Motherfoucault! How to write better academic papers

By Matthew Stibbe Matthew Stibbe
Man sitting on a pile of books

“Academics get paid for being clever, not for being right.”
— Donald Norman

The worst academic papers is notorious for using complicated words, impenetrable theories and name dropping. It makes academia feel like it’s a closed shop or religious cult where you can’t get on unless you know the secret handshake and use the right jargon.

academic papers

Bogus thinking

People have repeatedly exposed bogus academic writing. Take the notorious Sokal affair in which a physics professor submitted a paper, ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’ that proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. (A variant of The Onion’s Intelligent Falling satire, perhaps.) Or SCIgen, a program created by MIT graduate students that randomly generated fake scientific papers. My personal favourite is the paper: ‘Get me off your fucking mailing list’.

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How to deconstruct almost anything

This is why I enjoyed this article so much: How To Deconstruct Almost Anything. This article is also the source of the Donald Normal quote at the top of this post. The author highlights some of the warning sign words, including:

  • renormalizing
  • phenomenology
  • intersubjective
  • cognitive strategy
  • paradigm
  • reification

He says:

What you have is rather like birds on the Galapagos islands — an isolated population with unique selective pressures resulting in evolutionary divergence from the mainland population. There’s no reason you should be able to understand what these academics are saying because, for several generations, comprehensibility to outsiders has not been one of the selective criteria to which they’ve been subjected

He pulls back the curtain to reveal how one of the evolutionary spandrels actually works. Here is his formula for deconstruction:

  • Select a ‘text’ to be deconstructed, preferably something that is not actually a text ‘such as a Madonna video’ or an IRS form.
  • Decide what the text actually says. Your ‘reading’ can be ‘whatever you want’.
  • Find a ‘distinction’ of some sort in the ‘reading’. The author recommends some kind of duality like ‘man/woman’ or (more profoundly) ‘chocolate/vanilla’.
  • Decide on which side of the duality your text leans. It’s up to you.
  • Derive another self-referential reading of the text that undermines your original reading. Accomplish this essential step by appealing to authorities, using the word ‘problematic’ as well as reference to Freud and/or Marx.
  • Be French.

Write simple, stupid

Of course, it’s possible to write succinct, readable and yet profoundly academic papers.

Check out my article: How to write for a non-technical audience. Conversely, if you’re trying to pass yourself off as a hacker, check out: How to write like a hacker!

Here are a few more suggestions:

  • Don’t just stir the pot, add some ingredients. In other words, have something useful, interesting and novel to say.
  • Don’t use a word unless you are absolutely certain what it means.
  • Don’t use a long academic word if a short every day word is stronger (long words make you sound stupid).
  • Avoid the passive voice and don’t be afraid
  • If a layman can’t read and understand your synopsis, opening paragraph and conclusion (at a minimum), you’re probably being too clever for your own good.
  • Avoid committee writing. Avoid groupthink by agreeing on style guides up front. Don’t just make a change because one of the team asks for it.
  • Editing is not the same as writing – sharpen the edges, don’t blur them. It’s also not the same as proofreading or fact checking.
  • Drive your argument like Ayrton Senna (as my old college tutor recommended). A good, clear argument – even if wrong – is better than any amount of jargon.
  • Be a bit polemical. If you try to please everyone, you’ll please no-one. It takes real genius to have real enemies.
  • ‘Just remember to hang on to your sense of humor and don’t let them intimidate you.’

Good writing for academic papers is still just good writing

What is true of academic writing is true of marketing copy as well. The only difference between academics and marketing flacks is that we get paid for being persuasive not for being clever.

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