Learning from ‘Bad’ Writing

I am easing back into blogging, after a long period where I wasn’t so much writing as editing, and it feels right to start with a post about, well, writing itself. In my experience, in UK academia (and now lately in Ireland), we’re seldom explicitly taught how to write. Writing is treated as the transport system that gets us from A to B. We might feel as if we’re plodding along on a very slow bus or whipping past gorgeous scenery in a fancy car, but we seldom know very much about the mechanics of the car or the bus, and we don’t really expect to learn. We might expect to correct a few spelling errors on a student’s essay, or some grammar; we might, if that student really struggles with these issues, try to pack them off onto a writing course for undergraduates, or a study skills session that might include some tips on the basics. But a lot of academics struggle to recognise a particular kind of ‘bad’ writing for what it is. 

An early career academic (whom I won’t name) shared a quotation from her student’s work on twitter, accusing the student of pretentiously trying to ‘look clever’ by using big words and long, dense sentences. The tweet was subsequently removed, after various people pointed out the pretty egregious ethical issues relating to publicly shaming students/sharing work you’re not authorised to share, but it’s actually the second time in a couple of weeks that I’ve seen an academic quoting student work and making the assumption that big words, convoluted syntax or long sentences must indicate that a student is trying to be ‘impressive’ or ‘clever’ – and failing. Implicitly, these complaints presume that if a student can use big words, they can also use small, simple ones – so they’re simply overreaching, trying to do something more complicated than they can manage.

In my transport metaphor, it’s a bit like catching a glimpse of a car roaring past, all tinted windows and neon underlights and a giant spoiler up its arse, and knowing it’s a clapped-out ford fiesta from 1999. (I promise I will stop flogging this metaphor very, very soon.)

We’re not very nice about writing that is both fancy and bad – like this – but it is wrong to think it’s pretentious rather than a potential part of a learning process. Every time I learn my way around a new set of critical theories (or revisit ones I don’t know as well as I’d like), I keep finding myself falling into the same trap. I’ll come across a new buzzword or phrase – maybe it’s ‘epistemic’ or ‘identity machine’ or our old favourite ‘queer’ (as in queer theory). Do I understand it? Weelllll … maybe not completely. I mean, I’ve got a vague sense, I think to myself. I might look at someone writing about ‘epistemic injury’ and figure out, from the context they give, that this is something different from a physical wound or an emotional assault. So it’s mental as opposed to physical, I conclude. I can probably gain a good-enough understand of what the writer is saying, without being precisely sure why they’re using that specific word. But, I’m really excited about the ideas I’m reading. I can tell they’re stretching at my mind in the right ways. Perhaps that phrase ‘epistemic injury’ comes in the middle of an article about rape, which is telling me that rape is about far more than just a physical kind of harm.

When I start writing for myself, I feel pretty sure I want to talk about this writer’s argument … but I know I don’t understand exactly what their terminology is doing. So, instead of translating it into my own words, I’ll just carefully repeat ‘epistemic’. I hope, guiltily, that this repetition will make sure I don’t lose some of the important meanings I know I haven’t quite grasped.

The problem, of course, is that this is a high risk strategy. The word ‘epistemic’ means ‘relating to knowledge’ (so I was half-right when I guessed it was to do with the mental rather than the physical). But it also has to do with what mental processes are trusted, believed, and validated by a community or group. So, a person who is being gaslit by an abusive partner is suffering epistemic cruelty (they come to believe they can’t trust their own mind). A woman who reports a rape and isn’t believed because the rapist is her husband, is suffering epistemic injury. If she lives in a time and place where marital rape isn’t considered a crime (as, for example, was the case in England prior to 1991), we might say she’s experiencing an institutionalised epistemic injury.

If I don’t understand this, I’m liable to use ‘epistemic’ as a quick-fix solution. I hope, nervously, that it’ll signal to readers that I’ve been working with This Critical Theory, The One Where They Talk About Things Being Epistemic. It’s an anxious placeholder, a reminder of all the background reading I need to do but haven’t yet done. Chances are, once you’ve learned to spot the anxious placeholder words in your own work, you’ll also have become more adept at spotting how to avoid them. It won’t seem so important to keep using that word ‘epistemic’ if you’ve taken on board the wider argument about what it means. You might perfectly well find you write something far simpler. Maybe, Rape survivors are often disbelieved. This disbelief has its own traumatic effect. Or maybe, Rape survivors are often made to feel like liars; this can make them doubt their own memories. You might well follow these statements up with a footnote to the original article; you might, certainly, use the word ‘epistemic’ or the term ‘epistemic injustice’ later in the essay. But, meanwhile, you’ve opened up a whole new set of possible directions for the rest of the essay. Is it ‘disbelief’ that you’re really wanting to think about? Or ‘memories’? These could be two quite different lines of approach. ‘Disbelief’ might have you thinking about social interactions and conventions; about rumour or myths or fabrications; whispers and insinuations. ‘Memory’ might start you on quite a different path, looking into cognitive theories of the mind or studies on the importance of memorials and records of the past. The richness of these terms could feed back into the essay, letting it expand beyond the debt to the original scholar who used the term ‘epistemic’.

None of this is quick. It’s obvious why students might fall back on ‘fancy bad’ writing to cover the gaps and uncertainties. But there are ways to turn this sort of writing’ into an opportunity. Teaching students (and ourselves) to recognise when we’re using a word as a placeholder teaches them (and us) to spot the weak points in the argument. Sometimes, I’ve asked students to annotate their essays with captions or footnotes commenting on what they wish they’d known before handing it in – for example, they might add a comment saying they’re not quite sure they’re using a word correctly, or they’ve actually only read the introduction to this book, so they might not have grasped the whole argument. Other times, I’ve had them highlight which words they think might need defining for a general audience – and provide a footnote to do that. Students need to be shown that good writing isn’t simply the thing that gets an argument from start to finish: it’s an integral aspect of how we think. Writing that is not yet quite at home with certain words or certain phrases, writing where the syntax is slightly twisted because the writer has had to incorporate a verbatim phrase from a critic, is often writing that is trying to learn more. We can all benefit from that.