on writing good

Mon, 4 Apr 1994 08:06:46 CDT

If one contextualizes the issue of clarity of presentation of one's argument
and its substantiation, we come up against Dan Foss's ethnographically
accurate characterization of the "explanation industry." Academics do not
get rewarded for agreeing with one another. The demands of academic image
management are such that my ethnography is a lot less noticeable if it turns
out to be a variant of someone else's generalization than if it is THE test
case for all of anthropological theory. Career management strategies in
today's entrepeneurial environment demand product differentiation. Thus, at
a conference on some topic of comparative interest, when someone responds to an
attempt at generalization with "But my people don't do it that way," this can
mean one of two things. Either the data on which that comment is based implies
a competing, and therefore important comparative generalization, or the comment
is a career management strategy by ehich the ethnographer distinguishes him-her
self as one who will resist any comparative generalization that he-she cannot
take original credit for. The trouble is, the only way to find out which is to
invest group time in that ethnographer's data, time which could be rewarded by
a competing generalization and a new level of synthesis or wasted on a hustle.
The reason that's a trouble is that there is often no way of knowing ahead of
time whether it's a goodie or a hustle one is dealing with (unless the
participants know one another pretty well).

In this context, clarity of argumentation and appropriate substantiation has a
peculiar property. In a carefully constructed, clearly presented argument, the
reader can usually guess with a better than random chance of success what the
conclusion will be by the time he/she is 2/3 of the way through the argument.
That is a good measure of the author's success. In the explanation industry,
however, that success is the author's undoing, since by the time the reader
gets to the conclusion, he/she can say, "Well, anybody could have figured that
out." No matter how original the argument and its conclusion, the clarity of
presentation makes it LOOK less original and brilliant than it really is. The
trouble with clear prose is that it carries the image of being prosaic and is
thus at a great disadvantage compared to an argument that is cleverly mystified
by strategies of semantic camoflage. As one of our number has already pointed
out, the reader becomes more committed to an author and his/her argument after
having stuck with it to the bitter end, congratulating himself/herself for
being smart enough to understand how the author pulled the rabbit out of the
hat. It's a lot like putting more money into repairing your old car.

In the explanation industry, mystification is convertible to prestige, and
prestige is convertible into goods and services--higher salary, all-expenses-
paid trips to conferences, fewer classes, more graduate students to do your
research for you, hefty lecture fees, groupies, etc.. These are powerful
attractions in a highly competitive market, and one does not need to have a
highly original argument if one has the means to make it look like one has a
highly original argument. That's the way it is, and each of us has a choice
as to how to invest our time and talent in a career path. I can opt to spend
my time managing my career with carefully selected image management strategies
or I can choose to commit myself to intellectual issues that I find intriguing
and, hopefully, important to someone else. The writing style I employ will
follow from the choice I make.

I'm not saying anything that any of us doesn't already know. This is just a
reminder. So stop bitching. Just choose.

Mike Lieber
Univ. of Illinois at Chicago