This past year, I was introduced to something new. My teachers handed me reading assignments. “Is this really new,” you might ask? Okay, it’s not technically true. Teachers have given me reading assignments before. The newness was not in the readings themselves, but in the content of the readings.
I had issues with how the articles were constructed. Since these issues are the subject of this post, I will try to sum them up in one sentence. Please stop publishing painfully pretentious purple prose. Allow me to explain.
This term means writing that is too ornate and verbose, particularly in an effort to appear artistic and intelligent. In fiction, purple prose at least has the distinction of attempting something artistic. Academic purple prose is much more stale.
For instance, let us take the sentence “the pretty lady went to the grocery store.” You should be able to infer several things from this sentence. 1) There is a lady. 2) She is pretty. 3) She went to a store that sells groceries. In academic purple prose, the above sentence would look something like this. “The pulchritudinous female, who is in actuality merely symbolic of the cultural construct of beauty limited to a certain point of time, individual, and location, ventured outward to the locale wherein items of consumption, indicative of the crass consumerism of the age, are deposited, to be purchased using symbols of labor, otherwise designated as monetary compensation.”
I’ve always enjoyed this word. It is what it means. In other words, the word pretentious is pretentious. Now, is it always wrong to use big words? By no means. I would be the last person to fault someone for using them. If you are a nerd like me, you actually get pleasure out of using words from off the beaten path. For crying out loud, I created a sentence at the beginning of this article that made extensive use of alliteration. I am that much of a nerd. The danger lies not in using big words, but in using big words to sound intelligent.
The problem I have with pretentious academic writing comes from another area. There is no fun in it. To the contrary, reading horribly constructed articles is excruciating. Due to its lack of readability, it forces readers to slog through the article. Readers are forced to google words constantly and reread the sentence to figure out the context. Even then, they struggle to decipher what the writer means. Ideas, which should only take a short essay to explain, gradually transmogrify into a headache-inducing monstrosity.
This phenomenon is not limited to musical disciplines, like theory or musicology. I have seen it in other fields as well. Why do people write like this? They don’t talk in this manner. No one would understand them.
On some level, the writers must believe that “academics write this way.” In order to fit in, gain respectability, and show how profound their ideas are, academic writers create articles that are agonizing to read. Long, ponderous articles are not necessary. As one article I read states, “most people’s ideas aren’t that brilliant.” What is difficult in academic articles is often not the subject matter; it is the writing style.
I debated whether or not I should try to find a word starting with a “p.” After all, the rest of my sentence was beautifully alliterated. However, I wanted to draw attention to this word. Fixing bad writing will not happen overnight. We will prevent painfully bad academic writing by creating a culture that praises good writing. If writers know that journal publishers value clear, concise writing, then they will start writing clearly and concisely.
I end this post with a plea: no more bad writing, please. Please do not confuse obfuscation with intelligence. Don’t muddy the waters with wordy, overwrought sentences. Grad students hate wading through them.