James Holmes

The Importance of Clear Writing

“Victory may go to the contestant who conveys ideas more fluently, not the one with superior ideas.”

Harvard political-science professor Stephen Walt posted an excellent piece over at Foreign Policy earlier this week. Its title accurately conveys the gist of it: "Why Is Academic Writing So Bad?" Such laments echo. Some of Walt's commentary reminds me of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan's century-old reminiscences about his failings as a literary craftsman. Mahan was an author who sold a metric gazillion books and articles, spreading the good word of sea power. The bibliography of his works is itself a book. But then as now, readers were no fans of his rambling Victorian style.

Grammatical and stylistic shortcomings have consequences. Having studied and taught sea-power theory for two decades now, I'm convinced that half the reason naval officers prefer Sir Julian Corbett's ideas to Mahan's is because of Corbett's fluid writing style. He's an easy read, saving students precious hours of reading time. It appears style, not substance, may decide important debates. Victory may go to the contestant who conveys ideas more fluently, not the one with superior ideas. Hence the importance of clear, concise writing. The medium may not be the message, but it carries — or obstructs — the message.

Mahan was unusually candid about the criticisms flung his way. In his memoir From Sail to Steam, he confesses to a "besetting anxiety" to be "exact and lucid." The downside to precision, he recalls, was being "nervously susceptible to being convicted of a mistake." To escape criticism, he "strove to introduce between the same two periods every qualification" or disclaimer possible. Cumbersome sentences and paragraphs were the result. He admitted to overtaxing readers' attention "as an author has no right to do," and reported being "reproached … justly" for the "diffuseness" of his writing.

There's good news — from my selfish standpoint, at any rate. (And it is all about me.) First, like Mahan, Naval War College students tend to be a self-critical lot, receptive to help with details. And second, our students face no pressure to write only for scholars. Quite the opposite. Plainspoken language is at a premium when working for senior commanders or diplomats, as our graduates will in future assignments. By contrast, civilian universities actively discourage publishing in outlets where specialists converse with laymen about arcane matters.

Op-eds, professional journal articles, and — needless to say — blog entries like this one count for next to nothing in hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions. Indeed, non-scholarly writing probably counts for less than nothing in the academy. It carries steep opportunity costs. An hour spent writing for a newspaper, practically minded journal, or commercial press is an hour not spent writing for a university press or peer-reviewed journal — an outlet where academics are the gatekeepers.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Scholarly publishers are the ones that make or break careers on campus. But if academic writing is bad, writing solely for other academics looks like a bad way to improve matters.