Friday, August 11, 2006

Bad Writing: On the Efficaciousness of Not Obfuscating the Obvious

I have to rant on a subject that has been making me crazy for many years now. Why do some authors of "scholarly" works feel the need to use jargon and incomprehensible pseudo-scientific sentence constructions to make themselves sound important? This language, which I will call "PhDese," is found in every discipline. It's like a coded language that only scholars who have been through grad school can understand: it's a way to sort the riff from the raff. I remember encountering it in grad school when reading articles and books by prominent scholars in the field of modern art theory, and thinking what a crock it really was. Now I am encountering it in Library Science papers, which may be some of the most useless pieces of "scholarship" on the planet. I suppose when a librarian gets a PhD, he feels the need to sound like he deserves it. PhDese is a way to take fairly simple and often lame ideas and conflate them to make them sound new, innovative and important.

Now a lot of people can tease the meaning out of this type of writing. Well, so can I. My point is, I shouldn't have to. Why should I read the sentence 3 times to get its meaning? How is this "good writing?" I am a graduate of, and was a teacher for, The Little Red Schoolhouse, a reasonably well-known and highly respected writing program at the University of Chicago. Their emphasis was on being clear and concise. And that's how we should all write, clearly and concisely.

So I was reading this article, "A Service Framework for Libraries" (D-Lib Magazine, vol 12, no 7/8, 2006), and found myself wondering what the hell they were actually trying to say. This was for a class for which we were supposed to find 3 points in the article and comment on them. My main point was that they had only one point, and the rest was gobbledy-gook. It took them 10 pages to say that libraries needed a standard for library services and that this particular group was going to work on that. That's all. Everything else was filler, examples, and incomprehensible prose. Let me elaborate.

First of all, any paper that spends an inordinate amount of time and space defining the terms they are using has a problem. The problem is that they already know that few people will have a clue what they are trying to say. For instance, here is their definition of "service framework."
A service framework is a set of reference models, along with a set of concepts and vocabulary for expressing and relating them. The service framework – i.e., vocabulary and reference models – covers the range of entities relevant to the articulation of library business goals at varying levels of granularity, as well as the services that support these goals.

Then they had to define "reference model:"
A reference model is defined as a formal description of a library activity, expressed using consistent, well-defined terminology and relationships.
Then they defined "service:"
A service is a discrete piece of functionality, manifested in the form of a technical implementation, and deployed for use, usually on a network (e.g., as a Web service).
And "abstract service:"
Abstract Service: conceptualization of a business function as a discrete piece of functionality (possibly networked), consisting of a description of its functional scope and an abstract model of its behavior and data.
With each definition their language gets progressively more pseudo-technical to the point where it makes no sense at all. What does it really mean to "conceptualize ... a business function?" What is a "discrete piece of functionality?" These authors are making their readers work far to hard to understand their meaning.

A second problem is the use of everyday English words in unorthodox ways.
Decomposing library activities into granular, self-contained functions helps us better understand libraries, and in doing so, helps in the development of flexible, consistent library services.
I'm sorry, but in American English - and probably in British English as well - something that is decomposing is an organic thing, and it's dead. And granular applies to sand and salt and the like.

I have heard the argument that it just takes practice to be able to read this stuff, that the more you read, the easier it gets to understand. I might concede that point if I didn't feel that the only reason people do it is to sound like they know more than they actually do. Or perhaps they just feel that they will sound stupid or ignorant if they don't write this way. I don't know the real reasons behind it. All I know is that I prefer my prose to be straightforward, clear, concise and non-obfuscated.


Blogger Editoress said...

John Rains at Writing Coach has a good piece about this issue. Second item.

8:13 AM  
Blogger Editoress said...

Writing Coach is

8:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like any other scam, someone dreamed up all the techno-jargon up for money. Since libraries are government-connected, it makes sense. Think about it. The government uses "double-speak." (Libraries also handle publications that use "news-speak.")

12:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I ran across this sentence while looking for information on eye health the other night, and thought of your post:

A hordeolum usually is painful, erythematous, and localized. It may produce edema of the entire lid. Purulent material exudes from the eyelash line in external hordeola, while internal hordeola suppurate on the conjunctival surface of eyelid.

The use of 'purulent,' 'suppurate,' and 'conjunctival' in the same sentence seems especially amusing...

8:32 PM  

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