from Gerald Graff, "Scholars and Sound Bites: The Myth of Academic Difficulty." PMLA 115: 5 (October 2000), 1050-1.
1. Be dialogical. Begin your text by directly identifying the prior conversation or debate that you are entering. What you are saying probably won't make sense unless readers know the conversation in which you say it.
2. Make a claim, the sooner the better, and flag it for the reader by a phrase like "My claim here is that [. . .]." You don't have to use such a phrase, but if you can't do so you're in trouble.
3. Remind readers of your claim periodically, especially the more you complicate it. If you're writing about a disputed topic (and if you aren't, why write?), you'll also have to stop and tell readers what you are not saying, what you don't want to be taken as saying. Some of them will take you as saying that anyway, but you don't have to make it easy for them.
4. Summarize the objections that you anticipate can be made (or that have been made)against your claim. Remember that objectors, even when mean and nasty, are your friends--they help you clarify your claim, and they indicate why it is of interest to others besides yourself. If the objectors weren't out there, you wouldn't need to say what you are saying.
5. Say explicitly—or at least imply—why your ideas are important, what difference it makes to the world if you are right or wrong, and so forth. Imagine a reader over your shoulder who asks, "So what?" Or, "Who cares about any of this?" Again, you don't have to write in such questions, but if you were to write them in and couldn't answer them, you're in trouble.
6. (This one is already implicit in several of the above points.) Generate a metatext that stands apart from your main text and puts it in perspective. Any essay really consists of two texts, one in which you make your argument and a second in which you tell readers how (and how not) to read it. This second text is usually signaled by reflexive phrases like "I do not mean to suggest that [. . .]," "Here you will probably object that [. . .]," "To put the point another way [...]," "But why am I so emphatic on this point?," and "What I've been trying to say here, then, is [. . .]." When writing is unclear or lame (as beginning student writing often is), the reason usually has less to do with jargon or verbal obscurity than with the absence of such metacommentary, which may be needed to explain why it was necessary to write the essay.
7. Remember that readers can process only one claim at a time, so there's no use trying to squeeze in secondary and tertiary claims that are better left for another book, essay, or paragraph or at least for another part of your book or essay, where they can be clearly marked off from your main claim. If you're an academic, you are probably so eager to prove that you've left no thought unconsidered that you find it hard to resist the temptation to say everything at once, and consequently you say nothing that is understood while producing horribly overloaded paragraphs and sentences like this sentence, monster-sized discursive footnotes, and readers who fling your text aside and turn on the TV.
8. Be bilingual. It is not necessary to avoid academese—you sometimes need the stuff. But whenever you have to say something in academese, try to say it in the vernacular as well. You'll be surprised to find that when you restate an academic point in your nonacademic voice,the point is enriched (or else you see how vacuous it is), and you're led to new perceptions.
9. Don't kid yourself. If you could not explain it to your parents or your most mediocre student, the chances are you don't understand it yourself.
None of what I have said in this essay should be mistaken for the claim that all academic scholarship can or should be addressed to a nonacademic audience. The ability to do advanced research and the ability to explain that research to nonprofessional audiences do not always appear in the same person. To adapt a concept from the philosopher Hilary Putnam, there is a linguistic division of labor in which the work of research and that of popularization are divided among different people, as Friedrich Engels was rewrite man for Karl Marx. Yet even Marx's most difficult and uncompromising texts have their Engels moments—Engels could not have summarized Marx's doctrine if they did not. In short, it is time to rethink the view that the university is not in the gist business.
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This page created by Louise M. Bishop Last updated 8 November 2000