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Review: Michael Billig's "Learn to Write Badly"
Review: Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly
by Chris Eaton
Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences offers a comprehensive and refreshing evaluation of modern academic writing. Billig analyzes the disturbing trends that plague today’s scholars, focusing on social science writers. He has a unique perspective on these issues because he suggests how writers can curb these trends by eliminating jargon, mitigating nouns, and using strong verbs.
Billig argues that social science writing suffers because most writers depend on nouns to convey an idea. The result, according to Billig, is that this writing style uses unnecessary jargon that lacks an argument. By relying on nouns, writers limit their argument because the subject overshadows its own action. Reading becomes more about deciphering the author’s argument rather than understanding the text. Because modern writing is laden with nominalizations, reification, and jargon disguised as specialized language, external readers have difficulty processing the information. Billig dismisses the belief that specialized language distinguishes a writing genre, because inaccessible writing decreases readership, devalues scholarship, and limits the impact that social science scholars have.
However, Learn to Write Badly is not a ground breaking text. George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” argues far more in fewer words. Billig points out how academic writing is deteriorating, but he never suggests ways to curb the trend beyond using more verbs. Discussion is important, but in a work that argues in favour of verb-centered sentences rather than noun-centered sentences, Billig does not analyze how to make this transition. How do we teach this form of writing? Is it possible to institute this style? How can the trend be curbed when writing instructors are among the culprits? Too many questions are left unanswered for Billig’s thesis to hold up. Billig evaluates the previous scholarship on this topic, but he does not push his argument beyond elementary criticism of academic writing.
Billig’s strength is that his argument avoids using a condemnatory or condescending tone. While this conservative approach is effective, there are moments when the book could use more edge. For example, Billig explains the pressure for scholars to publish; their livelihoods depend on it. However, he uses this pressure to justify sloppy scholarship, inadequate editing, and poor proofreading practices. Another example is when Billig discusses scholars who conform to a journal’s editorial standards. He asserts that conformity is part of the publishing process, but he does not push against this trend. There are several other areas where the book could be more assertive. When Billig is not assertive, he undermines his argument because he almost permits sloppiness and inauthenticity rather than condemning this bad form. This does not mean that Learn to Write Badly should have been more emotional and impulsive. Billig could have made the same point, but he could have been more forceful by eliminating the prepositions that hinder his writing. Eliminate these prepositions, and the ideas become more forceful, his verbs are accentuated, and the subjects are more prominent. The reader would appreciate the assertiveness, and the discussion would link to the thesis more closely because Billig would actually take a position.
Despite this criticism, Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences is a good starting point for anyone who wishes to learn about writing. The book may not reach George Orwell’s pioneering status, and it is definitely not a must-read for the writing scholar. However, it is prudent for many modern academics and students because it puts the current, bleak state of social science writing into precise, concise language that anyone can understand.
Event: Literary Reading at Veritas Café
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Handout: Transition Words and Phrases
Our writing tutors have worked together to create a handout about transition words and phrases. The information was compiled from one of our favourite resources at the Writing Centre: They Say, I Say by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein.
Click here to read and download our collection of handouts and resources.
Many thanks to Joseph for taking the lead on this project.
Event: Twitter Chat about Academic Integrity
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