On ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writing

Pinker versus Peters

Here are two prompts that have kept me reading and thinking about academic writing recently:

  • “Steven Pinker Uses Theories from Evolutionary Biology to Explain Why Academic Writing is So Bad” (Open Culture Blog on Stephen Pinker)
  • “Academic Writing, Genres and Philosophy” (Peters 2013)

The Pinker review reports on Pinker’s views on ‘bad writing’: this is writing which is unclear and looks like postmodern Derridean prose; ‘good writing’, on the other hand, is of the Orwellian sort, plain and concise.

Peters (p. 828), however, hints at a challenge to this view by saying that equating good writing with clarity, etc. implies a “set of values and assumptions on the relation of language, truth and logic that go largely unquestioned”.

(I know Pinker is making an evolutionary point and, arguably, you could interpret Peter’s analysis in terms of evolution/history of writing, but I just want to draw attention to the way we critically understand ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writing).

Peters also says:

Genre and genre-fication are open to change and
destabilization as new hybrids flower (p.822)


What constitutes ‘good writing’ is a critical issue that implies a theory of literature (p.828)

He quotes Berkenkotter and Huckin (1995, p. 4) on the characteristics of genres. These, I suppose, could hold true universally, even when our standards of what constitutes ‘good writing’ vary in the grip of institutional, historical and economic practices:

1) Dynamism. Genres are dynamic rhetorical forms that are developed from actors’
responses to recurrent situations and that serve to stabilize experience and give its
coherence and meaning. Genres change over time in response to their users’
sociocognitive needs.
2) Situatedness. Our knowledge of genres is derived from and embedded in our
participation in the communicative activities of daily and professional life. As such,
genre knowledge is a form of ‘situated cognition’ that continues to develop as we
participate in the activities of the ambient culture.
3) Form and content. Genre knowledge embraces both form and content, including a
sense of what content is appropriate to a particular purpose in a particular situation
at a particular point of time.
4) Duality of structure. As we draw on genre rules to engage in professional activities,
we constitute social structures (in professional, institutional, and organizational
contexts) and simultaneously reproduce these structures.
5) Community ownership. Genre conversations signal a discourse on community’s
norms, epistemology, ideology, and social ontology. (823)

All this re-iterates that writing is something we do which requires dialogue: how else are we meant to understand the 5 characteristics and relate them to our particular writing purposes?

These are just reflections, but would like to know your reactions.




Michael A. Peters (2008) Academic Writing, Genres and Philosophy,
Educational Philosophy and Theory, 40:7, 819-831, DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-5812.2008.00511.x

11 thoughts on “On ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writing”

  1. Thanks for this, Julia. Just a couple of thoughts….

    Pinker, I don’t think, would see himself as a humanist so is looking at academic writing in the humanities as an outsider. He claimed it isn’t easy (natural? normal?) for us (primates) to think abstractly about social phenomena… Not entirely convinced by this, as what is it that makes thinking about the physical world any easier (more natural?) than thinking about social phenomena? Although thinking about phenomena abstractly might be difficult that doesn’t mean that it is unnecessary…. After all, we wouldn’t be able to theorise about the concrete world if we weren’t able to think abstractly. This was necessary in science and I think is true in the humanities as well. However, though zombiefying verbs, using the passive, packaging our thoughts metaphorically etc. can create new meanings, Pinker’s own response to reading seemingly impenetrable academic texts is one I can relate to. The reasons for our frustrations could well be different, though. I’m one of those graduate students he referred to who ‘knows nothing’ but is prepared to except that part of my job as a student is to unpack the text (if after doing so I find I’m non the wiser then, yes, I’m frustrated – but maybe I’ve missed something? Or is the writer unable to communicate the message? How as a newcomer to the field can I make that judgement?) His frustrations (I can only assume here but he did hint at this in his talk) might stem from his beliefs about what academic writing should be able to do, that is create a sense of reality for the reader and that for him using academic language would obscure that reality…..but does it for every reader? Perhaps we need to ask the humanists (and other academics for that matter) what they think. Enough of my ramblings…….

    1. … “what is it that makes thinking about the physical world any easier (more natural?) than thinking about social phenomena?”, you say …

      Pinker might answer that it is direct ‘perception’ that gives us access to the natural world and that we cannot rely on this direct perception to access the social world (I would argue ditto for the mental world, so as a cognitive psychologist, he sort of sits on the fence/occupies a grey area here). Well, philosophy has much to say about ‘perception’ and how we access reality so we cannot just assume that perception does give us access to reality, as though reality exists.

      Pinker also frames this issue of good academic writing as a tension between:

      • realist theories (i.e. there is an objective world out there, and good prose is prose that offers a window onto this world through our perception of this world – Orwell!)


      • idealist theories (we construct reality through discourse, not perceptions – postmodernism!).

