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