Reading Gail A. Hornstein’s Chronicle Review article, “Prune that Prose: Learning to Write for Readers Beyond Acadme,” made me sad.
I wanted, as Hornstein suggests, for someone to say about my dissertation “It was riveting.” Can you imagine? Riveting? I have read precious, precious few books in grad school that I would call riveting. She asserts that simplicity can be a virtue in academic writing, rejecting the assumption that complex sentences and multi-syllabic words are needed to express smart ideas.
Hornstein also quotes our old friend Gerald Graff as saying “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.”
Shortly after reading this article, I got an e-mail from an advisor asking for “more footnotes” in a chapter draft. I don’t want to distort his advice, so let me say that what he really is asking for is more conversation with other scholars. I don’t think conversing/referencing other scholars necessarily prevents my work from being riveting.
But recent versions of the diss that have been footnote-heavy and employed more jargon have been received much better by my committee. When non-academic people ask me what I’m writing about, I get a lump in my throat. I really wanted to write a dissertation with no footnotes and no “vocabulary.” I worry that all the changes I’ve made are narrowing my potential audience further and further.
And yet, and yet, this draft of the dissertation is definitely better than it was before. How much did I need those footnotes and that vocabulary to form my ideas? And, now that I’ve improved the draft, can I take the jargon out without weakening it?