Academic writing for public

Via John Hawks, I ended up at this piece, read it, and thoroughly enjoyed it. There are some nice put-downs as Abi would call them:

Thomas Friedman knows how to write a freshman-year research paper at the last minute.

It goes on to point the importance of developing a formula:

… Friedman, although admittedly annoying, actually has manufactured a coherent, transportable analytical framework. We many disagree with it. He may simply be wrong (often, I suspect). But he’s actually got a coherent explanatory strategy that you can even spoof as Nolan has. The satire works because of the formula.

The sad thing is that, at this point, I’m not sure that we’ve got the same sorts of, hopefully much better, formula to provide a public based on new research in neuroanthropology. Evolutionary psychology has got a formula. Marxism has got a formula. Dynamic systems theory in biocultural anthropology — nope.

And, the need for effective writing with some examples:

One thing you and I at least try to do is communicate with the public, and to write reasonably clearly when we discuss our ideas and research. That in itself – good writing, without the convolutions and jargon and stilted prose seen in some academic papers – is a form of generalization. That is something I appreciated about the Nolan piece. Take this short paragraph:

Scrutiny does not make it more difficult for leaders to make sensible, brave decisions; it makes it more difficult for leaders to be corrupt and cheat on their wives. Thomas Friedman does not point out this discrepancy. He has more important thoughts to deliver.

That paragraph delivers critique, a discussion of power, a characterization of leaders, and more, all in four simple lines. It’s complex, even though it reads in a straight-forward manner. I do wish more anthropologists realized that effective writing matters. Rather than going on and on, hitting the reader over the head with all the detail of how something is complex, good writing can deliver complexity in an intelligible and enjoyable way. It’s one of our greatest tools, but we misuse it constantly.

And, there are also some nice pointers to writing a blog post too:

Have a lead, something to grab readers attention. Then tell readers what your post is about. Go through a series of clear points or illustrations (your argument). Wrap it up, generally by providing the reader with some sort of pay-off for sticking with you for so long – a good conclusion, some funny final thought, a personal note, and so forth.

In his pointer, John Hawks makes another interesting point about the current status of column writing:

The “public intellectual” space is choked with airheads who don’t understand science and technology. But I would sound like an airhead if I argued that people would better understand complexity if only scientists could write more like Thomas Friedman. The problem isn’t that the 800-word NY Times column lacks content. That’s foreordained. The problem is that longer-form pieces, the 4000-word New Yorker variety, have become the province of formula writers like Malcolm Gladwell. Long-form gives space to actually explore a complex idea, but mainstream media has blinkified the format. For now.

Finally, while we are on the topic, I had thoughts very similar to that of Greg and Daniel while reading Nico Slate’s Colored cosmopolitanism: the shared struggle for freedom in the United States and India. The book has several interesting things to say; but the way it says them is such a plod! And, certain passages are distinctly academic (specifically, of the dissertation or thesis writing variety). With a little bit of crisp-ifying, it would have been such a pleasure to read.

NB: By the way, the comment of how Slate’s book is written should not discourage you from picking it up; it is just a warning; the plodding is worth for the information that you glean; all I am saying is that it could have been done with more style and flair.

One Response to “Academic writing for public”

  1. Writing Jobs Says:

    That was an excellent post today. Thanks so much for sharing it. I
    really enjoyed reading it very much.

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