I say the key to good academic writing is saying complicated things as simply as possible. Winnie-the-Pooh says… pic.twitter.com/iYKFa4YxN2
— George Gosling (@gcgosling) March 9, 2015
Academia, whether that means teaching or studying, is ultimately a matter of communication. Our words are the lifeblood of what we do. So I regularly find myself stuggling to suppress my inner pedant when I read phrases that I know simply don’t do what they’re supposed to. So, if for no other reason than to release the build up of pedantry, here are my top six offenders. Of course, these are things for which I’d never dream of marking down a student, but I might counsel them against. If you use them all the time, it’s nothing personal.
- It could be argued that…
This is one that gets used endlessly in student essays, and it’s hard to blame them when it’s used so frequently in academic texts. Unfortunately it is absolutely meaningless. Anything could be argued. I could write a blog post putting forward an argument for the sun being The Great Mother Satsuma, but I’d struggle to make the case convincingly. One of the things students find hardest to master is acknowledging complexity while still putting forward a strong argument. For me, this is the wrong side of the line. Arguably, starting a sentence by sitting on the fence like this is a bad habit to get into, as you can easily find yourself opting for this over and over, and miss the fact you haven’t actually argued anything. If you’re not convinced, attribute it to someone who is.
- On the other hand…
There is a simple way to structure an essay: argument, counter-argument, conclusion. It is easy, but I tend to advise against it. This is often a shock to those students who’ve had it drummed into them at A-Level. Structuring an essay this way is not wrong. It’s actually a straightforward way of producing an acceptable essay. However, it’s a really difficult way of writing really good essay. This is because it creates a number of traps – forcing you to simplify the discussion into two sides when it’s probably much more complex, and making it all too easy to avoid actually having an argument of your own until the closing sentences. No. Start with the argument and then make the case.
- a biased source
In fact, in my seminars I recommend students ditch the term ‘bias’ altogether. There is no person, no document (no historical witness or source) that is not biased in some way or another. Again, it’s meaningless. The problem here is that labelling a source as biased sounds like you’ve actually said something when you haven’t, making it all too easy to move on to the next point without actually having made one at all. Instead, identify the perspective from which a source is written, or from which they see events. That really can tell us something.
- some historians
What happened is history (the past). How we interpret, explain and debate the cause, impact and meaning of what happened is History (the scholarly discipline). This wouldn’t be possible if all historians agreed, so there is some sense in distinguishing between the ideas and opinions of some historians and others. The problem is the obvious question it prompts: which ones? Not specifying implies historians are interchangeable, that the positions we take are random. We’re not and they’re not. This is why labelling historians as traditionalist and revisionist likewise falls short – suggesting it’s a fluke of timing. Once again this phrase only does half the job.
- …but then she is a feminist historian
The objective historian is a myth. Once we recognise we are all biased commentators it can serve as a useful myth – giving license to rigorously question our own assumptions against both the available evidence and the wisdom of the crowd. This is a good thing, yet it’s often cut short by the negative connotations of bias. Labelling the premise of the historian’s assumptions should be a helpful way of engaging with their perspective on the past, but instead is often used to dismiss alternative interpretations rashly. Most typically I see this dismissal – sometimes this bluntly – to reject the arguments of feminist historians. Although I’ve never encountered this said of a male historian.
- as to
I used to use this all the time about a decade ago, and there’s no zealot like a convert. The reason as to why I turned against this unnecessary flourish is that it’s pretentious. I’ve never used it when speaking, so why when writing? It’s the over-compensating that comes from not feeling you have the authority to write about a given subject. There will always be an element of fake it ’til you make it, but this is too transparent a disguise it be any use. Good academic writing is a matter of saying complicated things as simply as possible. Decide what needs saying. Say it plainly. Then stop.
This post originally appeared on Dr George Gosling’s blog. It is reposted here under the terms of Creative Commons license BY-NC 4.0. Dr Gosling is a Historian of medicine and charity in modern Britain and beyond. Follow him on twitter @gcgosling.