On Academic Writing

2 October 2013 at 4:27 pm 9 comments

| Peter Klein |

The Strategic Management Society’s annual conference wrapped up yesterday. It was an excellent event with many fine papers, panels, workshops, and entertainments. We’ll be posting more about the substance of the conference in the coming days. However, I want to mention today a small gripe, not about the conference, but about the strategic management literature more generally. This is something that struck me in particular during the conference. Specifically, there is too much bad writing. The strategic management field is becoming as bad as some of the humanities — maybe even sociology — in its use of pretentious, clumsy, and awkward words and phrases. You can see this most easily in the paper titles: “An Analysis of the Effects of Intra-Firm Group Identity and Power Imbalance on the Deployment of Collaborative Teams in the North Waziristani Ball-Bearing Industry, 1992-2005.” OK, I made that one up, but it gives you the flavor. I’m reminded of Orwell’s example:

Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern [1946] English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one.

I’m pretty sure the latter version appeared in the abstract of a recent SMJ paper!

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Conferences. Tags: .

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Peter Lewin  |  2 October 2013 at 5:06 pm

    Like,

    PL.

  • 2. Rafe Champion  |  2 October 2013 at 5:08 pm

    This is a handy paper on the craft of intellectual work, it is too long and needs to be skim-read but look at page p 216 onward where he talks about topics and themes in writing.

    http://www.the-rathouse.com/2010/Intellectual_Craftsmanshp_C_Wright__Mills.pdf

  • 3. Randy  |  2 October 2013 at 8:32 pm

    @Rafe, you really expect Peter to read a tract by a sociologist, and a Marxist sociologist to boot? :-)

  • 4. Peter Klein  |  2 October 2013 at 11:05 pm

    Not to mention the guy who called Veblen “the best critic of America that America has produced.” Blech.

  • 5. Rafe Champion  |  3 October 2013 at 12:20 am

    He started it Randy, he cited George Orwell who was a socialist and (yuk) a journalist as well!

  • 6. Randy  |  3 October 2013 at 8:04 am

    A trap cunningly set, Rafe! Perhaps Peter should limit his journalistic references to Mencken, whose distaste for Veblen was legendary. And whose distaste for government intervention was even more so.

  • 7. Peter Klein  |  3 October 2013 at 8:09 am

    Rafe, you got me — I can forgive Orwell’s socialism, but journalism? No way!

    BTW here’s Mencken on the Theory of the Leisure Class:

    “[It is] a cent’s worth of information wrapped in a bale of polysyllables…. It was as if the practice of that incredibly obscure and malodorous style were a relentless disease, a sort of progressive intellectual diabetes, a leprosy of the horse sense. Words were flung upon words until all recollection that there must be a meaning in them, a ground and excuse for them, were lost. One wandered in a labyrinth of nouns, adjectives, verbs, pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and participles, most of them swollen and nearly all of them unable to walk. It was, and is, impossible to imagine worse English, within the limits of intelligible grammar. It was clumsy, affected, opaque, bombastic, windy, empty. It was without grace or distinction and it was often without the most elementary order…. Worse, there was nothing at the bottom of all this strident wind-music – the ideas it was designed to set forth were, in the overwhelming main, poor ideas, and often they were ideas that were almost idiotic.”

  • 8. Randy  |  3 October 2013 at 8:38 am

    BTW, I am using Peter’s “how to read an article” blog post in class today. I am sorely tempted to suggest that Peter’s quote immediately above (Mencken-on-Veblen) would, if used as a model, make their assigned article review much more interesting to the professor.

  • 9. Dick Langlois  |  9 October 2013 at 12:30 pm

    Here’s a new book from Cambridge you might find amusing in this context:

    http://admin.cambridge.org/academic/subjects/psychology/social-psychology/learn-write-badly-how-succeed-social-sciences

    You might also like Helen Sword’s Writers Diet Test:

    http://www.writersdiet.com/WT.php

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