A conversation about style with David Wolf, commissioning editor at The Guardian Long Read.
Jo Livingstone in The Awl:
JL: You’ve used the term “academic writing” with me before, as an insult. Where did you get this term, and what does it mean?
DW: Well, obviously the thought is not original to me! There’s a stereotype — which is wrong on many levels, and I’m not endorsing it — that journalists write good, plain, intelligible, clear sentences which everyone understands, whereas academics write torturous, confusing, hermetic, boring shit that no one would want to read unless they were also an academic. They don’t realize they’re doing this: they’re oblivious to the fact that they are writing in an academic way. This is the stereotype.
JL: This stereotype does match reality sometimes. Often an academic thinks they are clarifying when in fact they’re obfuscating, if the reader doesn’t share the same vocabulary of professional terms.
DW: Yeah, I think vocabulary is an important part of this — I would guess for many academics, their ideal readers will all have a similar intellectual framework, have read the same books, know the same lingo. But that isn’t going to be the case, of course, if you’re writing for a wider audience. Now, there are a lot of different ways — not just assuming readers will understand certain phrases and references — that academic writing can go wrong for a journalistic audience. Obviously there was that big argument about this in the nineties and early ’00s.