Writing Well Matters, Even in Academia

A while back, a prominent law review asked me to review a book on a topic of interest to me.  I readily agreed, on condition that the review be relatively short.  When it came time to sit down and read the book, however, I found it extremely difficult to understand; the book was loaded with unnecessary jargon, long, run-on sentences, and big, obscure words where short, simple ones would do fine.  I found myself sometimes reading a sentence five times to try to figure out what the author was trying to say.

After several hours of this, I gave up.  I sent an email to the law review editors to the effect that while I was loath to go back on my commitment to review the book, I’d rather be boiled in hot oil than spend my time giving this book the attention it needed to be ready to start writing a review.

I won’t claim to be the best writer in the world, but I do try hard to make all of my academic writing readable, even by non-academics.  I’m not sure that this is always a career benefit–some student law review editors, the basic scholarly gatekeepers of our profession, likely confuse turgid, elliptical, and jargon-filled prose with erudition.  But, as my anecdote hopefully shows, going the opposite route also has its costs.

UPDATE: All this bring to mind the following from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience:

If you’re anxious for to shine, in the high aesthetic line as a man of culture rare,

You must get up all the germs of the transcendental terms, and plant them everywhere.

You must lie upon the daisies and discourse in novel phrases of your complicated state of mind,

The meaning doesn’t matter if it’s only idle chatter of a transcendental kind.

And everyone will say, As you walk your mystic way,

If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me,

Why, what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be.