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The accessible pen: a plea from the ivory tower


Let’s go ahead and stipulate that Nick Kristof is wrong—or at least rhetorically wanting—about a lot of stuff: he is elitist, his public-intellectual-shortage argument is tired, he is trolling us, he cherry-picks his weak and anecdotal data, he ignores the realities of academic life. Yes yes yes!


My own experiences as a teacher at this great institution—I mean that sincerely and recognize it is a position of rarefied privilege! Stipulated!— resonate a bit too loudly with Kristof’s admittedly broad-brush takedown of academic obscurantism for me to dismiss him out of hand.

Many of my undergraduate students—who I adore and am fortunate to get to instruct for a living…gladly stipulated!—will tell you that I am perpetually busting their chops about how they write. No, not whether they right-justify or take liberties with MLA style or—heaven forfend—put two spaces after a period. At the risk of immodesty, I think I can abide just about all manner of formatting abuses.

What I have a harder time with, what occasionally makes me insane, is when they* traffic in awkwardly constructed jargon—when they write sentences that defy the reader to apprehend their meaning, sentences they would never dream of including in a tweet or an email to a stranger or a heartfelt personal essay or a short story, let alone uttering out loud.

And I bang my head on the desk a little harder when they* presume that because their reader, i.e., me, long ago got his own framed certificate in the dark art of academic opacity, they need not offer lucid explanations about much of anything in their papers. It is exactly this kind of willful secret-handshakery, cultivated at an early age by a system that loves its pedants, that I think Kristof is right to excoriate.

“Don’t write for me, Argentina,” I beg them. “Write for your grandmother or your great uncle or your parents’ neighbor who dropped out of high school. Write for some imaginary reader who doesn’t know what an allele is or what happened at the Nuremberg Trials. Take him by the hand. Include him. Show him.”

Through little fault of their own, many students are in thrall to if not possessed by the passive voice, which means that in order for “knowledge to be advanced,” then “research must be conducted.” Otherwise, you know, “mistakes will be made.” In such constructions of course we hear only the stentorian Wizard of Oz: the abstract, disembodied voice of authority. Sure, sometimes passive voice is fine. But if we consent to it as a default way of being then we are consenting to live in a world in which no one ever does anything to, with or for anyone or anything else. No one is accountable to anyone for her convictions…in such a world no one really gives a rat’s patootie about anyone else.

It is a kind of death.

“Okay, okay,” they roll their eyes concede. “The passive voice shall be eschewed. But then please tell us, Professor: what is it you actually want?”

Zinsser,” I say (as much to myself as to them). I implore them to read and re-read On Writing Well. I plead with them—with us—to take to heart the author’s four elemental, profound and timeless principles: Clarity. Simplicity. Brevity. Humanity. Let these be our mantra. Choose Zinsser.

Whether you are writing about science, policy or the remarkable agility of Slovenian capybaras, what I want is for you to write to be understood by many, not to make yourself look smart to a few. Do the former and the latter will take care of itself. Choose real clarity over faux erudition.

Choose life.         


*Some…not a majority and not all the time