During the last few years of my mother's life, as the symptoms of her multiple myeloma worsened, she spent a lot of time in her doctor's office. When I asked after each visit what he had said, she always claimed that he was "very pleased." She said he'd assured her she was "doing really well."
My mother's sun-will-come-out-tomorrow outlook was one of her many appealing qualities. Unfortunately, it was a trait she did not pass on to me. After each visit I would interrogate her. What, exactly, did her doctor say? I wanted to know about the problems and the concerns; she never seemed to hear any. But I had spoken with the doctor directly about my mother's illness, so I knew there were always problems and concerns.
I was reminded of the conflict between what people hear and what is actually being said last spring, when I spent a day talking with untenured professors about revising their dissertations into book manuscripts.
All of the faculty members I met had managed to score a great teaching job right out of graduate school. They had impressive pedigrees and a lot of enthusiasm. But many of them kept making the same strange remark—one that tends to pop up whenever I speak with folks who are hard at work massaging their dissertations into book manuscripts. "People on my dissertation committee," explained several young scholars, "said that I write too well."
At first those remarks made me wonder what kinds of idiots are overseeing the process of doling out Ph.D.'s. Are there really academics who spout such nonsense? If so, those people should be sued for scholarly malpractice.
The only thing that kept me from dismissing the claim outright is that there seems to be a general sense in academe—usually expressed only verbally—that if you write too clearly or too well, you will be punished. You have to prove that you're a member of the club, that you've been initiated into the guild. That can mean conforming to models, even if they're not good models.
The historian George M. Trevelyan wrote: "The idea that histories which are delightful to read must be the work of superficial temperaments, and that a crabbed style betokens a deep thinker or conscientious worker, is the reverse of the truth." But adherence to a crabbed style is common in academe. Is it possible that academics exist who want to see their own bad prose, their hideous tics of mind and sentence, replicated in their students? Are there really people who would tell their students, "You write too well"?
It seems preposterous, beyond a caricature of academe. But after a recent column of mine, someone in the comments section wrote, without a trace of irony: "Isn't 'well written' a subtle insult to most academics?"
Oh my. It turns out there are people who live in a universe where clarity and grace in communication are seen as failings. And those people are perpetrating their own bad prose on the universe (and in anonymous and pseudonymous critiques in cyberspace) and failing to teach their students well.
I suspect, however, that the situation is more complicated than that. Something else is going on when students believe they have been told that they write too well. In the final throes of writing and defending a dissertation—as is the case with any traumatic event, such as a fatal diagnosis—a victim can hear selectively.
I pushed one young faculty member to describe the context in which his thesis had been deemed "too well written." First, he told me, it was true: The manuscript was very well written. His work was, he said, "finely wrought." I'd seen a small portion of his prose, and there were hints that he may well have been a good writer—some lovely word choices, strong verbs, a sense of rhythm and interesting sentence structures—basically, an attention to language that is rare in dissertations.
But many of his good sentences were nestled among vague and general assertions, murky thinking, and lines that had all the right buzzwords but signified nothing. The argument and importance of his work wasn't as clear as it should have been.
What, I asked, do you think they meant when they said it was "too well written"? He hedged, but the sense I got was that he felt he was being penalized for being uppity or better than his professors—who were, he said, very good.
He wanted to discuss his manuscript title. He was delighted with it. I told him that I thought it was OK. When he pressed me on it, I said that, to be honest, I found it precious and self-consciously clever.
And that's when it struck me. I wondered if what he had heard as "too well written" wasn't standing in as code for something else. I wondered if it didn't mean "overwritten." Or precious. Or self-consciously clever. Show-offy. Ornate. Baroque. I wondered if, in fact, what he was being told was that the manuscript was, at a fundamental level, poorly written, and that kind committee members had been trying to soften the diagnosis. Or maybe, like most of us, he heard the part that made him feel good, and used that to skim over and dismiss more substantive criticism.
A few months later, a teacher at a community college told me that her entire committee had complained that her thesis was "too well written." When I asked what she thought they meant, she said she thought it was too clear, not filled with enough jargon.
Again, I began to wonder if the problem wasn't that her writing was too good, but that her ideas were not good enough. The difference between clear and simple is not always clear to the writer. Perhaps "you write too well" really means that your writing is better than your thinking. Perhaps it's a way of saying that while your prose is solid, your argument is frail.
It's not just a few isolated cases. I've been hearing this criticism of "good" scholarly writing for a long time, but am only just now trying to make sense of it.
Has anyone ever told me that my writing is too good? No, but I've had a journal reject an essay—rightly—with a comment like, "While the writing is, of course, excellent, the treatment isn't academic enough for us." I hadn't done enough primary research or constructed an important and compelling argument to make a contribution that would do anything other than, at best, entertain. That kind of piece shouldn't be published in that kind of journal; I should have known better than to submit it there.
One of the worst things you can say about a scholarly work is that it is journalistic. That sort of book can be fun to read because the prose is clear, but usually the research doesn't go far enough. Journalistic books tend to skim the surface, to lean more toward narrative than analysis, to rely on mere description rather than work toward advancing knowledge in a field. However well written, such books are not doing the work of scholarship. (This is often the case with my own work, which tries to straddle the creative and academic worlds, and like all straddlers, sometimes falls short of both.)
So maybe, when people hear "the writing is too good," what's really being said is "the writing is good, but there are other, more important, problems."
Selective hearing is not limited to children. The fact is, writers hear what they want to hear most of the time, just as my mother paid more attention to a good iron level than a bad creatinine one.
One of the most important things to learn in graduate school is how to listen without wilting: how to take criticism without crying or raging, and to hear it for what it is, without constructing conspiracy theories and blaming personal agendas. That is hard. It's almost as hard as writing.
The process of producing a dissertation, then defending it, then trying to nab and keep a rare teaching job, can batter even the sturdiest of egos. It's not surprising to me that people scratch for little bits of praise when so much is at stake. But if someone ever tells you that you write too well, ask him for an explanation and be prepared to hear something that will cause you to do more work. If, however, he proceeds to make the case that the language shouldn't matter in scholarly writing, that clarity isn't important, that good sentences are a waste of academic time, sue that idiot for scholarly malpractice.