      I think this discussion – based on how Pinker frames the issue – would allow us to adapt the Peters quote in my post.

      Peters says: “What constitutes ‘good writing’ is a critical issue that implies a theory of literature” (p.828).
      Maybe we could say:
      “What constitutes ‘good writing’ is a critical issue that implies a theory of reality”

      So, the extent to which a reader can access an academic text depends on their theory of reality?
      Pinker says that readers ‘naturally fill in the gaps’ of what is not said in a text. But how?
      Do we, as readers need to be constantly aware of our own theory of reality?

  2. Maybe this is a good example of where you’re right to suspect that it’s bad reading, not bad writing, that is the issue. An intensely idealistic text will seem obscure when read from a realist perspective. If I read a text that is trying to get me to do something, or to feel something, as though it’s trying to get me to see something, or to think something, I’m going to get confused. But as soon as I see that the text is not indicating a fact (something for me to understand), but an act (someone I should obey), then the text, if otherwise well written, will go from “bad” to “good”. Now, I may still disagree with the text. But “prose like a windowpane” can also occasion disagreement. I may reject the feeling or action suggested, just as I may reject an author’s perception of the world.

    Bertrand Russell once proposed (in his introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus) that “the essential business of language is to assert and deny facts.” Well, if we grant that, we will be forced to conclude that a lot of writing is in bad shape, not working well, “going out of business”, whatever. But maybe there’s other, no less “essential”, business to be done. Perhaps even some outright “existential” business: to enjoin and denounce acts. I think a lot of the invective that has been aimed at “post-modern” writing misses this point. It simply insists on reading a text that is intended in one way as though it intended in another (the only way the reader seems to be able to imagine).

    It probably works both ways, with postmodernists often demonstrating a strange intolerance for direct statements of plain facts, as if that kind of business is an unseemly thing for language to ever do! I sometimes think that the conflict between “modernists” and “postmodernists” is rooted in the fact that former think of language as an more or less rigorous system of reference, while the latter think of it as an elaborate system of deference. The modernist thinks that a “meaning” is something you understand or misunderstand, while the postmodernist thinks that it is something you obey or disobey.

    It’s not so much two “theories of reality” or epistemologies. It’s two approaches to language. One of them is grounded in epistemology and the other in ethics. One thinks that language refers to the real, the other feels it should defer to the ideal. Of course, the truth is that language does both. And it can do both well or badly, also in writing.

    1. Thanks Thomas – when we frame things as binaries (realist/non-realist; episteme vs ethics, etc) we are always forced into compatibalist positions. Perhaps binaries allow for/account for that ‘clarity’ that Pinker and others covet. But it never is so clear-cut. In academic writing, including scientific writing (scientists can only explain 5% of the universe leaving 95% of it made up of ‘dark matter’! Now how ‘unclear’ is that as metaphors go????), we need to present a story, a version, a narrative that has a beginning, an end, a middle. But knowledge has no such beginning, end and middle, and I think that as readers we really do have to read between the lines/fill in the gaps of a text and see the academic text as a ‘thinking prompt’. But knowing this doesn’t help much with being certain that we have produced a piece of ‘good writing’ because we never know who our readers are. Now that audiences are potentially global, how can we, as writers, accommodate the readers’ excpectations? Will be then be forced to write for smaller audiences who share our knowledge (what Pinker refers to ans the ‘Curse of Knowledge’ in his talk) in order to avoid misunderstandings and accusations of ‘bad writing’?

      1. Following Virginia Woolf, I do always tell writers that they know how to write only to the extent that they know who they are writing for. There’s no need to despair. Academic writers, especially, can just make some decisions about what community or sub-community they are writing for on a particular occasion, then just write “well” for them. What then invariably happens is that some critic will come along and read you, as Mailer puts it, “with their full and specific sympathy”, which is always a strategic misreading. As long as we all understand that that’s how it works, I don’t think there’s any reason to abandon the very ideas of “good” and “bad” with respect to writing.

        1. I agree we can make (common) sense of what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writing is, but I don’t think knowing what “community or sub-community” we are writing for is that straightforward. It takes time, selection and confidence to know this, and it takes many trials and errors. The final written product is necessarily a historical compromise because it can never please all of the people all of the time …

  3. Well, as long as the trial has a clear image of the reader in mind, and the error is faced resolutely, then everything is as “straightforward” as can be. The important thing is not to be so vague about the challenge that you never really know when you succeed–and therefore never really learn from your failures.

    I think it’s possible to be uncompromising as long as you are willing to accept that some people won’t be pleased with your writing. What was it Robert Graves said? Poetry is a “serious activity” for “serious people”, people whose first goal “is to be themselves and please themselves”. Perhaps scholarly writing is not quite as serious an activity, i.e., it’s not written just to please the scholar. But its goal is certainly not to please everyone: only a select group of peers.

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