'Trying to sound clever is a good way of sounding stupid'
Paul Penn's first book is a guide to key skills for success at university. Here we extract from Chapter 5: 'Producing high quality written assessments at degree level: it doesn’t have to be rocket science, even if you’re studying rocket science.'
Elements of Guile
Key advice: trying to sound clever is a good way of sounding stupid.
I would understand if you were doubtful there was any advice I could dispense on academic writing useful to students across all degree subjects. Certainly, some authors have argued that the development of academic writing is inextricably tied to the discipline being studied. For example, they state that it’s questionable whether lessons on effective communication in scientific subjects are transferable to subjects within the humanities (North, 2005). I suspect that the more nuanced advice on academic writing is likely to be discipline specific, or at least would be best illustrated with reference to examples from that discipline. However, there is a piece of advice I can give you that will help you get off to a good start in developing your academic voice, in a manner appropriate for your degree subject. This advice is incredibly simple in principle, but rather harder to implement than you might imagine. Are you ready? When producing written work, aim to be clear above all else!
The necessity of clear writing for success in academia should be self-evident. The primary goal of producing an academic piece of work is to communicate knowledge. If the work is written in an unclear fashion, then it’s not effectively achieving this goal. Be that as it may, the clarity of expression in academic writing has been heavily criticised over the last 50 years. This is particularly true of the social sciences, where entire books have been devoted to panning academics for their lack of clarity in published works (e.g. Billig, 2013). Therefore, I’d argue it’s important for a book on study skills to do a little something to address this issue with the future generation of academics, i.e. you lot! My contribution to helping you write more clearly involves identifying two of the main culprits for unclear writing within academia. Let’s start off with some bullshit! No, really!
I offer you my apologies (but not a refund) for the next passage of writing. It’s necessary to demonstrate what I’m trying to discourage. I’ll make this brief and promise never to do it again. Well, not deliberately at least.
In the composition of their manuscripts, students frequently exhibit a proclivity towards circumlocution indicative of a desire to inveigle the favour of their tutors or obfuscate their unsophisticated understanding of the applicable phenomena unaware of the deleterious consequences for the transparency of their composition, or their complicity in perpetuating a problematical orthodoxy that prizes complexity over clarity, conflates impenetrable and verbose prose with profundity and marginalises the reader from engagement with the academic discourse.
Or to put it another way:
You might be tempted to use unnecessarily wordy composition to impress your tutor or conceal the fact that your understanding of a topic is not as advanced as you’d like. This practice only serves to make your writing unclear. It also suggests you have been lulled into thinking that using a convoluted writing style has inherent academic merit. In fact, it’s the clarity of your writing that matters most. Unclear writing makes it more likely that the reader will struggle to understand you, get frustrated and move onto other sources.
Both of the above passages are saying exactly the same thing, but only the first one is what Frankfurt (2009) and I would call bullshit. It’s not the message that is at fault; it’s the presentation that is the problem. In the first passage I was trying to make something simple sound much more complicated in the way I articulated it: there was deception at play. I relegated the importance of the message to second place behind attempting to manipulate the reader’s impression of my intelligence. This practice can be common in students. In a survey of 110 Stanford undergraduates, 86% confessed to having changed the wording of an essay to make it sound more valid or intelligent by using complicated language (Oppenheimer, 2006). This does rather beg the question of why anyone would think that making their writing harder to understand makes them appear more intelligent. One possible reason might be what Sperber (2010) called the guru effect. This refers to the tendency to view things that are difficult to understand as being profound, irrespective of whether they make any sense! As I’ve already demonstrated, obscure writing is a very effective way of making something difficult to understand. Pennycook et al. (2015) provided an experimental example of the guru effect in action. In this research, the authors asked undergraduates to rate, among other things, nonsense statements randomly generated by a website. An example of such a statement was: ‘Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena’. Over a quarter of the participants identified such nonsense statements as being profound. Before you laugh too hard at the students who were taken in by the bullshit, let me ask you something. Have you ever emerged from the cinema having seen a film that didn’t seem to make any sense? Did you attribute this to you not being clued up enough on film theory or cinematography to understand the director’s vision? If so, did you really have good reason to discount the alternative possibility that what you’d seen was just, well, bullshit?
At this point, you might be starting to wonder whether making your prose a bit less crystal clear would be such a bad thing. Could you exploit the guru effect with your writing to get extra credit on your assessments? Well, a study by Oppenheimer (2006) suggests that making your language more complicated in the hope you’ll appear more intelligent in assessment contexts probably won’t work. In this research, the authors took extracts from sample essays composed as part of the admissions requirements for graduate level studies to an English literature course. They then manipulated these extracts to produce two other versions of the text, highly complex and moderately complex in nature. In the highly complex version, a computer programme replaced every noun, verb and adjective with its longest equivalent in Microsoft Word’s thesaurus. In the moderately complex version, every third example of each word was replaced. The only other changes made to the text were to preserve its grammatical structure in view of the replaced words. Participants in the experiment were asked to assume the role of an admissions officer to the English literature course. They were invited to read a text extract, which was presented to them as a sample of a candidate’s admission essay for the course. Their task was to decide whether to accept the candidate who composed it based on what they read. They were also asked to rate their confidence in their decision and how difficult they found the passage to read on a scale of 1-7. The results were clear: more complicated extracts were judged as being more difficult to read and given lower acceptance ratings (i.e. the authors were judged as being less intelligent) than less complicated extracts. Importantly, this trend was found irrespective of the quality of the essay from which the extracts had been taken. You might assume that only the poorer essays would benefit from being embellished with more complicated language, but this wasn’t the case. Using longer words neither redeemed the poor essays, nor further enhanced the good ones. What happened to the guru effect? Well, it’s likely that the context of an academic assessment throws a spanner in its workings. As Sperber points out, the guru effect is likely reliant on a reader having reason to believe in the authority of the author who produced the unclear text. Under these circumstances, the reader tends to trust that what the author has said has merit without going to any lengths to evaluate whether this is the case. However, in assessing work, a tutor’s role is to evaluate the efforts of a student. The role of a student designates that a person has yet to demonstrate their authority on a subject. Furthermore, the validity of the tutor’s evaluation can be examined and questioned by their peers. That’s a double whammy for the guru effect: neither the student nor the tutor can conceal shoddy work under the guise of authority. In summary, if you want to sound smart, get your ideas across clearly and achieve better marks, aim to simplify what you write rather than complicate it.
Billig, M. (2013). Learn to write badly: How to succeed in the social sciences. Cambridge University Press.
Frankfurt, H. G. (2009). On bullshit. Princeton University Press.
North, S. (2005). Different values, different skills? A comparison of essay writing by students from arts and science backgrounds. Studies in Higher Education, 30(5), 517-533.
Oppenheimer, D. M. (2006). Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: Problems with using long words needlessly. Applied Cognitive Psychology: The Official Journal of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 20(2), 139-156.
Pennycook, G., Cheyne, J. A., Barr, N., Koehler, D. J., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2015). On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. Judgment and Decision making, 10(6), 549-563.
Sperber, D. (2010). The guru effect. Review of philosophy and psychology, 1(4), 583-592.
- 'The Psychology of Effective Studying: How to Succeed in Your Degree' by Paul Penn, published by Routledge is out now. Get 20 per cent off when ordered directly through Routledge using the promotion code: 'BSE19'.
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