Is Clear Writing Always Good Writing?

From struggling with final papers as an undergraduate to drafting my dissertation, I have striven for clarity in my academic prose. I felt badgered by my teachers when they told me to work on clarity in my papers. Slowly I learned to use simple language to explain my arguments. I learned to stop relying on a thesaurus when writing and that, in fact, it is really true that big words do not amount to big ideas. I would have to take the long way to the latter by actually thinking through my argument, rather than dressing up my writing as if I had. My sentences became tight and succinct, like little rockets of meaning that will take off, with every aspect of their composition mechanically gathering the force of exactly what I meant to say. As an instructor, I dutifully underline passages of my students’ papers and write ‘clarity?’ in the margins. Sometimes I am even so brazen to write the same thing in the margins of the library books I borrow. (Forgive me.)


But is clarity necessarily a virtue of academic prose? And what do we really mean by it? While writing that comes across as deliberately evasive and pedantic is – clearly(?) – meritless, wordiness, embellishment, and extended metaphor has dropped out of academic writing conventions. And I am unconvinced that this has been a boon to our profession. Some good ideas are vague, such that their written form will invariably reflect the vagueness; the prose about it will be difficult. Additionally, prose that is not expansive – does not make room for metaphor and a bit of meandering – does not strike me as effective. In fact, it strikes me as dull and manly. It’s as if all academics are trying to impress Hemingway’s ghost. A reader requires about a decade to build an analytic toolkit for reading for ‘information retention’ and ‘probity of argument.’ Let’s be honest: it takes an enormous exertion of will to learn to read academic prose, where only argument and evidence matter, where concepts are introduced, challenged, sharpened. A strange intellectual culture for sharing ideas. For thinking thoughts by first blunting them.


When I read academic prose, I cast a long askance look at anecdotes, adverbs, and adjectives and wonder to myself, what was the author thinking? Telling me the mode that an action happened!? How is that relevant? Under my accusatory gaze the words ‘quite,’ ‘saccharine’ & ‘undoubtedly’ tremble on the page, as if I really were accusing them of corrupting the minds of the youth, little Socrateses made out of bits of grammar. I am unconvinced that as academics we have a sound basis for why they should be excluded from our writing conventions. Saccharine is beautiful word. And I want to know exactly the way an action happened. Sometimes brave authors write a brief justification for their use of metaphor and anecdotes and beautiful words in the introductions to their books. Teaching Rae Langton’s Sexual Solipsism this semester in my Feminist Philosophy class, I was impressed by her unapologetic command of a literary style in expounding her philosophy of love. There are outliers.


Yet, I have learned not to let language breathe on the page. In its fecund plurality, complete with run-on sentences and points that aren’t really points and modifiers that add texture to a sentence without clarifying a concept or making an argument. I want to let language be difficult, cumbersome. There. The cold white light of an academic understanding often appears as a desiccating light, burning up what it cannot take in.


One might object: clarity is a virtue of academic prose because if you can’t find the right word to carry your thought outside yourself, think of another way of saying it. But who thinks like that? Who waits for the ‘right’ word, all the while holding one’s pen or waiting for the wrinkle in one’s thoughts to smooth out? Often at such moments we just abandon the difficult thought. I’ve done this on so many occasions, thinking to myself, “well, it’s nothing – a bad idea.” It had hardly crossed my mind that the conventions of writing I was trained in have made me impatient with my own thoughts. Language will always be difficult; thinking through writing or speaking words even more so. But how can we make that difficulty count too, incorporating it into the process and presentation of ‘rigor’, ‘argument’ and ‘evidence’?


I’ve always believed that there is a joy in struggling with a difficult thought and that the unclear prose it generates is a kind of knowledge. But I do not share that with my academic colleagues and friends. I have squirrelled that away under ‘poetry’ and ‘journaling’. As a philosopher, I dutifully follow the blunting conventions of our profession.


Sometimes lack of clarity even lends itself to exactly what we mean to say. This weekend I was talking to a friend and asked him whether another one of his friends had a crush on him. Not being a native English speaker, he said, “No, it was transferred and put away.” Frustrated at not having found the right word, he reached for his phone to look it up in the dictionary. I then said, “Oh, you mean ‘sublimated.’” “Yes!,” he responds.


But his long way of describing his thought – and my grasping what he meant in his vagueness – suddenly made us feel closer; we enjoyed that moment of recognition, as we groped for words that approximate our thoughts in the intimate space shared by friends who understand each other, clearly. And I thought to myself, I have a much better sense of what happened to a crush that is ‘transferred and put away’ than one that is ‘sublimated.’

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