Walt, Sullivan and Dorff on Bad Academic Writing

The Professor wrestles with the Journalist on the question of poor writing.  This issue is not just for those two professions but clearly diplomats–as well as international affairs professionals need to develop writing skills.

The problem is that this narrative form is rarely the best way to make a convincing case. Once you know what your argument is, really effective writing involves sitting down and thinking hard about the best way to present that argument to the reader. The most important part of that process is figuring out the overall structure of the argument — what points need to be developed first, and then what follows naturally or logically from them, and so on. An ideal piece of social science writing should have a built-in sense of logical or structural inevitability so that the reader moves along the argument and supporting evidence as effortlessly as possible.

Achieving this quality requires empathy. You have to be able to step outside your own understanding of the problem at hand and ask how your words are going to affect the thinking of someone who doesnt already know what you know and may even be inclined to disagree with you at first. Indeed, persuasive writing doesnt just convince the already-converted, a really well-crafted and well-supported argument will overcome a skeptics initial resistance.

via Why is Academic Writing So Bad? | Stephen M. Walt.

This week Patricia Dorff, long-time expert editor at Foreign Affairs will address this very subject at BYU. Hopefully she will make a profound impression on our IR majors. Also, Walt’s recommended reading to improve our persuasive prose would center on the following two books, which I strongly endorse:

  1. Strunk and White, The Elements of Style
  2. Anthony Weston, A Rulebook for Arguments

And from ForeignPolicy.com’s own writer guidelines, consider these gems:

  • Avoid the obvious. We receive dozens of pieces with titles such as “NATO at the Crossroads” and “The Future of Trans-Atlantic Relations.” We publish almost none of them.
  • Connect the dots. FP focuses on why what happens “there” matters “here” — and vice versa. That’s why we rarely run articles on single countries. So unless your piece on Nagorno-Karabakh is going to be relevant or worth reading by someone in, say, Antananarivo, don’t bother sending it.
  • Don’t send us anything that refers to “our” interests “abroad.” Unless, that is, you’re the president, the secretary of state, or some other government official. FP has readers in more than 90 countries and seven foreign editions, so articles that assume a strictly American audience are probably not for us.
  • Steer clear of wonky, technical language. FP believes in making big ideas accessible to the widest possible audience.

And the best one of all for all who have read undergraduate international relations papers for business or pleasure:

  • Don’t send us any article or proposal that begins with “Since the end of the Cold War…” or “In the wake of September 11…” Really. Please don’t.

One thought on “Walt, Sullivan and Dorff on Bad Academic Writing”

  1. Yes. I completely agree. There is nothing more persuasive or important as writing. Yet, we have generations who hate to write and are consequently terrible writers! How will they get their opinion, their thoughts out in a coherent manner? And this skill is especially important for a diplomat, or even someone that deals with humans every day (again a diplomat)? Emphasize the writing and you emphasize the ability of a student to understand complex issues.

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