed, so longer bars mean more of what makes for bad writing, and shorter bars means less.

This will only be the case up to a point, of course, since modern academic writing necessarily combines elements of other styles, such as the practical style elements that are demanded by the realities of writing for editors and academic peers which we discussed in the video on practical style.

You could try to write “full classic” on your blog, but you probably wouldn’t get it published in an academic journal because you’d be ignoring too many of these factors that actually matter to people.

But what you can do, as a writer, is become more aware of these tendencies, and look for opportunities to minimize them when possible.

An Example: Popular Science Writing

I want to give an example of writing in classic style, or that is closer to classic style.

Pinker notes that the best of our modern science communicators are inclined toward the classic style, when they’re writing for a general audience, and he gives examples from Richard Dawkins, the well-known evolutionary biologist, and Brian Greene, the mathematical physicist who works on string theory and cosmology.

I would include his wife, Rebecca Goldstein, who is an excellent writer and communicator of scientific and philosophical ideas.

Pinker uses a 3000 word essay by Brian Greene, written for Newsweek Magazine in 2012, to illustrate how classic style can be used to communicate even very abstract topics, like multiverse theory in cosmology.

Here’s an excerpt:

If space is now expanding, then at ever earlier times the universe must have been ever smaller. At some moment in the distant past, everything we now see—the ingredients responsible for every planet, every star, every galaxy, even space itself — must have been compressed to an infinitesimal speck that then swelled outward, evolving into the universe as we know it. The big-bang theory was born…. Yet scientists were aware that the big-bang theory suffered from a significant shortcoming. Of all things, it leaves out the bang. Einstein’s equations do a wonderful job of describing how the universe evolved from a split second after the bang, but the equations break down (similar to the error message returned by a calculator when you try to divide 1 by 0) when applied to the extreme environment of the universe’s earliest moment. The big bang thus provides no insight into what might have powered the bang itself.

Why is this an example of writing in classic style?

Remember, the model scene is a conversation between the author and a reader, where the author uses their prose to create a portrait of a world populated by objects and actions that would be recognizable to anyone standing in a position to see them.

The image created in this passage, of all the matter in the universe being compressed into a point and then expanding outwards, has this character.

The reality of what he’s discussing is much more complex that what is described in this paragraph. But in this passage, Greene doesn’t feel any need to qualify the imagery.

He doesn’t tell us that it’s essentially a cartoon representation that can only gesture toward a reality that we can only access through complex mathematical reasoning.He doesn’t draw our attention to the cognitive or expressive limitations of the imagery.

Instead, he adopts the stance that the truth being presented is a clear and simple reality, and he’s simply showing us this truth.

That’s what it means to adopt the classic stance, as a writer.

I also want to take a look at the introduction to this piece.

The standard academic essay format sets up an issue, states a thesis up front, and give some kind of outline of how the rest of the essay will proceed, and presents this information in a very compact form.

But we don’t talk this way in conversation with one another; we raise and develop our points in a more organic way.

Here’s the introductory section from Greene’s essay:

"What really interests me is whether God had any choice in creating the world.”

That’s how Albert Einstein, in his characteristically poetic way, asked whether our universe is the only possible universe.The reference to God is easily misread, as Einstein’s question wasn’t theological. Instead, Einstein wanted to know whether the laws of physics necessarily yield a unique universe—ours—filled with galaxies, stars, and planets. Or instead, like each year’s assortment of new cars on the dealer’s lot, could the laws allow for universes with a wide range of different features? And if so, is the majestic reality we’ve come to know—through powerful telescopes and mammoth particle colliders—the product of some random process, a cosmic roll of the dice that selected our features from a menu of possibilities? Or is there a deeper explanation for why things are the way they are?

Okay, that’s his introduction.

It does most of the jobs that an introduction should. It sets up the issue, which is the status of multiverse theory in contemporary physics, and lets us know that he’s going to address this issue in the essay.

But he also deviates from the standard academic introduction. He doesn’t telegraph his own judgement about the issue right at the outset. Specifically, he doesn’t tell us in the introduction the main thesis of the essay, which is that multiverse theory might provide a solution to the puzzle of dark energy, the energy responsible for the increasing rate of expansion of the universe.

By the end of the essay this is all very clear, but it unfolds in a way that more closely simulates a conversation between two people.

To call back to an earlier metaphor I used, he doesn’t give the punchline to the joke right in the setup; and that means that his writing has a greater capacity to surprise us.

All of this is classic style.


Well, I hope I’ve given you some idea of how classic style differs from the other writing styles we’ve looked at, and why it’s viewed by many people — including myself — as an antidote to stuffy academic style.

I’m not saying that you should always or only try to write in this style when you’re writing essays.

What I am saying is that your essay writing will benefit from becoming more aware of the stylistic choices that you’re making, and the reasons you’re making them.

Every writing style has a function, but you can only use these styles effectively if you have a critical understanding of those functions.

What happens more often is that students learn to write in a particular style by copying the models that they’re most familiar with in their discipline, without ever really thinking about the underling conceptual stance that grounds the style that they’re copying.

My hope is that this discussion of writing style will help you to think about your writing in a new way, and help to improve your writing by becoming more thoughtful and deliberate about your stylistic choices.