Why Do Scholars So Write Badly?

I’ve been curious lately about what PhDs in communication and theology talk about, so I’ve been reading the scholarly work they share among themselves. It’s not pleasant reading, though it is occasionally rewarding.

As I recently edited a technical manual for a client it dawned on me why scholars write so badly: it’s because they are communicating technical procedures to other technicians. Their technical audience is other PhDs and their technical procedures for understanding a certain issue or train of thought contain loaded, nuanced terms with layers of meaning only the technically astute would care to understand. Just like a technical manual, much scholarly writing was never meant to be seen by the public.

In my work as a communicator I am always trying to build a relationship with my target audience. I write and speak in terms my audience will understand, using the familiar terms, with concepts that will entice them to keep reading—all with the hope that my client’s relationship with the target audience will grow—that we will connect and come to understand each other. And from a theological perspective, God’s revelation of himself is communication aimed at building relationship instead of simply transporting information from one mind to another.

But with scholarly writing—the bilge water that PhDs find themselves producing and poring over—thoughts are embedded in technical terms so the author can demonstrate a command of the terminology to gain respect of colleagues. That sounds cynical. But you don’t have to read much to conclude that being clearly understood is not the primary goal of much scholarly writing. There may be relationship stuff going on, but within the context of coded paragraphs, only the most generous scholar/technicians can relate. And just like with business writing, it’s easy for a lazy scholar to throw jargon into a sentence knowing much of it scatters like shot and quite possibly some stray word may hit the target.

And that’s a shame. Because some scholars may really have something to say, but because they are rewarded for writing to their technical audience of other PhDs, their thoughts are just too tedious to sort through. I’d like scholars to be rewarded for advancing research with jargon-free language aimed at clear communication rather than forcing exhausted readers to cry “Uncle.”

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