There’s been a lot of discussion recently about how bad much academic writing is. There’s nothing new in this. I’m sure people have been complaining about the aridity and complexity of academic writing since Edward Casaubon first put pen to paper in Middlemarch.
All writers, I’m sure, go through a stage where the imperative is to get everything down on the page. It’s the next stage though – making those pages readable to either a specialist or a general audience (and deciding which one is more important) – that we academics particularly seem to struggle with. Partly, it’s the pressure to publish as quickly as possible, but sometimes there’s a perverse security to be found in woolly prose and arcane jargon that prove we are a part of the group.
A friend yesterday sent me the draft of an article to read, with an apology that she used to be a better writer before she wrote her PhD. In fact, she’s still a pretty good writer, with an interesting topic and fascinating source material – but how sad that writing a PhD might have such a stifling effect! And every academic knows, if they are honest, that there’s some truth in what she says. Her email sent me back to what I still think is one of the most important pieces of writing about writing, George Orwell’s 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language.
George Orwell’s essay is just as true now as it was when he wrote it, during that unstable in-between period when World War II had ended, but the Cold War had not yet – quite – begun. I went to the essay for his summary rules, which I would like to see dinned into the heads of every postgraduate student ever:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
But I stayed with the essay because its date – 1946 – had never seemed so relevant before as it does today, with Russian troop manoeuvres in the Crimea, and a terrible fragility about the future of democracy in Ukraine.
I know nothing about Ukraine except for what I have learned from an old Ukrainian man who came to Australia as a refugee shortly after Orwell wrote his essay. The wrong politics or language or ethnicity? I don’t really know, but Jan’s father was killed one winter’s day in the late 1930s, and the family was evicted from their home. Jan remembers that the people who drove them out also took his warm fleecy jacket. The family made it through the winter, and soon after he joined an army. I don’t know which one, only that he was on the losing side, and spent most of the war in Vienna as a slave labourer. He has the tattoo to prove it. He fled west in 1944, when the Russians attacked Vienna. Eventually he made it to Australia as a ‘displaced person’. How Orwell would have hated that term!
I know nothing about Ukraine except that I don’t want anyone to go through that again. And there are no easy answers. Orwell knew that words like democracy, fascism and nation state were mostly weasel words:
The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way.
Frontiers are not immutable, and nations are not permanent. People and populations move, seldom by choice. The Crimea was Russian before 1954, and the majority there speaks Russian today. But before that? In Florence Nightingale’s day, the Crimean War took place because Russia was expanding in a region that had previously been under Ottoman influence. And before that? Genoa had a colony in Crimea once – perhaps they could be called in to help now?
George Orwell, Politics and the English Language (1946)
See also Don Watson, Death Sentences: How Cliches, Weasel Words and Management-Speak are Strangling Public Language (2003) and his website here