Who wrote this pompously ponderous prose?

If you can bear to, take a look at the following paragraph. It’s from a PhD submitted to the University of Cambridge in 2000.

That passages of eschatology such as this were frequently highly decorated with aural effects is significant for our view of the description in Exodus of the pillar of fire. We have seen how the Exodus-poet employs alliteration in his description of the pillar in order to structure the various perspectives given of the poet’s subject matter. Such alliteration, however, has a further purpose. As with the introduction to Moses’s speech – which, as we saw, appeared to be alluding to the parable of the Good Shepherd – the alliteration in this passage serves as a highlighting device that alerts the audience to the possibility of extra-textual allusion. The passage describing the pillar of fire in Exodus differs somewhat from the passage introducing Moses’s speech, however, in that – as with the inexpressibility topos of the Abraham and Isaac episode – it is the alliteration itself that points the way to the particular allusion. The enigmatic (and seemingly contradictory) elements of the pillar of fire are only explained in the light of its eschatological interpretations, and such exegesis is itself suggested by the fact that – perhaps in an attempt to capture onomatopoeically the clamour of the Day of Judgement – passages of eschatology elsewhere frequently employ extensive aural ornamentation. The Exodus-poet can therefore be said to presume on behalf of his audience a knowledge not only of exegesis, but also of the modes of expression that signal a particular view of his subject matter.

Ironically, the title of the PhD is “Enigmatic diction in the Old English Exodus”.

We wonder if the author herself was aware of just how enigmatic her own writing was, what with all its “extra textual allusions”, “inexpressibility topos”, “extensive aural ornamentations” and attempts to capture things “onomatopoeically”.

Not to mention the 54-word sentences and the preponderance of parenthetical prose.

Anyway, here’s what this turgid slab of script looks like when we run it through The Writer’s Diet tool. This tool was designed to assess the readability of academic writing like the above (but is useful for business people too).

Ooh, looks like our writer could use a few sessions with a Doris and Bertie writing coach.

And here’s how her flabby phrases look when we run them through the Gunning Fog Index, which tells us the number of years of education needed to understand it.

With only seven full stops in 244 words, the average sentence is nearly 35 words long. One in five words has three syllables or more.

As a result, you’d typically need nearly 22 years of education to understand this text. Clearly, our writer didn’t even want most of her fellow PhD candidates to be able read it.

If the author lost you at “eschatology”, this is what I think she was trying to say:

Old English poets often repeated the same sound when describing the Day of Judgement, perhaps to capture its noise. This fact helps us understand the Exodus-poet’s confusing description of the pillar of fire. When he also repeats the same sounds, the poet is saying: “On the surface, this seems to be about the pillar of fire, but it’s really about the Day of Judgement. What’s more, I assume you’re familiar enough with other poems to get the hint.”

And here’s what my rewrite looks like in The Writer’s Diet.

And here’s what the Gunning Fog test tells us about the rewrite.

With five full stops in 76 words, the average sentence has been more than halved to just over 15. And now only one in 12 words is longer than three syllables. Consequently, someone of fourteen, with just over nine years of education, could understand this text – a pretty good level to aim for.

Confession time. The writer of that pompously ponderous of piece prose about eschatology, exegesis and alliteration was … me.

What are the lessons here?

1. Get out of your ivory tower
When I was at university, no one ever said my writing was hard to read. In fact, I was often told I wrote very well – beautifully even. So that ponderous prose was just what was expected of me. But, today, if I wrote like that for clients I’d struggle to pay my rent.

From schooldays, every one of us was taught to write essays. Whether you went to university or not, your English teacher’s aim – and it was an admirable one – was to equip you to write a PhD should you so desire. Not emails and memos and websites and all the stuff that oils the wheels of commerce.

I’m sure that’s why so much bad business writing seems to be aping the verbose noun-heavy style of academese. Here are some tips on how to undo some of the things you learned at school.

2. You never stop learning to write
Even academic writing needn’t be hard-going. Some might say my rewrite simplified things too much, but if I were writing my PhD today, I’d hope I’d be less mannered.

In fact, I’m doing a Law degree at the moment and while my essays are more formal than my professional writing, I do think I’ve pulled back on the pomposity. I may be a professional writer, but I’m still learning.

3. You can be clever and simple
Even reading my simplified version, I’m really impressed I once knew this stuff. I don’t think the point I’m making is any less insightful for being simply expressed.

So next time you feel the urge to obscure, remember that some of the brainiest people in the world can distil their ideas into easily understood points. Think of Mary Beard’s fondness for earthy language or Richard Feynman’s infectious sense of wonder at what light’s all about.

9 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. Will says:

    Clare, you’re a much braver person than me. I wouldn’t even be able to go back and read/edit stuff I wrote only four years ago, much less any university essays or, god forbid, my terrible teenage fantasy fanfic (inspired by too much D&D).

    I wonder if, in another 10 years, the work I’m doing now will seem so hopelessly amateurish. I rather hope not, but by then we may all be using txt spk fr evrythg. Nghtmrsh.

  2. Leon says:

    This even affects GCSE level essays. When we teach formality we often mistake it for verbosity. Concentrating on clarity would be more useful.

  3. Liat says:

    No way! That was you?! Ha ha look how far you’ve come! What a fun (and brave) way to make your point. 🙂 thanks!

  4. Nick Wright says:

    The example is gobbledygook. The StyleWriter plain English editing software finds 40 ways to improve the original document with better statistics. Unlike The Writer’s Diet, StyleWriter shows you where and how to edit your writing. Try the free 14-day trial and you’ll see the difference this makes to the any document.

    See: http://www/editorsoftware.co

  5. Michael says:

    To be fair to your former self, she was an academic writing for other academics. They would have expected this sort of writing and they would have understood it – most of it anyway.

  6. Michael says:

    I think your re write goes way too far. “Alliteration” is a perfectly useful word in the context. Why replace it with “repeated the same sound” which is a very woolly and misleading definition.
    It’s the same as “a thing for banging in nails” when you mean a hammer.
    Style needs be appropriate to the audience otherwise all writing will end up for eight year olds and would be extremely boring for the rest of us – rather like reality shows on television.

  7. Phil says:

    Haha, it gave me a bit of delight reading this post and seeing eschatology straight away, because I’d just dragged up my old uni work for the very purpose of finding that word last week! And wrote my own blog about that…although it was less damning of myself, I just liked the old medieval details (on my creative website, http://www.writerightnow.co.uk, if you’re interested :P).

    Reading back through my old academic essays I was appalled at how many times I introduced sentences with Thus, Therefore, Indeed, Certainly or some other entirely useless qualifier that Academic Me seemed to think moved a piece of text along.

  8. Paul Eveleigh says:

    You’re right Clare. Your uni example isn’t the kind of writing that wins in the competitive business world. Engineers and scientists, for instance, follow the scientific style promoted in college and university classes. To get published in a respected academic journal, they MUST write this way.

  9. Steve R says:

    Splendid. As with business writing, there’s a huge dose of ‘perceived idiom’ going on with academic writing. It’s what the market (cough) expects. Deviate too far from the rules and alarm bells start to ring for some folk. Simple is so easily mistaken for simplistic. All hail the passive voice!

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